In “1984,” George Orwell spoke of the government’s ability to degrade the truth: “The past was alterable. The past never had been altered,” he wrote.
Tuesday afternoon, Vice President Pence yet again disgraced the White House by saying he was “honored” to be joined by former Maricopa County, Ariz., sheriff Joe Arpaio, because Arpaio is a “champion” of “the rule of law.” As in Orwell’s dystopia, it wasn’t just misleading, and it wasn’t just a lie. It was a complete inversion of the truth, turning reality upside down.
In late July 2017, Arpaio was found guilty of criminal contempt after a federal judge ruled that he had deliberately ignored a court order to cease and desist his racial profiling of people who appeared to be Latino. Arpaio’s brutality in abusing the rule of law is widely known: The sheriff himself often boasted that prisoners in his draconian “Tent City” jail would be exposed to temperatures of up to 142 degrees. He referred to his compound as “a concentration camp.”
Lawsuits mounted against Arpaio – and, again and again, he lost in court. Judges ruled that his treatment of prisoners was abusive, inhumane or unconstitutional, or all of the above. Twice, a federal judge ruled that the lack of medical care in Tent City was so awful that it was an unconstitutional violation of prisoners’ basic rights. One-hundred fifty-seven deaths of prisoners occurred on his watch, some of them allegedly attributable to negligence, according to investigations by the Phoenix New Times.
Vice President Pence: Joe Arpaio is the exact opposite of a “champion” of the rule of law, and you’re embarrassing yourself and your office in claiming otherwise. He ignored judicial orders, abused the constitutional rights of prisoners and used his law enforcement powers as a racialized weapon that made a mockery of the notion that justice is blind.
Yet Arpaio was pardoned last year by the president of the United States. Why? Because Arpaio was a political ally of President Trump. Arpaio mirrors Trump’s bigotry toward Hispanics. And even in 2018, Arpaio continues to spread the despicable and debunked lie that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya. Two bigoted conspiracy theorist peas in a pod.
Not long after taking office in January 2017, Trump reportedly talked with Attorney General Jeff Sessions to ask whether there was anything that could be done to get the case against Arpaio dropped — itself a highly improper intervention in an ongoing matter. Trump’s advisers told the president that he couldn’t interfere in the case itself, but he could pardon Sheriff Joe.
That pardon, which Trump issued in August 2017, was appalling. It sent a clear message: Trump’s political allies are now above the law. Those who abuse their law enforcement powers — particularly against ethnic minorities — will be rewarded. But Trump’s move was also widely seen by legal experts as a not-so-subtle hint to potential witnesses in the ongoing criminal investigations into the president and his campaign: If you stay loyal, there might be a pardon waiting for you, too.
This signaling could morph into an even more blatant abuse of power. Trump could use his pardon power to absolve key witnesses or investigative targets, such as Paul Manafort or Michael Cohen. How is it possible that in a democracy — a system differentiated from authoritarianism by the rule of law — that the president could simply exempt loyal cronies from the force of law simply to protect himself or his family? How, indeed, was it possible that President Bill Clinton could pardon Marc Rich, a criminal who appeared to have received a get-out-of-jail-free card in return for political donations to the Clintons?
Past abuses of pardons make it clear that it can and will happen again. In the short term, it’s imperative that members of Congress make clear that they will impeach Trump if he tries to use pardons to obstruct ongoing criminal investigations that affect him, his political allies or his family.
But beyond that imminent threat, it’s time for the presidential pardon — as we know it — to die. American presidents should no longer be bestowed with a quasi-autocratic, up-or-down authority to twist the rule of law as they see fit.
Of course, pardons can have merits: mercy, correcting past injustices or finding ways to bridge political divides, as was the case when George Washington issued the first presidential pardon in 1795 after the so-called Whiskey Rebellion. Having a clemency safety valve as a check on the judiciary is important.
We should be able to agree, however, that pardons should not be given out as political favors to partisan loyalists or witnesses in ongoing criminal investigations that threaten the president. That is nothing like what the Founders intended.
In the long term, a constitutional amendment to set up a bipartisan Pardons Commission may be needed. But for now, congressional Republicans — and voters — must speak with one voice: Abuse the pardon power or support those who do, and we will kick you out of office.
Pence’s remarks about “Sheriff Joe” last night have highlighted, yet again, the Trump administration’s disdain for the rule of law. Trump tweeted an apparent threat to fire investigators or pardon cooperators on Wednesday morning, too.
Both Trump and Pence pose an imminent danger to the integrity of American democracy. Presidents are not Caesars. In the United States, no one should be above the law.