Twitter Tracker: Why Trump Retweeted in Defense of His Controversial Pardon

Donald Trump

Each day, Variety dissects the inspiration and meaning behind one of President Donald Trump’s tweets.

Today’s (re)tweet:

What’s behind it: While Trump has been tweeting about the magnitude of the devastation from Hurricane Harvey and rescue operations, he’s also chiming in on the response to his pardon on Friday of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. On Monday, he retweeted conservative columnist Katie Pavlich.

Ben Rhodes, a former foreign policy adviser to President Barack Obama, had tweeted that “Obama used his pardon and commutation power to give a second chance to people who deserved empathy, not racists who showed none.”

Pavlich responded back to Rhodes by writing, “Your boss pardoned a traitor who gave U.S. enemies state secrets, he also pardoned a terrorist who killed Americans. Spare us the lecture.”

Trump then retweeted the exchange.

Why now: Trump announced the pardon at a curious moment — on Friday evening, just as the media’s attention was fixated on the looming threat of Hurricane Harvey hitting landfall.

Was it an attempt to obscure a controversial decision — sort of an extreme version of the Friday news dump — knowing that much of the media attention will be fixated elsewhere?

If it was, it didn’t stop the fallout, what with criticism coming from Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), a statement of disagreement from House Speaker Paul Ryan and a flurry of statements in opposition from civil rights groups.

Alex Conant, communications strategist and former communications director for Marco Rubio, argued on Twitter that trying to bury the Arpaio news doesn’t work in today’s media environment.

“News cycles don’t work like they used to,” he wrote. “Controversies now grow over the course of days, as outrage builds on social media & people are forced to take positions.”

So it is not surprising that Trump has taken to a defense of his decision in a familiar way — by pointing to what his predecessor did.

What’s the fallout: Over the weekend, as the hurricane was battering the Texas coast and the storm was heading to Houston, The Washington Post reported that Trump asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions last spring whether the case against Arpaio could be dropped, but was told that would be inappropriate.

So there are still questions as to what Trump asked of Sessions and how Sessions responded.

As for Obama’s pardons, Pavlich appears to be referring to Chelsea Manning, who was sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking classified information, and Oscar Lopez Rivera, a Puerto Rican nationalist and militant sentenced to 55 years for “seditious conspiracy” and other charges. His group, Armed Forces of National Liberation, was responsible for a series of bombings in major U.S. cities in the 1970s and was a target of an anti-terrorism task force.

Obama’s moves were controversial, but they were not pardons. They were commutations. Manning served seven years, and Rivera served 35. There is a difference.

Supporters of Manning and Rivera have characterized them as political prisoners, while Arpaio has tried to discredit the judicial process as politically motivated.

Obama’s commutations were controversial, and in light of Trump’s pardons, they were brought up not just by Pavlich, but by journalists.