President Donald Trump has issued a pardon to controversial Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted in July of being in contempt of court after refusing to curtail practices of imprisoning those he suspected of being illegal immigrants.
“Throughout his time as Sheriff, Arpaio continued his life’s work of protecting the public from the scourges of crime and illegal immigration,” the White House said in a statement.
The Trump administration said that “Arpaio’s life and career, which began at the age of 18 when he enlisted in the military after the outbreak of the Korean War, exemplify selfless public service.” They added that at 85 years old, Arpaio “is worthy candidate for a Presidential pardon.”
The move is an unsurprising one, given that, just days before, Trump had hinted at pardoning Arpaio at a Phoenix rally.
“I’ll make a prediction. I think he’s going to be just fine. But I won’t do it tonight because I don’t want to cause any controversy,” Trump said of pardoning Arpaio on Tuesday, adding that he “can feel good.”
Arpaio, who’s been called “America’s Toughest Sheriff,” was an outspoken critic of illegal immigrants and a vocal supporter of Trump, appearing alongside him on the campaign trail last year. He gained a reputation and saw considerable backlash for his unconventional treatment of prisoners.
He operated an outdoor “tent city” in which inmates lived in tents, including during periods in the extreme Arizona summer heat.
Arpaio was the sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, from 1993 to 2016, when he lost a bid for re-election to Democrat Paul Penzone. Penzone shut down the tent city jail, saying that there was no evidence that it deterred crime.
The pardon was just one of a flurry of news items to hit on Friday evening, as much of the media attention is focused on Hurricane Harvey as it threatens the Gulf Coast of Texas. It’s a classic tactic of announcing controversial moves to try to minimize the fallout.
In addition to the pardon, another controversial figure who worked in the White House, Sebastian Gorka, announced his resignation. And earlier on Friday, Trump signed a directive that prohibits transgender individuals from serving in the armed forces.
Trump’s action in pardoning Arpaio is unusual in that such actions typically come at the end of a presidential term. Several news outlets reported that the Department of Justice was not involved in the decision to pardon Arpaio.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) wrote on Twitter, “I would have preferred that the President honor the judicial process.”
Others suggested that the pardon could be sending a message for any future figures who may be facing indictment, particularly as Robert Mueller continues his investigation into whether Trump campaign officials had any ties to Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Civil rights groups quickly criticized the move.
“This pardon sends 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,” said Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said that Arpaio “demonstrates an embarrassing contempt for the rule of law by hiding behind a disgraceful pardon to escape the punishment our laws prescribe for lawbreakers. Donald Trump shares in that disgrace and contempt through his exploitation of the pardoning powers of the presidency.”
Arpaio thanked Trump in a series of tweets, calling his conviction a “political witch hunt by holdovers in the Obama justice department!”