President Donald Trump issued the first pardon of his administration Friday night, overturning the criminal contempt conviction of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Arpaio was convicted in late July for willfully defying court orders to stop detaining illegal immigrants and racially profiling Latino drivers.
The pardon is a clear play to Trump’s core supporters, who regard Arpaio as a hero for his repeated defiance of court orders, law enforcement norms, and the constitutional rights of detainees in his jurisdiction. In 2011, the Justice Department concluded that Arpaio’s office had “a pervasive culture of discriminatory bias against Latinos” and repeatedly violated Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure. Arpaio was described by a DOJ expert as overseeing the worst pattern of racial profiling in U.S. history.
In December of 2011, a U.S. District Judge issued an injunction ordering Arpaio to stop racially profiling Latino drivers. Arpaio and his office vocally refused to comply for 18 months. Arpaio nonetheless argued in the subsequent contempt case that his noncompliance was “not intentional.”
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Trump’s statement announcing the pardon praised Arpaio for his “life’s work of protecting the public from the scourges of crime and illegal immigration,” carrying forward themes from a presidential campaign that opened with description of Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists.
Speaking to Reuters, the former head of the Department of Justice’s civil rights division, Vanita Gupta, said that the pardon sent “a dangerous message that a law enforcement officer who abused his position of power and defied a court order can simply be excused by a President who himself clearly does not respect the law.”
That message comes amid mixed signals from Trump about nationalism and race.
The President’s statements following a white nationalist terrorist attack in Charlottesville, Virginia, were widely seen as an endorsement of white supremacism. At the same time, both Steve Bannon and now Sebastian Gorka, prominent figures of the so-called “alt-right,” have been forced out of the administration in recent weeks, suggesting weakening ties to the movement that helped bring Trump to power.