By Cokie Roberts and Steven V. ROBERTS
Newspaper Enterprise Association
President Trump had the right to pardon Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona’s Maricopa County after he was convicted of defying a federal judge. But just because a president has the right to do something doesn’t make it the right thing to do.
Those are two different questions, and Trump’s pardon symbolized many of the worst instincts of his presidency: his contempt for the rule of law and the role of federal judges; his appeal to racial fears and phobias; and his willingness to divide the country and pander to his political base, no matter how deeply he offends national traditions and values.
And that’s not the worst of it. Trump’s pardon raises a deeply troubling question: Is he signaling his future intentions? Is he ready to cause a constitutional crisis, using his power to abrogate any convictions emanating from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in last year’s election?
‘Caving to pressure’
Professor Cas Mudde of the University of Georgia, an expert on political extremism, told the Washington Post that Arpaio’s example could undermine Mueller’s work: “There are several key people in (the president’s) former entourage who are at the point of caving to pressure to working with the Mueller investigation. Trump has shown them that they have nothing to fear, because he can and will pardon them, irrespective of the circumstances.”
Trump and his supporters are defending his actions by recalling how past presidents abused the pardon power. And yes, Bill Clinton made a huge mistake exonerating the fugitive financier Marc Rich after Rich’s wife contributed heavily to Democratic causes.
But Arpaio is in a very different category. He was a sheriff sworn to uphold the law. Instead, he used his position to target Hispanic immigrants for persistent harassment. When he defied a court order to stop, a federal judge found him guilty last month of criminal contempt, citing the sheriff’s “flagrant disregard” for the law.
Trump said Arpaio was convicted for “doing his job” when the exact opposite is true. The sheriff corrupted his position and violated his oath, and now the president has endorsed that corruption, a record that deeply offends true conservatives like the ones writing the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal.
“Pardoning Mr. Arpaio sends a message that law enforcers can ignore court orders and get away with it,” they wrote. “All you need is a political ally in the White House or the governor’s mansion. Down that road lies anarchy.”
Trump is clearly Arpaio’s ally, even his soul brother. Like the sheriff, the president has repeatedly tangled with federal judges. And like the sheriff, Trump has pursued a cynical and destructive strategy, demonizing racial minorities as a way of galvanizing his political base. Both men were early proponents of the “birther” movement that tried to brand Barack Obama as foreign-born, non-Christian and non-American.
Arpaio had the power to arrest Hispanics and detain them under harsh conditions he openly called “concentration camps.” Trump didn’t have a badge, so he had to settle for calling Mexican immigrants “rapists,” advocating a ban on Muslims entering the country and saying the neo-Nazis that marched in Charlottesville included some “very fine people.”
But Trump has one power Arpaio never had: the presidential pardon. And fears about how he may use it in the future are clearly justified. After all, Trump has repeatedly tried and failed to thwart the legal process through other means.
Former FBI director James Comey has testified that Trump demanded his personal “loyalty” and urged him to drop a criminal investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn. When Comey resisted, he was fired.
Trump has openly derided his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for recusing himself from the Russian probe and allowing a special counsel to be appointed. He has denounced the special counsel’s work as “the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history – led by some very bad and conflicted people.” And Trump’s confidant Chris Ruddy has said on PBS: “I think he’s considering perhaps terminating the special counsel. I think he’s weighing that option.”
Limits of power
Trump is quickly learning the limits of his power. He cannot control judges – or journalists, for that matter. Republicans on Capitol Hill are openly defying him. Firing Mueller would get very messy.
But issuing pardons to Mueller’s targets? No one can stop him. There are no checks and balances here. Except for one thing: A president cannot pardon himself to escape impeachment.
So in the end, no president – and no sheriff – is completely above the law.
Cokie and Steven V. Roberts’ weekly commentary column offers a no-nonsense analysis of national and international issues. Married for more than four decades, these pre-eminent journalists discuss issues from their perspective as reporters, Washington insiders and working professionals.