President Donald Trump announced Friday evening that he is pardoning controversial former sheriff Joe Arpaio, who had been convicted of criminal contempt.
In a statement, Trump called Arpaio a “worthy candidate” for a presidential pardon and said his life exemplifies “selfless public service.”
On July 31, Arpaio was convicted of criminal contempt of court after he was deemed to have deliberately ignored a federal judge’s order to stop detaining people solely on the belief that they were in the country illegally, per USA Today. Arpaio, the sheriff of Mericopa County, Arizona, which includes Phoenix, and his deputies continued to do so for 17 months after the judge’s order, in a move that many accused of being racial profiling.
The White House statement Friday did not mention Arpaio’s conviction, merely saying that he “continued his life’s work of protecting the public from the scourges of crime and illegal immigration” while sheriff.
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Arpaio has also been accused of other misdeeds, with a judge ruling in 2008 and 2010 that jails in Maricopa County did not meet constitutional standards for medical care, quality of food and living quarters for inmates, per the Arizona Republic. The Department of Justice also investigated Arpaio for potential abuse of power, though charges were never filed, per the New York Times.
According to the Associated Press, Arpaio has also been accused of forcing inmates to live in outdoor tents in triple-digit heat and wear pink underwear.
Still, Arpaio’s hard-line stance on immigration matched up well with Trump’s rhetoric on immigration and proposal to build a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, and Arpaio specifically cited immigration as a central issue when he endorsed Trump in January 2016, per CBS News.
On Tuesday, during a rally in Phoenix, Arizona, Trump hinted that he would pardon Arpaio, saying he would be “just fine.”
“I won’t do it tonight because I don’t want to cause any controversy,” the president said, after asking, “Was Sheriff Joe convicted for doing his job?”
Arpaio had been facing sentencing in October, per the Washington Post. He faced up to six months in prison. Speaking with NBC News, Arpaio said he was “very humbled” by Trump’s pardon and thanked him for “standing by me and standing by law enforcement.”
In a tweet more than an hour after the pardon was announced, Trump called Arpaio an “American patriot.”
In his own tweet, Arpaio thanked Trump again and called his conviction a “political witch hunt by holdovers in the Obama justice department.”
The judge who found Arpaio guilty, U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton, was appointed in 2000 by President Bill Clinton at the recommendation of former Arizona Senator and Republican Jon Kyl, per the Washington Post and KSAZ. She was confirmed to her seat via a voice vote.
In response, Democrats slammed Trump’s decision on social media, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, a Democrat, said in a statement that Trump’s pardon was a “slap in the face to the people of Maricopa County, especially the Latino community.”
Jeff Flake, one of Arizona’s two Republican Senators, also publicly broke with Trump’s decision, writing on Twitter that he “would have preferred that the President honor the judicial process and let it take its course.” Trump has criticized Flake in the past, calling him “weak” on crime and the border, and there has been speculation that he would support a primary challenge against him.
Arizona’s other Republican Senator, John McCain, who has also feuded with Trump, released a statement criticizing the decision as well.
“The President has the authority to make this pardon, but doing so at this time undermines his claim for the respect of rule of law as Mr. Arpaio has shown no remorse for his actions,” McCain said in the statement, noting that “no one is above the law.”
Arpaio is Trump’s first presidential pardon. Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, pardoned 212 people during his time in office, with his first pardon coming in December 2010, a little less than two years after he took office. Trump’s pardon is the earliest for any president since George H.W. Bush in 1989, according to Department of Justice records.
Trump’s pardon came as much of the nation focused on Texas, where Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm, is scheduled to make landfall sometime Friday night or Saturday morning. Harvey is predicted to cause widespread, even “catastrophic” flooding, and Trump himself tweeted about the storm four times on Friday afternoon and evening.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer explicitly drew a connection between the events on Twitter, posting that Trump was “so sad, so weak” and stating that “the only reason to (pardon Arpaio) right now is to use the cover of Hurricane Harvey to avoid scrutiny.”
Soon after Arpaio’s pardon, more news within the White House broke as controversial adviser to the president Sebastian Gorka departed the administration amid reports that he either resigned or was fired.
This is a breaking story and will be updated with more details.