As many Democrats and Republicans unite in outrage at the recent presidential pardon of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the targets of former FBI Director Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference during last year’s election received an unambiguous message from President Donald Trump: refuse to cooperate with federal investigators, and you will be pardoned.
Notorious for incessantly stepping beyond the limitations of his legal authority, Arpaio kept butting heads with the Justice Department for years after repeatedly refusing to cease racially profiling suspects throughout Maricopa County, Arizona. Besides targeting Hispanics, Arpaio became infamous for physically abusing inmates, denying medical attention to detainees, and running a self-proclaimed concentration camp known as “Tent City.”
Convicted of criminal contempt last year for defying a 2011 court order to cease arresting people based on their race, Arpaio received a presidential pardon on Friday before even receiving his sentence from a federal judge. Although many Democrats and Republicans immediately criticized the president for pardoning a racially-biased supporter of his campaign, Trump issued the pardon as a signal to his associates under investigation by the special prosecutor.
“Mr. Arpaio was found guilty of criminal contempt for continuing to illegally profile Latinos living in Arizona based on their perceived immigration status in violation of a judge’s orders,” Sen. John McCain said in a recent statement. “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.”
“Prejudice doesn’t deserve a pardon,” stated Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez. “Donald Trump just gave a free pass to his buddy Joe Arpaio, the nation’s most notorious agent of racism and bigotry, during a natural disaster that could hurt millions. That’s not presidential, that’s a coward.”
According to historical precedence, Trump has the power to preemptively issue presidential pardons before criminal charges have been filed against his associates. On September 8, 1974, President Gerald Ford issued an absolute pardon for all offenses committed by his predecessor, Richard Nixon, during his term in office.
As Mueller’s team reportedly digs into Trump’s financial records, the president has used his pardoning power as a signal to his associates to remain loyal in the face of possible criminal charges. In his own emails, Donald Trump Jr. jumped at the opportunity to collude with the Russian government during the presidential campaign with Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner, while Roger Stone repeatedly tweeted with a hacker working for the Russian government. Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was forced to resign after lying about his meeting with the Russian Ambassador, as Attorney General Jeff Sessions later recused himself from any investigations into Russian interference after providing false statements during his confirmation process.
Although the Constitution allows Trump to issue pardons for his family and associates, the president does not have the power to pardon himself. The only reason Trump refuses to openly attack Vice President Mike Pence is because the president knows that Pence could eventually become the first person capable of offering him a presidential pardon if Trump is impeached.