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Mike Pence’s peculiar sense of morality

Mike Pence has managed to appall just about everyone across the political spectrum. That takes some doing.

Vice President Pence and his wife, Karen, arrive for a State Dinner with French President Emmanuel Macron and President Trump at the White House on April 24. (AP)
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Until Tuesday, it seemed that Vice President Pence had one primary function within the Trump administration: to be morally offended by everything. There was the time that he walked out of an NFL game because some players took a knee while the national anthem was played.

This is not the only time Pence has walked out on an event. Last month “the vice president walked out of the Summit of the Americas when Cuba’s foreign minister was recognized to speak after him,” according to the Associated Press.

Pence has demonstrated his ability to register his moral disapproval even when he does not leave an event. This was the case at the Opening Ceremonies of the 2018 Winter Olympics, when he refused to stand as the unified Korean team entered the stadium.

At the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics on Feb. 9, Vice President Pence was seated near Kim Yo Jong, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s younger sister. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: YONHAP/The Washington Post)

It was not his best soft power moment, but Pence’s defenders would argue that being rude to dignitaries from North Korea and Cuba just shows how righteous he really is. Pence himself would likely respond with his patented sorrowful head shake. Hisbrand is as a man of serious moral values who can serve as Trump’s envoy to people of faith. McKay Coppins got at this in his recent Atlantic profile of Pence:

He says he has “just hung up the phone” with Donald Trump and that the president asked him to “say hello.” He delivers this message with a slight chuckle that has a certain, almost subversive quality to it. Watch Pence give enough speeches, and you’ll notice that this often happens when he’s in front of a friendly crowd. He’ll be witnessing to evangelicals at a mega-church, or addressing conservative supporters at a rally, and when the moment comes for him to pass along the president’s well-wishes, the words are invariably accompanied by an amused little chuckle that prompts knowing laughter from the attendees. It’s almost as if, in that brief, barely perceptible moment, Pence is sending a message to those with ears to hear— that he recognizes the absurdity of his situation; that he knows just what sort of man he’s working for; that while things may look bad now, there is a grand purpose at work here, a plan that will manifest itself in due time. Let not your hearts be troubled, he seems to be saying. I’ve got this. …
Pence’s presence in the White House has been a boon for the religious right. Evangelical leaders across the country point to his record on abortion and religious freedom and liken him to a prophet restoring conservative Christianity to its rightful place at the center of American life. “Mike Pence is the 24-karat-gold model of what we want in an evangelical politician,” Richard Land, the president of the Southern Evangelical Seminary and one of Trump’s faith advisers, told me. “I don’t know anyone who’s more consistent in bringing his evangelical-Christian worldview to public policy.”

So it is worth noting what Pence, the Trump administration’s righteous man, did in Arizona on Tuesday. According to the Hill’s Jacqueline Thomsen:

Vice President Pence praised former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of contempt of court, as a “tireless champion of … the rule of law” during an event in Arizona on Tuesday.
Pence said at the tax event that he was “honored” by the former sheriff’s attendance, and called Arpaio a “great friend of this president and tireless champion of strong borders and the rule of law,” to cheers from the crowd.

Here’s some video:

Needless to say, most observers do not view Joe Arpaio as a real big fan of the rule of law. Indeed, Arpaio probably would have fit right into either the Cuban or North Korean regimes. Read this PostEverything essay by Francisco Chairez, who was incarcerated in one of Arpaio’s tent jails.

It is not just Arpaio’s victims who feel moral outage. The National Review editorialized in January:

Arpaio was convicted of criminal contempt last summer for willfully violating a federal court order. Specifically, he was convicted of violating an order that he cease arresting and detaining people for whom there was no plausible criminal charge — i.e., the court asked him, pretty please, to stop detaining Mexicans for publicity purposes. Arpaio says he was arresting illegal immigrants, and he may well have been, but it is not a criminal offense simply to be illegally present in the United States. (That is a civil matter.) Until such a time as Congress passes a law making such presence a crime (and delegates enforcement of that federal statute to the sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz.), arresting people under color of law for that non-crime isn’t law enforcement — it’s lawlessness.
But Sheriff Joe has a thing for arresting people who haven’t committed any crime. He arrested a Republican critic — the county supervisor — on trumped-up charges in 2008 and ended up handing over $3.5 million of taxpayers’ money in a wrongful-arrest settlement. He tried to bully the mayor of Phoenix in much the same way, demanding phone logs and other records as part of a nonsensical “investigation” designed to silence a critic. In another spectacular abuse of power, Arpaio teamed up with a friendly county attorney and filed a federal lawsuit seeking the federal prosecution of several judges and lawyers — his political enemies — under the RICO organized-crime statute. Arpaio, being Arpaio, held a press conference announcing the investigation, which the federal courts immediately threw out as “patently frivolous.” Millions more taxpayers’ dollars were paid out in settlements.

Red State’s Sarah Quinlan offers up a detailed list of Arpaio’s abuses of the rule of law while he was the former sheriff, concluding: “Nothing about Sheriff Joe Arpaio resembles any sort of justice or law and order under the United States Constitution, and it is disgraceful for Pence to pretend otherwise.”

Note who I’m quoting here. These are conservative outlets one would expect to be in lockstep with a good Christian conservative like Pence. But they are appalled — and they are not the only conservatives to react this way. In these politically polarized times, Mike Pence has managed to appall just about everyone across the political spectrum. That takes some doing.

Calling Arpaio a tireless champion of the rule of law is like calling Donald Trump a beacon of moral rectitude and, oh, now I get how Pence can do this. As Kellyanne Conway told Coppins, “Mike Pence is someone whose faith allows him to subvert his ego to the greater good.” In this case the greater good appears to be the political absolution of Arpaio, who Trump pardoned and is now running for the U.S. Senate.

I have little insight into why Pence did this, and to be honest I do not care. All I know is that the number of officials in the Trump administration who can claim to have preserved their moral bearings in this administration keeps shrinking by the day.

It is possible that the vice president reads this and cancels his Washington Post subscription in a fake moral outrage. It would be on brand for him. It would not change the fact that he has sullied his standing with this act of moral appeasement.