To be sure, this is a story with multiple angles. The White House waited until late on a Friday evening, with much of the country focused on a major national disaster, to announce that the president was abusing his power to aid a political ally. It was a dishonorable act, done in a dishonorable way.
Arpaio, among other things, was accused of violating people’s civil rights. When a court ordered him to stop, the Arizonan ignored the order, which led a judge to find Arpaio guilty of criminal contempt. The racial aspect of this is tough to miss: on the heels of Trump’s inflammatory response to Charlottesville, the president delivered his first pardon to help his confederate – who deliberately targeted people of color – before he could face any consequences for his illegal actions.
In fact, in Friday night’s announcement, the president praised Arpaio for his crimes, which the disgraced former sheriff committed without remorse.
All of which raises some important questions about Donald Trump and his appreciation – or lack thereof – for the rule of law.
As a candidate, the Republican embraced the restoration of “law and order” – a phrase with a complex racial history – as of one of his campaign’s core promises. Elect Trump to the presidency, he assured Americans, and we’d see a president who’d demonstrate an unflinching commitment to law enforcement and forceful execution of the nation’s laws.
It wasn’t long before the vows were exposed as absurd. Once he was inaugurated, Trump fired U.S. attorneys under unusual circumstances, fired an acting U.S. Attorney General who dared to give the White House sound legal advice, and fired the director of the FBI in the hopes of derailing an ongoing investigation. The president hadn’t even been in office four months when it became painfully obvious that his interest in the rule of law was something of a joke.
But Friday night, when he hoped Americans weren’t looking, Trump took this broken promise in a farcical direction. A day later, a Washington Post report took the story in an even more alarming direction.
As Joseph Arpaio’s federal case headed toward trial this past spring, President Trump wanted to act to help the former Arizona county sheriff who had become a campaign-trail companion and a partner in their crusade against illegal immigration.
The president asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions whether it would be possible for the government to drop the criminal case against Arpaio, but was advised that would be inappropriate, according to three people with knowledge of the conversation.
Instead, Trump let the case go to trial, knowing all the while that he’d negate the ruling if, after Arpaio’s case was adjudicated, his politically ally was found guilty.
In case this isn’t obvious, a president isn’t supposed to intervene with the Justice Department about an ongoing criminal prosecution of someone the president likes. What’s more, note that Trump didn’t even bother to consult with his own Justice Department – or pay any attention to the department’s pardon protocols – before rescuing his right-wing pal who acted as if he were above the law.
There’s also the near future to consider. Special Counsel Robert Mueller is moving forward with his investigation into the Trump-Russia affair, and as of Friday night, everyone received a stark reminder that this president is comfortable abusing the powers of his office to keep his allies out of prison.
Indeed, it’s easy to imagine Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn waking up on Saturday morning with a spring in their step. After all, in Donald Trump’s America, loyalty to the law is nice, but loyalty to the president is almost literally a get-out-of-jail-free card.
Trump has told a staggering number of lies since entering politics, but his vow to restore “law and order” may be the most painfully ridiculous of them all. It’s difficult to guess where this story goes next, but let’s not forget that as recently as last month, the president reportedly sought information on his power to issue pardons to White House aides, members of his family, and even himself.
Trump boasted on Twitter soon after that “all agree” an American president “has the complete power to pardon.”
Postscript: On Thursday afternoon, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked about the possibility of an Arpaio pardon. Referring to the officials involved in the pardon process, she replied, “I would imagine they go through the thorough and standard process, and when we have an announcement on what that decision is after that’s completed, we’ll let you know.”
Whether the press secretary was lying or ignorant is unclear, but this serves as a reminder of what Rachel calls the “silent movie” dynamic: this White House is simply not a reliable source of information on developments related to the Trump administration.