WASHINGTON ― After a week of controversy over his hesitation to fully condemn racist groups, President Donald Trump is considering a pardon for former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a man who gained national prominence by bragging about humiliating inmates in his jail, promoting the “birther” conspiracy theory about then-President Barack Obama and systematically discriminating against Latinos.
The former Maricopa County, Arizona, sheriff was found guilty in July of violating a court order to end his office’s practice of targeting Latino drivers just because they might be in the country illegally.
Pardoning the self-titled “America’s toughest sheriff” would bolster widespread concern that Trump is more interested in protecting his allies than the people of color they harm, critics say.
“If President Trump uses his power to pardon a discredited law enforcement official who persistently engaged in illegal racial profiling of the Latino community, it will not be a dog whistle to the so-called ‘alt right’ and white supremacists, but a bull horn,” Vanita Gupta, who previously headed the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in a statement Monday. “No amount of tweets or forced remarks read from a teleprompter could undo the damage.”
A pardon for Arpaio would “sow hate and division” and excuse “racist and illegal policing policies,” said Gupta, who now serves as president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Arpaio “personifies the same bigotry and intolerance we witnessed in Charlottesville,” she added, referencing the recent white supremacist rally in Virginia.
There is speculation that Trump could announce a pardon of Arpaio during a rally in Phoenix on Tuesday evening. The White House did not respond to a request for comment on the president’s plans.
Announcing a pardon at a campaign-style event would be unprecedented in modern presidential history. It would also come just one week after Trump held a disastrous press conference at which he said there were “fine people” marching among the neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville.
The White House has not consulted with the Department of Justice about a potential pardon for Arpaio, CNN reported Monday, and a DOJ official confirmed there is no clemency petition on file for the former sheriff. It would be unusual to issue a pardon at this stage of Arpaio’s legal case. He hasn’t even been sentenced yet.
But Trump has already confirmed that he’s “seriously considering” pardoning Arpaio, saying last week that Arpaio is “a great American patriot” who “has done a lot in the fight against illegal immigration” and that he hated to see what had happened to the former sheriff.
The president doesn’t have to go through the Justice Department’s process to pardon Arpaio. That process, as HuffPost previously reported, was established largely to de-politicize the issuing of pardons and, in some cases, to provide legal support for the president’s pardoning decisions.
If Trump were to pardon Arpaio, it would be an overtly political move. The two men have been allies for years. The sheriff, who lost his own bid for re-election in November, campaigned with Trump last year as he took a hardline stance against undocumented immigrants.
Before that, they were both high-profile boosters of the conspiracy theory that Obama was not born in the U.S. and had faked his birth certificate. In 2012, Trump wrote to Arpaio saying he was “the only one with the ‘guts’” to continue to investigate Obama’s birth certificate. “Keep up the good fight,” Trump wrote. It was September of last year before Trump finally said publicly that he believed Obama was born in the U.S. Arpaio was still pushing the birther claim as recently as December.
The two haven’t diverged on immigration. Both argue that local law enforcement should do more to assist with deportations ― something that Arpaio attempted when he sent his deputies to sweep through Latino and immigrant neighborhoods. A lawsuit accusing him of racial profiling is what landed Arpaio in legal trouble. In July, a federal judge found him guilty of violating that court order against stopping and detaining people without reasonable suspicion. Arpaio acknowledged violating the order, but said it was “not intentional.”
Given his history with Trump and the fact that Arpaio hasn’t been sentenced yet, DOJ’s Office of the Pardon Attorney would be highly unlikely to approve of a pardon now, even if Arpaio had submitted an application.
But Trump doesn’t need the pardon attorney’s OK. If he wanted, he could potentially tweet out a pardon of Arpaio.
Arpaio has said he would accept a pardon if Trump offered one. If the president wants to do so at the rally on Tuesday, Arpaio could be there in person to accept it ― he told Politico he is keeping his schedule open for the day.
Critics of both Trump and Arpaio plan to protest the rally. Carlos Garcia, executive director of Puente Arizona, said that Trump’s praise for Arpaio amounts to applause for racial profiling and abuse of power, all the more disturbing after the president’s response to the Charlottesville violence.
“By pardoning Arpaio, he’s sending the same message he did by not condemning the acts of Charlottesville,” Garcia said on a call with reporters on Monday.
That message would be consistent with the “dog whistles” Trump has issued about immigrants and Latinos since the beginning of his campaign, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said on the same call with reporters.
“Pardoning Arpaio is a culmination and an added layer to what is already a very, very perilous and dangerous path in which this country is going under Trump,” Grijalva said. “A path that calls for this country to marginalize some, to treat others different under the rule of law, and to essentially condone, comfort and coddle the racist and hateful organizations and individuals that are a significant part of his base.”