Pardoning Arpaio: Another Indication of Authoritarianism


Well, he has done it again. The President of the United States, sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution and the rule of law, looked our democratic norms in the face, and said “Bite me.”

While it is the President’s prerogative to issue pardons and to commute federal sentences, the way President Trump went about pardoning former Maricopa County, Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio was not normal. It had been hinted for some time that the Administration would aim to issue a pardon for the controversial Arizona sheriff who had been convicted of criminal contempt by a federal judge when he didn’t obey the judge’s orders regarding the inexcusable racial profiling of Latino residents of his county.

For President Trump, a candidate who campaigned excessively with a ‘law and order’ message, to go above and beyond for a law enforcement officer who spat in the face of the law and subsequently pardon him is hypocritical. Of course, it is important to remember that President Trump has raged against the courts, so perhaps the move shouldn’t be too surprising. What is troubling is the fact that the President asked his Attorney General to close the case against Joseph Arpaio, even before the case went to trial. Ultimately, he was advised that it would have been “inappropriate”, and the President let the case go to trial which resulted in Arpaio’s conviction. But it appears that Trump had been planning on issuing a pardon ever since. What is equally disturbing is that the President of the United States blatantly ignored and bypassed the traditional review process, without consulting the Department of Justice, all in an attempt to ensure that Arpaio would avoid a sentence that could have been up to six months.

Why Arpaio? Trump and Arpaio had been political allies for at least five years. It all goes back to birtherism, when Trump wrongly claimed that then-President Obama was not a US citizen and had actually been born in Kenya. Arpaio, meanwhile, sent a taxpayer funded sheriff’s deputy to Hawaii to investigate the then-President’s birth certificate. It was a match made in Hell: two men, with strong headed personalities, hardline stances on immigration and questionably firm stances on how the law should be enforced, who not only share dangerous nativist views, but also happen to share a birthday on Flag Day. That was back in 2012. In 2015, Arpaio came out as one of the earliest supporters of Trump’s candidacy for the GOP nomination. It is also worth mentioning that Arpaio is beloved by Trump’s base, and after feeling attacked throughout his presidency (especially in the weeks since the white supremacist, alt-right violence in Charlottesville), perhaps the President wants to further embolden his base and make them feel like they can depend on him, especially since former White House staffers Bannon and Gorka, two prominent ‘alt-righters,’ were reportedly pushed out of the White House and might now use Trump’s base against him.

President Trump has personal and political reasons to pardon his friend and rescue him from the clutches of activist judges, the intolerant Left, or whatever it is they’re blaming Arpaio’s conviction on at any minute of the day. Why is this concerning? Because it appears to Trump’s critics that he is pardoning someone because 1) he is a friend, 2) he is a political ally, and 3) it panders to his base. Focusing on that line of reasoning, what is to stop Trump from pardoning any American citizens that may be implicated in the ever expanding Trump-Russia probe? What is to stop Trump from pardoning his friends and business partners? And what kind of line will he draw, if any line at all?

Perhaps, some on the right would view such reactions as an overreaction, and it is clear that some of his supporters just don’t care. However, any labelling of these thoughts as being overreactions by snowflakes is dangerous. After all, this is a President who has denied the conventions of American politics, from campaigning to governing. Folks on the right (or at least the center-right) did their best to assuage their neighbors that were critical of Trump that he would become presidential—that he would adapt to the job. On the contrary, he has molded the presidency into his image. As head of the Trump Organization, Trump faced little opposition in the family business, he had achieved stardom thanks to his reality television show, and his brand was hardly assailable. Now, as President of the United States, he dismisses all opposition (both deserved and otherwise), he appears to treat the Presidency as nothing more than a reality television show (“Next week on Celebrity President, will our star nuke North Korea? Tune in to find out/call the number on your screen and vote now!”), and anything that even appears to harm his image is met with the full fire and fury of the White House. It is that brusque, “get out of my way, I’m getting what I want” temperament that is so visible in the sequence of events that led to Arpaio’s pardon. The line that is meant to separate the Department of Justice from the White House was not only blurred here, there was a visible overstepping of bounds, and Trump, initially, didn’t care. Now, this contributor vehemently disagrees with the Attorney General on everything that he stands for…but if he hadn’t told Trump that closing the case would have been inappropriate, we would be looking at a greater violation of our democratic and judicial norms, and that is the only time I will say ‘Thank you for doing the bare minimum’.

But that isn’t enough. It is painfully clear that Trump doesn’t care about those norms. He’s run roughshod over them since Day 1, and he clearly shows no signs of stopping. The civil servants, judiciary, and the Cabinet need to get serious about checking these impulses. Congress will only do so much in its current makeup and it isn’t guaranteed that the Democrats will win back the Congress in 2018. If the President of the United States, an individual as unqualified and inexperienced as Trump, can do so much damage to our system, imagine what could happen if an experienced politician decided “If Trump could get away with x, y, z, then I can go further.”

If Trump can pardon a racist, abusive, and vile political ally/friend with little official pushback (by this I mean actions, not statements), what is to stop him from going further? Our republic is in a precarious position, and while the pardoning of Arpaio is not a catalyst for the endangering of our government, it is most definitely a symptom. We cannot allow authoritarian and paternalistic trends to seize the day over democracy and the rule of law. If the President and his Administration will not assume the responsibility of protecting our democratic and judicial norms and acting within them, it must fall on others to force the White House to stick within those lines, or otherwise sanction them. If they are allowed to continue this trend, it will not bode well for the American people and republic in the long run.


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