There is nothing new about presidential pardons that don’t smell quite right.

Bill Clinton pardoned Marc Rich, a fantastically wealthy financier whose wife had donated lavishly to Democratic candidates and causes. Richard Nixon commuted the sentence of Teamster Leader Jimmy Hoffa, who was serving time on racketeering charges, just before the union endorsed Nixon’s reelection campaign.

And Nixon’s own pardon, extended to him after his resignation by his successor Gerald Ford, prompted outrage from those who wanted to see him punished for his role in the Watergate scandal.

But none of these famously questionable pardons smell as bad as President Trump’s free pass for former Maricopa County Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio. This one stinks to high heaven.

Arpaio has become a poster child for Trump-style “law and order,” in which due process, individual liberty and equal treatment under the law take a back seat to the predjudices of people in power. Arpaio was convicted earlier this year for lying to investigators and ignoring court orders regarding his systematic violations of civil rights, in which people were arrested and detained because they looked like they might be undocumented immigrants.

Arpaio was charged with a crime when he was ordered to cease and desist racial profiling by a federal judge appointed by President George W. Bush, but he kept doing it anyway. Another federal judge found him guilty of criminal contempt.


There is an important distinction that needs to be made between what Arpaio did and the underlying crimes in the other controversial pardons. Arpaio was not forgiven for violating an ordinary law — he was found guilty of violating the Constitution itself, using the awesome power of the state to enforce his personal gut instinct and not laws produced by the legislative process and interpreted by the courts.

Trump says that Arpaio was just “doing his job” and Trump surrogates claim that this pardon was only an act of mercy for an 85-year-old public servant. But what “America’s toughest sheriff” did is a direct attack on the rule of law, and will have repercussions far beyond Mariposa County.

The president has publicly delivered a terrible message to law enforcement: The laws are not for you. The vast majority of officers have too much professional pride and commitment to duty to act on that, but they will have to overcome renewed skepticism from those who wonder whether a person of color can get a fair shake in this country.

Just as with his recent comments about the “good people” mixed in with the neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Charlotte, Virginia, the president has inflamed racial and ethnic tensions in order to please a segment of his base. It’s a dangerous way to run the country, and we all will be paying for it.

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