It began Friday, when Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff of Arizona's Maricopa County, just a month after the disgraced lawman was convicted of criminal contempt by a federal judge. Arpaio, 85, a notorious immigration hard-liner and an early supporter of the president's campaign, had defied an earlier court order to halt harsh detention practices that amounted to racial profiling.
Critics say Arpaio's two decades in law enforcement were defined by a lengthy list of abuses of power, ranging from the inhumane treatment of prisoners, including incidents that led to deaths, to the failure to investigate sex crimes to a host of allegations regarding racial profiling and other forms of police misconduct that took place under his watch. Even before his conviction, voters booted Arpaio from office in November, when he lost his latest reelection bid.
For Trump, though, Arpaio is an ideal role model: A no-nonsense tough guy who served in the military, fought "bad hombres," reduced crime in his bailiwick (no matter that crime rates dropped elsewhere in the country, too) and made all the right noises about patriotism. It surely helps that Arpaio embraced Trump's "birther" conspiracy theories about former president Barack Obama — baseless accusations about Obama's place of birth that nevertheless launched Trump's political career — and embarked on a bizarre 2012 "investigation" of Obama's records in Hawaii that used public funds and yielded nothing.
To give it a global spin, Arpaio can be seen as a local American version of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte: A brash strongman — conspicuously favored by Trump — who takes the law into his own hands while mocking the squeamishness of those worried about the erosion of democratic norms and violations of human rights.
"The former sheriff represents in miniature what the President would like to be more maximally — a successful American authoritarian," noted the New Yorker.
This is the wider context in which to consider Trump's pardon of Arpaio. Over the weekend, White House spokesmen stressed that Trump's pardon ought to be seen in the same light as pardons made by previous presidents, including Obama. But many critics, including conservatives, saw an alarming departure from political tradition.
In an editorial, the right-wing Washington Examiner said Trump "abused" his pardoning power to aid "a friend and political ally." If the notion of "law and order" was to have any meaning, the paper argued, it had to apply to Arpaio as well: "Lawless sheriffs promote disorder, and that's what Arpaio did to get himself convicted." Many observers also noted that other Trump allies could eventually face convictions over their dealings with Russia, and Trump may be tempted to pardon them as well.
Last week, Trump said Arpaio was convicted "for doing his job." But the problem with that, wrote political scientist Andrew Rudalevige, "is that Arpaio was convicted for doing the opposite of his job. As a sworn officer of law enforcement, he violated the law and then ignored court orders designed to bring his policies in line with statutory and constitutional mandates."
That certainly did not deter Trump. According to my colleagues, the president was long keen on ending the legal proceedings against Arpaio, asking Attorney General Jeff Sessions this spring whether it would be possible to drop the federal case. Trump was advised that it would be inappropriate.
Trump's pardon of Arpaio "was his backhand way of doing what he wanted to do at the front end," Robert Bauer, a former White House counsel in the Obama administration, told The Post. "He just wanted to kill the prosecution off. He couldn’t do it the one way, so he ended up doing it the other way. This is just another vivid demonstration of how far removed from an appropriate exercise of the pardon power this was."
Political figures across the spectrum, including leading Republicans, criticized Trump's move. But the president, who now operates amid a constant whirl of scandals, doesn't seem that bothered. Like many of his other actions, the pardoning of Arpaio appeals to Trump's narrow base and demonstrates his impatience with the existing checks and balances of the American political system. Arpaio himself tweeted as much, casting his clemency as a thumb in the eye of Trump's political opponents (before going on to solicit donations to help pay his legal costs).
My colleague Amanda Erickson interviewed a number of experts on authoritarianism to gauge how troublesome Arpaio's pardoning may be. Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor at New York University, placed the uproar in the bigger picture shaped both by Trump's lionization of the country's security forces as well as his coddling of the extreme far-right.
"In situations where democracies become right-wing regimes, the leader usually relies on paramilitary or other extremist forces to get into office or consolidate power once he's there," said Ben-Ghiat. "He has to dance the line between expelling them and using them. Trump's expulsion of [White House ultra-nationalists] Stephen Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, coming together with his open support of white nationalism and now his pardon of Joe Arpaio, shows this dynamic well."
Others were less gloomy. "Authoritarians generally don't allow their officials to be convicted of anything in the first place," said Tom Pepinsky, an academic at Cornell University. "So it's a sign of how much the president is working against the system that produces outcomes that he doesn't like one bit."
But for now, plenty of damage has clearly been done. Harvard Law School professor Noah Feldman offered a stark verdict, writing in his Bloomberg column that Trump's pardon was "an assault on the federal judiciary, the Constitution and the rule of law itself."
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