This story has been updated with President Trump's defense of breaking all this news Friday.
This isn't your average sleepy Friday news dump — a trick newsmakers use to bury unpopular news by releasing it when most people aren't reading news. This is a flagrant attempt to hide a series of politically fraught (but base-pleasing) moves under the cover of an August, Friday night hurricane.
And on Monday, Trump made his news dump even more audacious. He claimed he did it precisely because of the hurricane, but not for the reason we're assuming: “In the middle of a hurricane, even though it was a Friday evening, I assumed the ratings would be far higher than they would be normally,” he told reporters at a news conference Monday with Finland's president.
Uh, what? Trump pardoned former Maricopa County, Ariz., sheriff Joe Arpaio as the nation's eyes were on a hurricane because he thought more people would hear about it? That defies common sense. News networks and newspapers only have so much bandwidth, and Trump forced them to choose between coverage of Trump's remarkable pardon and a remarkable hurricane.
It's already transparent as day that Trump is doing controversial things he knows are controversial, and he would prefer the public and the media not focus on it. Rather than acknowledge that, or even dodge it by giving a typical politiciany-non-answer, Trump tried to defend it by insulting thinking people everywhere.
Ironically, by so obviously trying to downplay this news, he framed it in neon flashing signs.
The contrast of a president making not one but two major decisions — and suffering more White House staffing turmoil — as the strongest hurricane to hit the United States in more than a decade is making landfall is stark. Oh, and North Korea just fired short-range missiles. Oh, and NBC News reports special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and his team have issued subpoenas for officials with ties to former campaign chairman Paul Manafort to testify to a grand jury.
That's news to fill an entire week, let alone the span of a few hours on a weather-dominated Friday night. And amid catastrophic flooding in Houston, Trump's pardon was not forgotten. Reporters asked him about it in the news conference Monday afternoon.
Is it possible Trump and his team had always planned to formalize a major policy change to military recruits and pardon Arpaio after the president had dinner on Friday, Aug. 25? Maybe. Trump hinted both were coming over the past month. (Arpaio was convicted in 2017 of contempt of court for failing to stop racially profiling illegal immigrants after a judge ordered him to stop.)
“Do people in this room like Sheriff Joe?," Trump asked at a Phoenix rally on Tuesday. “I’ll make a prediction: I think he’s going to be just fine, okay?”
But that doesn't explain why Trump went ahead and signed those orders as a massive, news-dominating hurricane is about to make landfall. Why the urgency?
Pouring unpopular news out like this is an extremely politically risky decision for Trump. Hurricane Harvey is his first major test as emergency commander in chief. Earlier in the day, top Republicans had urged him to stop tweeting insults to them and focus on keeping people safe in Texas and Louisiana.
Trump risks looking like he's using this potentially deadly hurricane as political cover.
As GOP strategist Alex Conant pointed out, by breaking all this news now, Trump also risks fomenting outrage by giving even the appearance of hiding this underneath a hurricane. And he catches any potential supporters flat-footed.
President Obama tried to dump unpopular news on Friday nights. But it rarely worked. News cycles don't work like they used to. 1/— Alex Conant (@AlexConant) August 26, 2017
If you're going to do something unpopular, you're now often better off selling it & owning it. 3/— Alex Conant (@AlexConant) August 26, 2017
Sure enough, Democrats in Congress quickly jumped on Twitter and called up reporters to express their outrage.
“President Trump is a coward,” Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), who represents much of the area where Arpaio was sheriff, told The Washington Post's David Weigel. “He waited until a Friday evening, as a hurricane hits, to pardon a racist ex-sheriff. Trump should at least have the decency to explain to the American public why he is undermining our justice system.”
Here's Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.):
Then he ran to Camp David.— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) August 26, 2017
The only reason to do these right now is to use the cover of Hurricane Harvey to avoid scrutiny 4/
Arizona Republican congressmen Trent Franks and Andy Biggs issued statements supporting Trump's decision.
But that was about it. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), tweeted this:
Regarding the Arpaio pardon, I would have preferred that the President honor the judicial process and let it take its course.— Jeff Flake (@JeffFlake) August 26, 2017
And Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) wasn't happy either: “The President has the authority to make this pardon,” he said in a statement, “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.”
The hurricane-Friday-night news dump is bold, even for Trump. His explanation for why he did it was even bolder, yes, even for Trump. If he hoped to keep backlash to a minimum, it's backfiring.