Why Donald Trump pardoned the unpardonable Joe Arpaio
It is not hard to understand why Trump would pardon Arpaio. The two share dreary similarities: a willingness to scapegoat undocumented immigrants for the ills of the nation… But more than that… Trump contents himself with acts of spiteful erasure, gestures of teardown that require no more effort than a tweet or a signature.
Who will go first, President Trump or our constitutional order? The question presses after the president’s most recent affront to our system of governance, his unpardonable pardon of former Maricopa County, Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, announced last night in a presidential tweet.
This is hardly an ordinary exercise of the power to pardon, granted to the president under the terms of the constitution. The constitution gives the president the power to pardon to serve the interests of justice and mercy – to correct cases in which federal courts have acted with unwarranted severity. This is the principle that informs the practice.
In pardoning Arpaio, Trump has acted in contempt of this principle. 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.
It is not hard to understand why Trump would pardon Arpaio. The two share dreary similarities: a willingness to scapegoat undocumented immigrants for the ills of the nation, a cavalier disregard for the inconveniences of legal constraints, an affection for strongman braggadocio. But more than that, the pardon is an expression of Trump’s governing style in distilled form.
Lacking the vision, tenacity, commitment and acumen to govern and shape policy, Trump contents himself with acts of spiteful erasure, gestures of teardown that require no more effort than a tweet or a signature.
Having lied that he had a “beautiful”, “terrific” and “unbelievable” health insurance plan to replace Obamacare; having lied that he had a detailed tax reform plan; having lied that he had a detailed plan to replace our crumbling infrastructure; having lied that Mexico would foot the bill for his “beautiful” wall, Trump works to keep his base in check with cheap yet profoundly damaging acts of undoing.
We have sadly grown familiar with the undoings of our unpresident. In his most recent tweets and “off-script” speeches, Trump has only raised the volume of his relentless attacks on the free press, the mainstay of democratic self-governance, and has chosen to undo the pretense that the president should work to unite a badly divided nation. And in his (un)signings, this unpresident has undone the Paris climate accord, has undone the participation of transgender people in the military, and now has undone the conviction of a renegade sheriff.
What unites these acts of teardown are their cheapness, cynicism and recklessness. They are cheap: requiring nothing in the way of the hard work of shaping and negotiating policy. This is a politics of fatigue, indolence elevated to administrative practice. They are cynical: the performance of a president-cum-snake-oil-salesman, working to dupe his credulous audience that his bogus recipes constitute the promised potent tonic. And they are reckless, profoundly reckless, as they represent a contempt for the rule of law and for the norms of constitutional democracy.
In pardoning Arpaio, our unpresident has undone the principle that informs the practice of pardon; he has sided with the lawless renegade against our federal judiciary and the constitution itself.
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