Even par­dons have lim­its

Walker County Messenger - - Front Page -

Pres­i­dent Trump had the right to par­don Sher­iff Joe Ar­paio of Ari­zona’s Mari­copa County af­ter he was con­victed of de­fy­ing a fed­eral judge. But just be­cause a pres­i­dent has the right to do some­thing doesn’t make it the right thing to do.

Those are two dif­fer­ent ques­tions, and Trump’s par­don sym­bol­ized many of the worst in­stincts of his pres­i­dency: his con­tempt for the rule of law and the role of fed­eral judges; his ap­peal to racial fears and pho­bias; and his will­ing­ness to di­vide the coun­try and pan­der to his po­lit­i­cal base, no mat­ter how deeply he of­fends na­tional tra­di­tions and val­ues.

And that’s not the worst of it. Trump’s par­don raises a deeply trou­bling ques­tion: Is he sig­nal­ing his fu­ture in­ten­tions? Is he ready to cause a con­sti­tu­tional cri­sis, us­ing his power to ab­ro­gate any con­vic­tions em­a­nat­ing from spe­cial counsel Robert Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Rus­sian med­dling in last year’s elec­tion?

Pro­fes­sor Cas Mudde of the Univer­sity of Ge­or­gia, an ex­pert on po­lit­i­cal ex­trem­ism, told the Wash­ing­ton Post that Ar­paio’s ex­am­ple could un­der­mine Mueller’s work: “There are sev­eral key peo­ple in (the pres­i­dent’s) for­mer en­tourage who are at the point of cav­ing to pres­sure to work­ing with the Mueller in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Trump has shown them that they have noth­ing to fear, be­cause he can and will par­don them, ir­re­spec­tive of the cir­cum­stances.”

Trump and his sup­port­ers are de­fend­ing his ac­tions by re­call­ing how past pres­i­dents abused the par­don power. And yes, Bill Clin­ton made a huge mis­take ex­on­er­at­ing the fugi­tive fi­nancier Marc Rich af­ter Rich’s wife con­trib­uted heav­ily to Demo­cratic causes.

But Ar­paio is in a very dif­fer­ent cat­e­gory. He was a sher­iff sworn to up­hold the law. In­stead, he used his po­si­tion to tar­get His­panic im­mi­grants for per­sis­tent ha­rass­ment. When he de­fied a court or­der to stop, a fed­eral judge found him guilty last month of crim­i­nal con­tempt, cit­ing the sher­iff’s “fla­grant dis­re­gard” for the law.

Trump said Ar­paio was con­victed for “do­ing his job” when the ex­act op­po­site is true. The sher­iff corrupted his po­si­tion and vi­o­lated his oath, and now the pres­i­dent has en­dorsed that cor­rup­tion, a record that deeply of­fends true con­ser­va­tives like the ones writ­ing the ed­i­to­rial page of the Wall Street Jour­nal.

“Par­don­ing Mr. Ar­paio sends a mes­sage that law en­forcers can ig­nore court or­ders and get away with it,” they wrote. “All you need is a po­lit­i­cal ally in the White House or the gov­er­nor’s man­sion. Down that road lies an­ar­chy.”

Trump is clearly Ar­paio’s ally, even his soul brother. Like the sher­iff, the pres­i­dent has re­peat­edly tan­gled with fed­eral judges. And like the sher­iff, Trump has pur­sued a cyn­i­cal and de­struc­tive strat­egy, de­mo­niz­ing racial mi­nori­ties as a way of gal­va­niz­ing his po­lit­i­cal base. Both men were early pro­po­nents of the “birther” move­ment that tried to brand Barack Obama as for­eign-born, nonChris­tian and non-Amer­i­can.

Ar­paio had the power to ar­rest His­pan­ics and de­tain them un­der harsh con­di­tions he openly called “con­cen­tra­tion camps.” Trump didn’t have a badge, so he had to set­tle for call­ing Mex­i­can im­mi­grants “rapists,” ad­vo­cat­ing a ban on Mus­lims en­ter­ing the coun­try and say­ing the neo-Nazis that marched in Char­lottesville in­cluded some “very fine peo­ple.”

But Trump has one power Ar­paio never had: the pres­i­den­tial par­don. And fears about how he may use it in the fu­ture are clearly jus­ti­fied. Af­ter all, Trump has re­peat­edly tried and failed to thwart the le­gal process through other means.

For­mer FBI di­rec­tor James Comey has tes­ti­fied that Trump de­manded his per­sonal “loy­alty” and urged him to drop a crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion of for­mer na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser Michael Flynn. When Comey re­sisted, he was fired.

Trump has openly de­rided his own At­tor­ney Gen­eral, Jeff Ses­sions, for re­cus­ing him­self from the Rus­sian probe and al­low­ing a spe­cial counsel to be ap­pointed. He has de­nounced the spe­cial counsel’s work as “the sin­gle great­est WITCH HUNT in Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal his­tory -- led by some very bad and con­flicted peo­ple.” And Trump’s con­fi­dant Chris Ruddy has said on PBS: “I think he’s con­sid­er­ing per­haps ter­mi­nat­ing the spe­cial counsel. I think he’s weigh­ing that op­tion.”

Trump is quickly learn­ing the lim­its of his power. He can­not con­trol judges -- or jour­nal­ists, for that mat­ter. Repub­li­cans on Capi­tol Hill are openly de­fy­ing him. Fir­ing Mueller would get very messy.

But is­su­ing par­dons to Mueller’s tar­gets? No one can stop him. There are no checks and bal­ances here. Ex­cept for one thing: A pres­i­dent can­not par­don him­self to es­cape im­peach­ment. So in the end, no pres­i­dent -- and no sher­iff -- is com­pletely above the law. Steve and Cokie Roberts can be con­tacted by email at steve­cokie@gmail.com.

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