“So was Sheriff Joe convicted for doing his job?” Trump asked the crowd. “You know what, I’ll make a prediction: I think he’s going to be just fine, okay? But I won’t do it tonight because I don’t want to cause any controversy. But Sheriff Joe should feel good.” – Trump at an Arizona rally, August 23rd
It’s rare for the ‘controversies’ section of a person’s Wikipedia page to be longer than the entire rest of it combined. Enter Joe Arpaio: Maricopa County (76% of Arizona population) sheriff whose career history reads like an especially tasteless onion article. Sketchy presidential pardons are an American tradition, and Trump’s managed to make the most questionable executive power even more unethical.
You might know “America’s Toughest Sheriff” from his force’s infamous targeting of Latinos, proudly inhumane jail conditions, Arpaio’s immigration ‘posse’ made up of stars like Steven Seagal, or even the assassination attempt his team faked to drum up election-time support. You can’t make this stuff up.
Arpaio tours one of his infamous outdoor jail facilities, where prisoners pay for meals, wear pink underwear, and endure Arizona heat. These conditions were ruled unconstitutional in 2008 and again in 2010. Arpaio testified saying that “even if he had a billion dollars he wouldn’t change the way he runs his jails.” It’s worth noting this video is from 2012, after some changes were already made.
An incredibly regressive figure even by Arizona standards, Arpaio has been accused of just about every kind of misconduct you could imagine. Yet, the self-styled cowboy managed to dodge charges of abuse of power, misuse of funds, failure to investigate sex crimes, improper clearance of cases, unlawful enforcement of immigration laws, election law violations, and continued to stay in power for 23 years. All of this began to catch up with him in 2008 when federal officials under George W. Bush launched a civil rights investigation against the sheriff.
In 2011, the Justice Department concluded that the sheriff’s office had engaged in systemic racial profiling of Latinos. (After suing the MCSO for Refusing Full Cooperation with the investigation.) The report refers to these issues as “long-standing and entrenched systemic deficiencies” which include discriminatory policing, retaliation against criticism, denying critical service to those with limited English abilities, excessive force, and failure to adequately investigate allegations of sexual assaults. This lead to a suit against the Maricopa County Sheriffs office in 2012. Arpaio’s response? Announcing that Obama’s birth certificate was a fraud.
Letter that Donald Trump sent Arpaio after the Sheriff’s deceleration about Obama. “Joe great going – You are the only one with the “guts” to do this – Keep up the good fight.”
After continued investigation, U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow ruled that Joe Arpaio’s sheriff’s department violated the civil rights act, and ordered the MCSO to stop the round-ups of those suspected for immigration and profiling. In no surprise to anyone, the MCSO made virtually no changes to it’s discriminatory practices, which resulted in a civil suit filed against them in 2016 for contempt of court. Criminal charges were filed against Arpaio personally for the first time, and he lost his position to Democrat Paul Penzone shortly after.
His entire career, Joe Arpaio has acted with impunity, and adapted the public persona of a renegade lawman. He took pride in his abuses of power, and boasted about the hostile conditions he created for immigrants and those who criticized him. In the end, it was these words which saw his conviction for criminal contempt of a federal court. U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton wrote that Arpaio had “willfully violated an order of the court” by failing “to ensure his subordinates’ compliance and by directing them to continue to detain persons for whom no criminal charges could be filed.”
“No,” Arpaio said. “Nobody is higher than me. I am the elected sheriff by the people. I don’t serve any governor or the president.” Arpaio said in a 2012 rally.
“A kind, simple and loving man,” lost the suit to “biased prosecutors.” At least, that’s the way that Ava Arpaio, the sheriff’s wife, referred to the situation in her fundraising emails. The man who has spent his career flagrantly violating laws had finally been struck down by institutions he claimed to serve. But, after 55 years of public service, was he really going to accept this “politically motivated” suit?
“Sheriff Joe is a patriot. Sheriff Joe loves our country. Sheriff Joe protected our borders. And Sheriff Joe was very unfairly treated by the Obama administration,” Trump said. “I stand by my pardon.”
By this point, it should surprise no one that Arpaio is a Trump supporter. He even went as far as to describe Trump as his “political soulmate.” While the bromance developed over birtherism, they had other shared interests like police militarization and maintaining law and order (read: harassing people of color). As one of Trump’s earliest supporters, Arpaio made speeches at Trump rallies, and serious rumors for a Trump/Arpaio presidential bill circulated.
Nine months into Trump’s presidency, more Americans consider racism a ‘big problem’ than at any point in the last 22 years. Since day one, his campaign has been tied to anti-immigrant fervor and wider messages of white supremacy. Well, less than two weeks after Charlottesville and labeling the removal of confederate monuments as “foolish”, Trump decided to refute association with white supremacy by pardoning a man synonymous with it.
You can call this pardoning a lot of things – Harvard Law professor Noah Feldman called it an, “assault on the federal judiciary, the Constitution and the rule of law itself.” For most of us, it’s just another reminder that not only is systemic racism alive in this country, it’s proudly enforced by our highest office. It’s been shown ad nauseum just how hard legally proving discrimination is – how many people of color have been killed by police with no consequences? This was one of the most blatant streaks of power abuse and systematic oppression in recent history, and it still took courts 23 years to end.
Joe and Ava Arpaio riding in a tank during a parade. I wish I had photoshopped this.
As disgustingly overdue as taking down Arpaio was, it was symbolically important no less. Whether or not he actually saw the inside of a cell, the idea that Sheriff Joe might have to sit in the inhuman jail conditions he has prided himself on created was a poetic justice lost on no one.
Yet, it all meant nothing. The thousands kept in inhumane conditions or rounded up based on race, the $146 million in taxpayer money paid to settle lawsuits and towards his own legal defense, the sex crimes continually ignored. Trump had to bail out his ideological partner who was just “convicted for doing his job.”
So, now the 85 year old can live out the rest of his days peacefully with his family, just like Ava Arpaio said in the fundraising emails. Or, he might go back to business as usual and run for Arizona Senate. After all, incumbent Jeff Flake spoke out against Trump’s pardoning – Arpaio’s never taken kindly to opposition.
No matter what you think of Arpaio, this was an incredible power overstep. We can talk all day about the questionable history of pardons, but never before has a president immediately and directly overridden a federal court. It is a terrifying precedent to set, and some are even calling it an impeachable offense. It crosses party lines, even Arizona senator John McCain condemned the action, saying that it “undermines [Trump’s] claim for the respect of rule of law.”
People are infuriated by this decision, except for his 34% base which gets more stoked every day. The pardon may not be as cut-and-dry as it first appeared, though, as U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bolton has not entirely thrown out the conviction. She will require verbal arguments for why she should or shouldn’t in October. Meanwhile, some groups are arguing that the pardon can’t override the constitutional rights of others, as they claim this will do. This may be the catalyst for a long battle about the constitutional legitimacy of the pardon, which has been controversial since the Federalist papers.
As for now, Arpaio’s sleeping tight, and Trump’s sent a powerful message that he’ll protect his allies. But, no matter what happens, Arpaio’s already lost. He lives in Arizona.
I guarantee Arpaio is drinking to this right now.