I’ve always had difficulty with the presidential power to pardon. It’s an absolute power that seems so out of place with the rest of our Constitution. Nevertheless, it was constitutional for President Trump to pardon Joe Arpaio this past week, but it really wasn’t very wise.
The former Sheriff of Maricopa County was convicted of criminal contempt of court for refusing to comply with a court order. A large part of the evidence against him was his own words on national television and radio declaring his intention to ignore the order and just keep doing what he’d been doing. Now, whether you believe that order was right or wrong, there is no question that it was issued by a legitimate authority and that it was ignored by Arpaio. In short, he was clearly guilty.
Then, without going through any of the normal procedures or the Office of Pardon Attorney or even waiting for sentencing to be completed, President Trump decided to pardon him. Many are talking about the procedural problems with Trump’s actions, of which there are many, but there is also a personal cost to Arpaio that I doubt he even realizes.
While many have tried to demonize “Sheriff Joe” as an evil, corrupt, racist cop, no one can deny that he’s always been committed to enforcing the law, no matter who’s involved. Among other saltier quotes, he’s said that, “I’m an equal-opportunity law-enforcement guy – I lock everybody up,” and, “I have compassion, I’ve told you people that over and over again. Enforcing the law overrides my compassion.” What he’s been saying, in essence, is that there are consequences for our actions and we all have to face those consequences. Most of us would agree with that sentiment and respect it.
It’s not a revolutionary sentiment. It used to be simple common sense. Pastor Charles Stanley has said, “One of Satan’s most deceptive and powerful ways of defeating us is to get us to believe a lie. And the biggest lie is that there are no consequences to our own doing.” Author Phillip K. Dick says, “This, to me, is the ultimately heroic trait of ordinary people; they say no to the tyrant and they calmly take the consequences of this resistance.” Finally, the great poet, Grace Jones, said, “Everyone has to make their own decisions. I still believe in that. You just have to be able to accept the consequences without complaining.” (Yes, I just quoted Grace Jones. You have to admit though; she is right.)
The problem many seem to be missing here is that Trump just helped turn Arpaio into the “Do as I say, not as I do” type. With this pardon, Joe Arpaio’s message has become, “Actions have consequences…unless you know someone in power who can get you off the hook.” His image of integrity became one of hypocrisy with this single incident. Before you start shaking your heads and making that “tsk” sound at me, I do understand that the action of issuing the pardon was Trump’s and not Arpaio’s, but it was Arpaio who reinforced the pardon as a positive. He accepted it enthusiastically and gratefully, saying, “I’m very appreciative of the president issuing that pardon. It shows how he backs up law enforcement.” The thing is, this wasn’t backing up law enforcement. It was a message that cops don’t have to follow the same rules as the rest of us…as long as they’re friends with the President. It should actually be very insulting to every decent law enforcement officer in the nation.
Beyond his appreciation, Arpaio has even asked the court to vacate his conviction. That is not the action of a man who is willing to accept the consequences for his actions. That is the action of a man who has no respect for the legal system whenever it fails to conform to his desires…a very similar attitude to that of President Trump. That is not the tough, principled man that Sheriff Joe Arpaio claims to be. That is a man who is only “law and order” when it suits him.
One last thing: Donald Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio before the whole court process was completed…before sentencing. Considering Arpaio’s age and his long career of public service, it would’ve been reasonable for the President to commute his sentence had he received any actual jail time. In that way, the conviction would’ve still stood, sending the message that the law does matter and it does apply to everyone. Instead, we got President Trump issuing a full pardon where he didn’t even mention any specifics of the case, the validity of the charges or even the conviction itself, mainly because none of that mattered to him.
If a decent person was standing next to a guy and nodding their head in agreement while he was talking about the importance of Freedom of Speech and how differing viewpoints should be treated fairly, but then he went into a tirade about how Jews are evil or throwing around the “N-word” or singing the praises of the Confederacy, that decent person would walk away and condemn that guy if they were truly decent. Similarly, the President, who’s pushed himself as a law and order guy, similarly went off the rails with this pardon by showing his true colors and Joe Arpaio, instead of walking away from him when he did so, not only continued to stand by him nodding his head, he openly endorsed his sentiments.
Your personal integrity translates into consistency in your actions and that consistency is what builds credibility with others. With the help of Donald Trump, Joe Arpaio has shown to everyone a major lack of consistency. As a result, he has shown that his level of integrity isn’t nearly as high as he portrays and, for that part of the American public who are still capable of critical thinking (i.e. not those who’ll automatically hate everything about him because he’s an “enemy” nor those who’ll automatically love everything about him because he’s a “friend”), he’s effectively lost his credibility. And that credibility is nearly impossible to get back once it’s gone. I hope Arpaio enjoys his pardon. By the time he realizes what it’s actually cost him, there’ll be nothing he can do to diminish that damage.