The Pardon of Joe Arpaio Was Worse Than You Think

Where to begin here?

In the name of “law and order,” President Trump just pardoned a man who defied the law to violate constitutional rights.

On the obvious level, his pardon was an unmistakable symbol to the darkest fringes of his nativist base. But it was also an insult to law enforcement itself. Far from being a martyr who was persecuted for “doing his job,”  Sheriff Joe Arpaio was a caricature of law enforcement – living up to every stereotype of a lawless, brutal, racist cop, who ignored fundamental rights and reveled in calculated cruelty. 

Good cops loathe Arpaio, regarding him as a clownish fraud who defames the profession. Imagine being a cop who respects the rule of law, who has worked to convince the community that they should trust law enforcement not to engage in racial profiling or brutality. What has Trump just said to that cop? And the people he is sworn to protect?

Here are some things you need to know about Joe Arpaio, via the Phoenix New Times: 

          He ran a jail that he described as a ‘concentration camp.”

Prisoners there died at an alarming rate. Close to 160 people have died in Arpaio's jails.

Prisoners hanged themselves in Sheriff Joe Arpaio's jails at a rate that dwarfed other county lockups.

One of his jailers nearly broke the neck of a paraplegic guy who had the temerity to ask for a catheter.

One time, as a publicity stunt, he marched Latino prisoners into a segregated area with electric fencing.

He arrested New Times reporters for covering him. They won a $3.75 million settlement.

Under him, the sheriff’s department failed to investigate hundreds of sex abuse cases, many of which involved children.

But he somehow found time and money to send a deputy to Hawaii to look for Barack Obama’s birth certificate.

In 2013, a federal judge confirmed what literally everyone in Phoenix knew: he’s been racially profiling Latinos.

By 2015, his fondness for racial profiling had cost county taxpayers more than $44 million. On top of the lives he had ruined.

I’ll leave it to another time to ask how someone as bizarre and unstable could become a hero to the Right. (Obviously, it’s no mystery why Trump would admire him so much.)

But as I said on MSNBC last night, the pardon of this odious thug is even worse than it appears.

By pardoning Arpaio even as a Category 4 hurricane threatened Texas, Trump was signaling his willingness to use his sweeping pardon power to protect his political allies and put them above the law. It was a nakedly political pardon that did not even bother with a fig leaf of Justice Department vetting.

By flexing his pardon power this way, Trump also sent a clear message to members of his circle and family who might find themselves caught up in other investigations, including their ties to Russia. As Philip Bump noted:

If he’s willing to pardon Joe Arpaio for ignoring a court order in service of a political goal Trump embraces, why wouldn’t he pardon another individual he respects for similarly ignoring a demand from the court. Say, a former employee or a family member who, say, was issued a subpoena to testify before a special prosecutor?

One message from the Arpaio pardon is precisely that Trump sees his evaluation of the boundaries of legality as superior to the boundaries set by the legal system. The Constitution gives him that power. As we’ve noted before the presidential pardon is absolute. He can pardon anyone for any federal crime at any time — even before the person actually faces any charges and even if no crime actually took place. There’s nothing anyone can do about it, except to impeach Trump and remove him from office to prevent him from doing it again.

All of this may come as a shock to Americans who believe that our constitutional system of checks and balances constrains the president from rewarding and protecting his cronies this way. But the reality is that “checks and balance”  is really more a metaphor than a set of hard rules, and in some cases the president is unbound by anything other than precedent, democratic norms, and a sense of honor.

But what happens to this “honor system” when we have Donald Trump as president? We are finding that out on a daily basis. This is what I had in mind when I told Ana Marie Cox:

We’re being tested in a fundamental way, and I think we operate in a system that simply assumes that you have honorable people who will be constrained within political norms. Now they’re being violated on a daily basis. I don’t think America comes out on the other end of this unaffected. We’re not immune to history.