There are multiple reasons to be horrified by Trump’s pre-emptive pardon of the despicable Joe Arpaio.
There’s his usual display of legal and constitutional ignorance: By disdaining the process for determining the propriety of issuing a Presidential pardon and by displaying, once again, contempt for the Separation of Powers that is a foundation of our legal system, Trump has again illustrated that he is the perfect Dunning-Krueger model–an ignoramus who doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.
Traditionally, Presidential pardons are issued after a person has served some part of his sentence and shown remorse, or alternatively, to correct a miscarriage of justice. There’s a thorough vetting process by the justice department to assess these factors. Trump, of course, ignored these criteria.
If that were the extent of the damage, this typically Trumpian fit of pique would simply be another entry in the extensive list of “reasons we shouldn’t elect people who don’t know what government is or does.” But it’s actually the least significant of the issues involved.
To understand those issues, you need to know some things about Arpaio. From the Guardian, we learn
Arpaio, the self-styled “toughest sheriff” in America, systematically abused his powers during his two decades in office before being voted out last November. Most notoriously, Arpaio commanded his police to detain people solely on the suspicion that they were illegal immigrants, even in cases where the “suspects” had violated no state law. This amounted to a blanket invitation to terrorize the domestic population through egregious practices of racial-profiling.
In 2011, a federal district court judge, a Republican appointee, ordered Arpaio to stop a practice that constituted a flagrant violation of constitutional rights. Rather than submit to the federal court order, Arpaio acted in open defiance, placing himself above the federal judiciary and the rule of law. Last month, he was properly convicted of criminal contempt for his defiance. He faced a maximum of six months in jail, but all that is now moot thanks to the president’s pardon.
From the Boston Globe, we learn this behavior was nothing new.
In 1997, a few years after Arpaio assumed office, the US Department of Justice sued him after an investigation found rampant mistreatment of inmates in his jails and a pattern of excessive force by the sheriff’s staff. Officers hog-tied inmates and used stun guns on them while they were handcuffed or in restraining chairs. The lawsuit was dismissed in a settlement, but Arpaio’s methods of abuse didn’t change at all.
As a result, many prisoners died at an alarming rate without explanation. According to the Phoenix New Times, taxpayers in Maricopa have paid more than $140 million to litigate and settle countless claims of brutality while Arpaio was sheriff.
By the mid-2000s, Arpaio had found another target to terrorize and criminalize: unauthorized immigrants (much like Trump did during the presidential campaign.) Arpaio became obsessed with enforcing federal immigration law, conducting workplace raids and immigration patrols where his staff stopped people who looked Hispanic and arrested those who were illegally in the country.
This history is well known, both to the populations Arpaio targeted and to the White Supremacists, neo-Nazis and Klan members who supported his behaviors. Trump’s pardon sent a clear message to both groups– especially to the bigots in his base who might have worried about Trump’s continued commitment to their “cause” in the wake of Bannon’s departure from the White House.
This pardon goes well beyond the “dog whistles” and “winks” employed by many Republicans to let bigots know they remain welcome in the Grand Old Party. It is a flat-out endorsement of racism, and I’m sure it comforted Trump’s White Nationalist supporters.
The spectacle of a United States President openly siding with enemies of everything America purports to stand for is nauseating, but even that is not the worst implication of this pardon.
Allow me to explain.
The Bill of Rights protects individual rights against government infringement. When a government agent–that is, someone acting on behalf of the government–violates the constitutional rights of an individual, both that agent and the government are answerable for that infringement. Our legal system punishes people who misuse the power of the state.
This pardon voids that guarantee of accountability. It guts the rule of law that anchors our constitutional system. It is telling government officials who abuse their authority that this President has their back, that they won’t be held to account for their misconduct–so long as their misconduct is consistent with the President’s own “priorities” and interests.
That’s how a constitutional democracy becomes an autocracy.
If this isn’t a constitutional crisis, I don’t know what is.