Shortly after receiving a pardon from President Trump, former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio hinted to local reporters he might return to politics.
Arpaio told the Associated Press he wouldn’t rule out running for office again, saying he would be “very active” politically, even at age 85. He had the same message for the state’s largest newspaper.
“I told my wife I don’t want nothing to do with politics, but now I’ve got to rethink that,” Arpaio told the Arizona Republic. “I think I’ve got a big political message to get out.”
Arpaio had been convicted last month of criminal contempt of court for ignoring a federal judge’s order to stop detaining people based on their perceived immigration status. He had faced up to six months in prison at his sentencing, originally set for Oct. 5.
The sudden, and unusual, presidential pardon seemed to answer a lingering question: What future would await Arpaio, one of the most polarizing figures in law enforcement and a longtime darling of the far right, after he was voted out of office last fall?
The sheriff’s critics have maintained that the police practices Arpaio sanctioned were racially motivated and illegal. Arpaio has refused to admit any wrongdoing, insisting even after the pardon that his conviction had been the result of “a political witch hunt” by the Obama administration.
For more than 23 years, Arpaio’s political fate had seemed unshakable: Despite — or perhaps because of — the controversies that surrounded him, Arpaio was consistently and handily reelected sheriff of Maricopa County, which includes the greater Phoenix metropolitan area. He was first elected to the office in 1992 and quickly became a polarizing figure known for his hard-line stance on illegal immigration and his media-loving exploits. Arpaio was fond of billing himself as “America’s toughest sheriff” and boasted of forcing his inmates to wear pink underwear and sleep outdoors in “Tent City Jail,” even in triple-digit temperatures.
Arpaio reemerged in the national spotlight in 2015 as an early supporter of then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. He was one of the first to publicly endorse Trump last January. The two had some history: Arpaio was one of the first public figures to jump on Trump’s obstinate mission to “seek the truth” about President Barack Obama’s birth certificate. (They also, coincidentally, share June 14 as a birthday.)
“You are the only one with the ‘guts’ to do this,” Trump scrawled on a printed article about the birther movement to Arpaio in 2012. “Keep up the good fight.”
Last year, the sheriff was invited to speak on the final night of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, where he touted Trump as someone who, like him, would “get tough” on immigration “in order to protect Americans.” Trump, in turn, used Arpaio’s endorsement to declare he was the candidate who was “king of the border.”
Whereas Trump was on his way to clinching a historic presidential victory, however, Arpaio was months away from losing a reelection bid. He was charged with criminal contempt in October, and on Election Day, Democratic challenger Paul Penzone defeated Arpaio to become the Maricopa County sheriff.
Legal troubles notwithstanding, Arpaio, then 84, appeared to acquiesce to the end of his long political career, celebrating his retirement in January at an event that included friend and actor Steven Seagal.
With his comments Friday, though, Arpaio has indicated he has no intention of leaving the political realm quietly — or at all. But whether Arpaio could have a viable political future remains to be seen. Even in Arizona, his pardon by Trump divided lawmakers and public officials on both sides of the aisle.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) called Arpaio a friend and said he “deserves credit for helping to reduce crime in Maricopa County over his long career in law enforcement and public office,” according to the AP. The pardon, he said, “brought finality to this chapter in Arizona’s history.”
Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) said in a statement that Trump “did right by the law — even as the political consequences continued to mount.”
“America owes Sheriff Arpaio a debt of gratitude and not the injustice of a political witch hunt,” Biggs added, echoing Arpaio’s own description of his conviction.
However, Democrats and other state officials, including many prominent Republican lawmakers, blasted Trump’s pardon as one that thumbed its nose at the rule of law.
“No one is above the law and the individuals entrusted with the privilege of being sworn law officers should always seek to be beyond reproach in their commitment to fairly enforcing the laws they swore to uphold,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in a statement. “Mr. Arpaio was found guilty of criminal contempt for continuing to illegally profile Latinos living in Arizona based on their perceived immigration status in violation of a judge’s orders. The President has the authority to make this pardon, but doing so at this time undermines his claim for the respect of rule of law as Mr. Arpaio has shown no remorse for his actions.”
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), with whom Trump has publicly feuded, tweeted a milder rebuke of Trump’s actions.
Democrats protested the pardon vocally Friday. Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton declared that it was “not a proud day for Phoenix” and that the president had pardoned someone who “illegally targeted and terrorized Latino families.” Still, the mayor noted that the community’s activism had resulted in Arpaio being voted out of office.
“Donald Trump can’t change that,” Stanton tweeted.
Walter M. Shaub Jr., the former director of the independent Office of Government Ethics, said in a series of tweets Friday night that the pardon was “vile” and “a harbinger of worse to come.” Shaub resigned from his position in July after repeatedly clashing with the White House. Although he made no mention of any friction in his brief resignation letter, Shaub has been openly critical of the Trump administration on social media since then. The president’s pardon of Arpaio prompted a similarly scathing response.
Arpaio, meanwhile, is doubling down on his innocence, promising a news conference Monday to “show the abuse of the judicial system in politics.”
In a Friday evening interview at his home in Fountain Hills, Ariz., Arpaio told the Arizona Republic that his first reaction upon receiving Trump’s pardon letter was to wonder: “Is this a fake?”
“I’m very good at investigating fake government documents,” Arpaio told the newspaper, alluding to his years-long involvement in the “birther” movement. “I won’t go any further than that.”
He added that he would not have handled his immigration sweeps any differently: “My guys did nothing wrong, and I didn’t do anything wrong.”