It is traditional for a president of the United States who visits a service academy to pardon cadets for relatively minor infractions as a way of ceremonially “joining their ranks” and promoting a sense of unity and camaraderie. The president typically does this from the podium to the cheer of the units in front of him.
This lighter side of a presidential visit nevertheless points to the power of the commander in chief to change the lives of those he chooses to pardon. More serious are the pardons a president confers toward the end of his tenure after sifting through numerous petitions to find worthy candidates that may fit the profile he is looking for.
This is not the case with Joe Arpaio, the former Sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona. Seven months into his term, President Trump pardoned him before Arpaio’s sentencing for criminal contempt of court for his profiling of Latinos, after he was ordered to stop by the courts. Arpaio’s case represents one of the 6 most serious and controversial presidential pardons or commutations in modern times.
The first was the pardon of President Richard Nixon in 1974 by his successor Gerald Ford for a possible indictment concerning obstruction of justice in relation to the Watergate affair that saw Republicans spying on Democrats. The second was that of former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger who was pardoned in 1992 by President George H. W. Bush for lying about his role in the Iran-Contra Affair that featured the secret sale of arms to Nicaragua through Iran.
The third was the pardon of Marc Rich by President Clinton in 2001 after Rich fled in 1983 to Switzerland without paying tens of millions in taxes and using his money to influence presidential forgiveness. The fourth was the commutation of sentence for Lewis “Scooter” Libby by President George W. Bush in 2007 for perjury and obstruction of justice that also entailed the outing of Valerie Plame, a CIA operative whose identity he leaked.
The fifth was President Obama’s commutation of Chelsea Manning’s 35-year sentence for passing military secrets on Iraq and Afghanistan to WeakiLeaks. As serious and controversial these presidential actions have been however, for Latinos, they don’t hold a candle to the case of Joe Arpaio and his utter contempt for the community that gave Arizona its character.
There are so many, especially Latinos in Arizona that suffered illegal racial profiling and other humiliating actions by this character, that his conviction raised the hope that he would suffer some of the same consequences he created for others such as living in a tent concentration camp, eating reduced meals without salt and pepper and doing his time in pink underwear as he had others do during the height of his power. To many, his pardon shows that the rule of law so many espouse as essential to living in America does not really apply to everyone.
The pardon puts this second in command of the “Birther” Movement inside the fictional reality of a Trump sphere where rules do not apply to those inside and if caught breaking the law, there is always a presidential pardon that will make everything OK again. The rest of us will have to make do with living in a real world.
As Sheriff, Joe Arpaio is said to have personified law and order. His actions during his tenure and his pardon now shows that he failed in his brush with the rule of law.