WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said that he chose to announce his pardon of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio just as Hurricane Harvey was hitting landfall because “I assumed the ratings would be far higher than they would be normally.”
Trump, appearing at a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House along with Finnish President Sauli Niinistö, defended his decision to issue the pardon. Arpaio was convicted last month of criminal contempt of court for refusing to obey an official order barring his practices of detaining undocumented immigrants.
“A lot of people think it was the right thing to do, John,” he said, replying to a question from John Roberts of Fox News. “And actually, in the middle of a hurricane, even though it was a Friday evening, I assumed the ratings would be far higher than they would be normally.”
Trump called Arpaio a “patriot,” and he listed a number of controversial pardons and commutations that presidents have made in the past, including President Bill Clinton’s pardon of Marc Rich and President Barack Obama’s commutation of the sentence of Chelsea Manning.
“He’s done a great job for the people of Arizona,” Trump said. “He’s very strong on borders, very strong on illegal immigration. He is loved in Arizona.”
Trump’s action was criticized by civil rights groups and even members of his own party, including Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona). There was also curiosity over why Trump made the announcement at a time when the media was fixated on the disaster emergency along the Gulf Coast. News networks interrupted their coverage to report on the pardon, putting the hurricane tracker on a split screen.
Trump also said that Arpaio was “unbelievable unfairly” by the Obama administration. The Justice Department’s civil rights division issued a scathing investigative report in 2011 on Arpaio’s policing practices and that of his department.
Trump opened the press conference by pledging “100%” support for those who were displaced or suffered loss from Hurricane Harvey. He plans to visit Texas on Tuesday, and may make a return visit to the state as well as Louisiana on Saturday.
“Nothing can break the unbreakable spirit of Texas, and of Louisiana,” Trump said, adding, “We will get through this. We will come out stronger.”
He dismissed any concerns that federal funding for hurricane relief would be tied to negotiations over funding the government past Sept. 30, or that it could in any way be linked to a government shutdown. “You are going to see very rapid action from Congress, certainly from your president,” he said.
Among those at the press conference were Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.
Trump also again blasted the North American Free Trade Agreement, and even suggested that the U.S. would begin the process of pulling out of the pact as a way of countering Mexico. He said that Mexico had been “difficult” so far as the process of renegotiation begins.
At one point a Finnish journalist asked Trump if he considered Russia a “security threat.” “I consider many countries as security threats,” Trump said.
The journalist, Paula Vilén, was sitting near another Finnish journalist, Maria Annala. When Niinistö later called on Annala, Trump thought he was allowing Vilen to again ask a question.
“No, she is not the same lady,” Niinistö said.
Annala joked, “We have a lot of blonde women in Finland.”