Par­don me, but par­dons all about power

Chicago Sun-Times - - OPINION - S. E. CUPP Con­tact S. E. Cupp at these­ This col­umn orig­i­nally ap­peared in the New York Daily News. Fol­low S. E. Cupp on Twit­ter: @ se­cupp

In the wake of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s par­don of “Amer­ica’s tough­est sher­iff,” Joe Ar­paio, there’s been no short­age of out­rage from both the left and the right over what many be­lieve was an ill- ad­vised po­lit­i­cal stunt, meant ei­ther to send a mes­sage to other Trump loy­al­ists or to those who would un­der­mine him.

And in­deed, it felt par­tic­u­larly gra­tu­itous of Trump to an­nounce the par­don when he did, him­self ad­mit­ting he was happy to take ad­van­tage of the Hur­ri­cane Har­vey me­dia cov­er­age in which “the rat­ings would be far higher than they would be nor­mally, the hur­ri­cane was just start­ing,” as he said at a press con­fer­ence Mon­day.

But worse than par­don­ing Ar­paio — a se­ri­ously ter­ri­ble hu­man be­ing — and worse than par­don­ing him in the midst of a nat­u­ral dis­as­ter to max­i­mize eye­balls — is the lit­tle- dis­cussed fact that pres­i­den­tial par­dons have be­come crass and cor­rupted and prob­a­bly shouldn’t hap­pen any­more. More on that in a minute.

I’m not go­ing to lit­i­gate here the long list of Ar­paio’s great­est hits — there are count­less cat­a­logs of the das­tardly deeds he has com­mit­ted over the years, earn­ing the dis­dain of lib­er­als and con­ser­va­tives alike.

Lit­tle things, like racial pro­fil­ing, squan­der­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions in state re­sources, mis­han­dling as many as 400 sex crimes ( some in­volv­ing chil­dren), and su­ing jour­nal­ists for writ­ing crit­i­cally of him. Like I said — lit­tle things.

But I will point out that pres­i­dents have the power to par­don, even and es­pe­cially peo­ple we don’t like.

Peo­ple like Jimmy Hoffa. Richard Nixon par­doned the no­to­ri­ous union boss so he’d help Nixon get re­elected.

Or Richard Nixon. Ger­ald Ford par­doned the dis­graced for­mer pres­i­dent a month af­ter he re­signed over Water­gate.

Or New York Yan­kees owner Ge­orge Stein­bren­ner, who was par­doned by Ron­ald Rea­gan for ob­struc­tion of jus­tice and con­spir­ing to make il­le­gal cam­paign do­na­tions to Nixon.

From the stars of the Iran- Con­tra scan­dal, to tax evader Marc Rich to Bill Clin­ton’s own step­brother, count­less un­sa­vories have been awarded re­prieves by pres­i­dents on both sides of the aisle.

When Trump de­fended his par­don of Ar­paio by point­ing out all these oth­ers, that was the lit­eral def­i­ni­tion of “whataboutism” — sug­gest­ing that just be­cause other pres­i­dents have par­doned other lowlifes, there’s noth­ing to see here.

But if, like me, you think Ar­paio is de­spi­ca­ble and should have to spend some hard time in one of his own “con­cen­tra­tion camps” — his words — wear­ing pink un­der­wear and eat­ing meat­less meals, then the com­par­isons are apt and in­struc­tive. Which is to say, all this is proof that par­dons have be­come an un­nec­es­sary po­lit­i­cal weapon of the uniquely pow­er­ful to re­ward their friends or barter for po­lit­i­cal chits.

This was not their orig­i­nal point.

Par­dons were a car­ry­over from the Bri­tish monar­chy, fa­vored by Fed­er­al­ists like Alexan­der Hamil­ton and en­shrined in Ar­ti­cle II, Sec­tion 2 of the Con­sti­tu­tion.

The in­tended pur­pose of par­dons was three­fold. The first was mercy, with­out which Hamil­ton ar­gued “jus­tice would wear a coun­te­nance too san­guinary and cruel.” The sec­ond was to cor­rect an in­jus­tice — a wrong­ful im­pris­on­ment or a re­vi­sion of so­cial pol­icy. And the third, and per­haps most im­por­tant, was in case of in­sur­rec­tion. Hamil­ton ar­gued, “A well- timed of­fer of par­don to the in­sur­gents or rebels may re­store the tran­quil­ity of the com­mon­wealth.” Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton used it thusly to par­don mem­bers of the Whiskey Re­bel­lion, and Abra­ham Lin­coln used it to par­don low- level Con­fed­er­ate of­fi­cers.

Very few of the most con­tro­ver­sial par­dons in mod­ern his­tory served any of these pur­poses. Tak­ing Ar­paio as an ex­am­ple, mercy was pre­ma­ture — he hadn’t been sen­tenced yet, and le­gal ex­perts agreed it was un­likely he’d see jail time. There was no in­jus­tice to cor­rect — he was con­victed for will­fully vi­o­lat­ing the law. And ob­vi­ously, this wasn’t a par­don to end an in­sur­rec­tion.

Par­dons are no longer an im­por­tant tool of fed­er­al­ism, but in­stead the po­lit­i­cal equiv­a­lent of pick­ing dodge ball teams, a way for pres­i­dents to wield power with­out even a mod­icum of shame. And in this re­spect, Trump is be­hav­ing no dif­fer­ently than a long line of pres­i­dents be­fore him.

Pres­i­den­tial par­dons have be­come crass and cor­rupted and prob­a­bly shouldn’t hap­pen any­more.

For­mer Mari­copa County, Arizona, Sher­iff Joe Ar­paio


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