To those wondering if the removal of hard-right political adviser Steve Bannon signals a softening of President Trump’s anti-immigrant stances and sneering disdain for political norms, pay close attention to his rally Tuesday in Phoenix. Trump has mused about granting a pardon to disgraced former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio, a convicted criminal who dubbed himself “America’s toughest sheriff” for his harsh (and illegal) treatment of immigrants. Arpaio remains a hero to the anti-immigrant voters who formed Trump’s political base, and some Arizonans fear Trump will use the visit to announce a pardon. A pardon from Trump would be a disgrace, sending yet another message that the president holds the rule of law in contempt.
Arpaio gave law enforcement a bad name when he was in office, and his misdeeds are catching up with him now. Just three weeks ago, he was found guilty of criminal contempt for defying a federal judge’s order in 2011, when he was still in office. In the underlying case, the 85-year-old Arpaio had been banned from racially profiling Latinos, but the sheriff’s office continued to detain people solely on the basis of their appearance and without reasonable suspicion of a crime.
Arpaio hasn’t yet been sentenced, but faces up to six months in jail. A preemptive pardon would send the message that open defiance of the law by public officials is tolerated in Trump’s America, so long as they are allies of the president. Nor has Arpaio shown any remorse, which is often a consideration in granting pardons. None of that seems to trouble Trump. In remarks to Fox News, he said of Arpaio: “He has done a lot in the fight against illegal immigration. He’s a great American patriot and I hate to see what has happened to him.”
Long before the conviction, though, Arpaio had a long history of abusing power. During his two decades in office, he gained notoriety for forcing his inmates to live in tents in 100-degree Arizona weather and wear pink underwear. He also brought back chain gangs. A three-year long civil rights investigation by the US Department of Justice in 2011 found Arpaio’s office had engaged in the worst pattern of racial profiling the federal agency had ever encountered. Arpaio’s deputies repeatedly arrested Latinos illegally, harassed and punished Latino inmates for not speaking English, and failed to investigate hundreds of complaints of sexual assaults in Maricopa County facilities.
For good measure, Arpaio is also a known birther. In 2012, he launched his own “investigation” into the legitimacy of President Obama’s birth certificate.
All of which makes Arpaio Trump’s kind of guy. But amnesty for Arpaio would be a slap in the face to communities of color, inflaming already strained racial tensions. It would tell the immigrants Arpaio abused that they cannot expect justice in America. And it would tell all Americans, of all races, that this president has no problem abusing the awesome powers of his office.