Trump sought to quash case against Arpaio
President paved way for pardoning friend, partner in ‘birtherism’ long before conviction
As Joseph Arpaio’s federal case headed toward trial this past spring, President Donald Trump wanted to act to help the former Arizona county sheriff who had become a campaign-trail companion and a partner in their crusade against illegal immigration.
The president asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions whether it would be possible for the government to drop the criminal case against Arpaio, but was advised that would be inappropriate, according to three people with knowledge of the conversation.
After talking with Sessions, Trump decided to let the case go to trial, and if Arpaio was convicted, he could grant clemency.
So the president waited, all the while planning to issue a pardon if Arpaio was found in contempt of court for defying a federal judge’s order to stop detaining people merely because he suspected them of being undocumented immigrants.Trump was, in the words of one associate, “gung-ho about it.”
“We knew the president wanted to do this for some time now and had worked to prepare for whenever the moment may come,” said one White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the action.
Responding to questions about Trump’s conversation with Sessions, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “It’s only natural the president would have a discussion with administration lawyers about legal matters. This case would be no different .”
The Justice Department declined to comment.
Bypasses traditional review
Trump’s decision to issue his first pardon Friday evening for Arpaio was the culmination of a five-year political friendship with roots in the “birther” movement to undermine President Barack Obama.
In an extraordinary exercise of presidential power, Trump bypassed the traditional review process to ensure that Arpaio, who was convicted of contempt of court, would face no time in prison.
Trump’s pardon, issued without consulting the Justice Department, raised a storm of protest over the weekend, including from some fellow Republicans, and threatens to become a stain on this president’s legacy. His effort to see if the case could be dropped showed a troubling disregard for the traditional wall between the White House and the Justice Department, and taken together with similar actions could undermine respect for the rule of law, experts said.
Arpaio faced up to six months in prison and was due to be sentenced in October. During his 23 years as Maricopa County sheriff, Arpaio was a lightening rod, in part because of his aggressive crackdown on illegal immigrants. He also was accused of racial profiling, failure to investigate sex crimes, poor treatment of prisoners and other instances of police misconduct. A hero to Trump
To Trump, however, Arpaio is an American hero — a man who enlisted in the military at age 18 after the outbreak of the Korean War, worked as a beat cop in Washington and Las Vegas and as a special agent investigating drug crimes around the world, and then got elected sheriff in the epicenter of the nation’s roiling immigration debate.
Arpaio’s age weighed on Trump, some of his confidants said. The 71-year-old president could not stomach seeing an 85-year-old he admired as a lawand-order icon wasting away in a jail cell.
Trump’s pardon of Arpaio “was his backhand way of doing what he wanted to do at the front end,” said Robert Bauer, a former White House counsel in the Obama administration. “He just wanted to kill the prosecution off. He couldn’t do it the one way, so he ended up doing it the other way. This is just another vivid demonstration of how far removed from an appropriate exercise of the pardon power this was.”
Presidents can set law enforcement priorities, but they are expected to steer clear of involvement in specific cases to avoid the perception of politicizing the impartial administration of justice.
Trump and Arpaio became brothers in arms five years ago. As they saw it, the two provocateurs were pursuing justice in the form of supposed evidence that Obama’s birth certificate was fraudulent.
As caretakers of the false “birther” conspiracy, Trump and Arpaio relentlessly probed Obama’s birth in Hawaii and nurtureda lie to damage the legitimacy of the nation’ s first African-American president.
“There was no collusion ,” Ar pa io said in an interview Saturday. “I started my birth certificate investigation around the same time he did his.”
The Manhattan mogul sent Arpaio a fan letter and flattered him on social media. “Congratulations to @RealSheriffJoe on his successful Cold Case Posse investigation which claims BarackObama’s ‘birth certificate’ is fake,” Trump tweeted in 2012.
Three years later, in July of 2015, when Trump swooped into Arpaio’s hometown of Phoenix for the first mega-rally of his upstart presidential campaign, the sheriff returned the favor by testifying on stage to “the silent majority” that Trump had begun to awaken.
Backstage at that rally, Arpaio recalled, the two men talked about their shared birthday — June 14, which is Flag Day. Their friendship blossomed and Arpaio became a fan favorite at Trump rallies.
While Trump went on to win last November, Arpaio lost his reelection—and that was the least of his troubles. Process set in motion
Federal prosecutors filed criminal charges against Ar pa io last October. Trump was paying attention to the case and he called Arpaio to check in on him around Thanksgiving, according to the former sheriff. That’s when Arpaio told the president-elect that his wife, Ava, had cancer.
On July 31, Arpaio was convicted by a judge, as opposed to a jury. Arpaio and his lawyer, Mark Gold man, said they did not contact Trump during this period, nor ask anyone in the administration for a pardon.
Inside the West Wing, the pardon process was set in motion. Seniorpolicy adviser Stephen Miller, who had gotten to know Arpaio through their work on immigration policy during the campaign, advocated internally for the pardon, as did then-chief strategist Stephen Bannon, according to people familiar with the deliberations.
The White House Counsel’s Office had quietly begun preparing the paperwork and communications staffers had started drawing up talking points when Trump foreshadowed his intentions on Aug. 15 by retweeting a Fox News story reporting that the president was “seriously considering” pardoning Arpaio.
Around the same time, Arpaio received a call from the White House Counsel’s Office asking whether he would accept a pardon if one were issued. He told the presidential lawyer that he would, according to Goldman.
As of Saturday, Arpaio had not heard from Trump personally but said if the president were to call he would advise him to take a lesson from his Arizona adventures.
“If they can do it to me, they can do it to anybody, including the president of the United States,” Arpaio said. Alluding to the Russia probe, he said, “He’s been under a lot of fire right now, him and his family, and I’ve been through the fire quite a while.”