Coming from anybody but Donald Trump, the pardon issued to rogue cop Joe Arpaio would be shocking. The former sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz., which includes Phoenix, was found guilty of criminal contempt of court for ignoring a federal judge’s order not to arrest Latinos solely because he suspected them of being in the country illegally.
Arpaio has also been accused of a horrifying litany of other misconduct. He housed inmates in such inhumane conditions — an outdoor tent city that was an inferno in the summer and a freezer in the winter — that he himself described it as a concentration camp. He overlooked routine brutality by his deputies, which led to legal settlements costing taxpayers at least $140 million. He arrested the owners of a newspaper, the Phoenix New Times, which ran critical coverage of him, leading to a $3.75-million settlement. He was so busy pursuing immigrants that he neglected to investigate cases of rape and child abuse.
Yet President Trump has had nothing but praise for “Sheriff Joe,” who joined him in a racist, crackpot attempt to prove that President Obama had forged his birth certificate. The Washington Post reported Saturday that Trump asked Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions to drop the criminal case against Arpaio but the attorney general would not agree to obstruct justice. Trump went ahead and pardoned Sheriff Joe.
The president is well within his legal rights to do so — the pardon power is nearly unlimited — but he did not follow the normal procedures of allowing the appeals process to play out, waiting for a recommendation from the pardon office of the Justice Department and demanding that the subject of the pardon show contrition for his actions. Arpaio is utterly unrepentant and his case is far from fully adjudicated. But Trump pardoned him anyway.
It is far from the worst thing the president has done, but it is emblematic of two defining characteristics of his administration: racism and lawlessness.
Trump’s history of racism is well-documented and long predates his appalling comments on the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., when he blamed “both sides” for the violence initiated by the far right and said there were “fine people” on both sides.
Trump and his father settled charges brought by the Justice Department in 1973 that their firm had refused to rent to African Americans; in 1989, he quickly called for the death penalty for five black youths who were ultimately shown to have been falsely charged with raping a white woman in New York’s Central Park; he refused to accept the legitimacy of the first African American president; he launched his presidential campaign by denouncing Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and criminals; he hesitated to disavow former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke; and he attacked a Latino judge overseeing a case involving him, saying the judge was Mexican and could not possibly be fair. As president, Trump has banned newcomers from six Muslim-majority countries, sought to repeal affirmative action, stepped up deportations of largely Latino undocumented immigrants, and defended Confederate monuments. News media report he is likely to undo the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which could lead to the deportation of hundreds of thousands of law-abiding young people brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
Trump’s defenders point out that he has palled around with black celebrities such as Jay Z and Mike Tyson, and that his daughter converted to Judaism when she married Jared Kushner. But at most this shows that Trump is not a doctrinaire neo-Nazi. The evidence suggests he is a more casual bigot along the lines of Archie Bunker, the fictional “All in the Family” TV character from the New York borough of Queens, where Trump was born. That Trump may like particular individuals does not prevent him from stereotyping and stigmatizing entire minority groups.
The president’s contemptuous treatment of people of color is matched by his disdain for the rule of law. He attacked judges who ruled against his immigration ban in vitriolic terms, leading his own Supreme Court appointment, Justice Neil Gorsuch, to denounce his statements as “demoralizing” and “disheartening.” He asked FBI Director James Comey to “let go” of his probe of former national security advisor Mike Flynn, and, when Comey refused, fired him to stop the investigation of the “Russia thing.” He subjected Sessions to unprecedented vilification for following Department of Justice rules and legal ethics by recusing himself from the investigation of the Trump campaign because the recusal led to the appointment of a special counsel. He has threatened to fire that special counsel, Robert Mueller, at a time when his investigation, which Trump calls a witch hunt, has barely begun. And now his willingness to pardon Arpaio signals that he may also pardon underlings who are accused of wrongdoing by Mueller, thereby undermining the investigation of his campaign’s Kremlin connections.
No wonder Trump loves Sheriff Joe: The two men are united by similar, equally repugnant belief systems and a similar willingness to run roughshod over the Constitution to enhance their own power. Arpaio lost his reelection campaign in fall 2016, but he now has the satisfaction of watching a kindred spirit rule the entire country.
Max Boot is a contributing writer to Opinion and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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