Republicans Weigh Fallout of Pardon for Arizona's Arpaio

Republicans Weigh Fallout of Pardon for Arizona's Arpaio
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A presidential pardon of a former sheriff convicted of criminal contempt of court in a racial profiling case might ordinally set off alarm bells within the GOP, particularly among those aiming to expand the party's reach to a diverse electorate. But with monumental legislative battles directly ahead and an already long list of grievances dividing Republicans and their president, Donald Trump's floating of a pardon for Arizona's Joe Arpaio ranks relatively low on the radar screen.

The president suggested during his campaign rally in Phoenix Tuesday that he planned to pardon the former Maricopa County sheriff, a top supporter who was found guilty last month of defying a court order to halt detentions of people solely suspected of being undocumented immigrants. "He's going to be just fine," Trump said of 85-year-old Arpaio, who faces up to six months in jail and is expected to be sentenced next month.

Trump's indication of a pardon for the controversial ex-sheriff figured to drive another wedge in the Republican Party at a delicate time. The wounds of Charlottesville, Va., were still raw, and lawmakers who had criticized Trump's handling of the events were aiming to bury their heads in must-pass items, including raising the debt ceiling to avoid default and passing a budget to avoid a government shutdown.

Yet the potential pardon doesn't appear to be altering party dynamics in a meaningful way. Trump's hard-line stances on immigration were core to his campaign. He dismissed the GOP playbook on minority outreach and still got elected. He promised to build a wall, featured families of people killed by illegal immigrants at his rallies, claimed that a judge of Mexican heritage could not be impartial, and gave Arpaio a speaking slot at the Republican National Convention. At this point, pardoning the former sheriff may reinforce the tensions between Republicans and Trump, but is unlikely to worsen them.

"This will be highly controversial and highly divisive, but so is almost everything else Trump does these days," said Republican strategist Alex Conant, a former aide to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. "Yes, it will further hurt Republicans’ standing with certain voters, but at this point our problems are much bigger. … It seems unlikely this would be the tipping point."

Instead, consideration of the pardon has been lumped into a variety of issues creating acrimony between Republicans and Trump. The president threatened to shut down the government if lawmakers don't appropriate funds for the border wall into the must-pass spending measure next month. He has also criticized Republicans he will need as allies in passing key legislation.

"This is not going to be a surprise, and I think there are much bigger issues coming down the pike this fall that this will be a fairly brief news story and will quickly be in the past," Dick Wadhams, former chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, said of the pardon. "So much has happened and is going to happen that it’s a small part of his tapestry as president."

Trump Appealing to His Base

Republican operatives say that Trump's open musing about using his executive authority to exonerate Arpaio reflects a strategy aimed at revving up his base at a critical time. “Do the people in this room like Sheriff Joe?” Trump asked thousands of cheering fans at the Phoenix Convention Center earlier this week. "Was Sheriff Joe convicted for doing his job?" Trump did not issue a pardon that evening, arguing that he did not want to cause controversy, but said, "Sheriff Joe can feel good."

It is unclear when Trump would issue a pardon of Arpaio, or whether his public discussion of it was simply intended to stoke the base or influence the sentencing process.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders suggested a pardon might be further off.

"I would imagine they go through the thorough and standard process, and when we have an announcement on what the decision is after that’s completed, we’ll let you know," she told reporters at the White House on Thursday.

Pardon considerations are typically run through the Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney and could take months or years to review. Department guidelines stipulate that applicants wait at least five years after their conviction for consideration, a threshold that Arpaio would not meet. But the Constitution gives presidents broad authority to pardon or commute sentences, and Trump could expedite the process if he chooses.

While issuing this pardon so early into his administration would be rare, presidents have issued highly controversial pardons and commutations (the lessening of sentences) in the past. Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon, which some said cost him the 1976 election, for example. Bill Clinton garnered criticism for pardoning "fugitive financier" Marc Rich. George W. Bush commuted the sentences of two border agents convicted of shooting an unarmed drug smuggler. In the last weeks of his presidency, Obama commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning, who was convicted of leaking classified materials.

Sanders' statement suggested the president was still trying to figure out how best to approach the issue. The White House could wait until after Arpaio's sentencing next month to judge the extent to which a pardon might be necessary. Arpaio is also appealing the conviction, which could take time. The president could wait to see whether it is overturned.

The sheriff and others have argued the original order was vague and that the case brought against him during the Obama administration was politically motivated. Arpaio was charged with violating the court order shortly before the 2016 election, which he lost after serving for 2½ decades. Supporters have tried to paint Arpaio, who is revered by conservatives and despised by liberals and immigration advocates, in a sympathetic light, citing his age and his wife's cancer diagnosis. Some Republican lawmakers in Arizona have urged Trump to pardon the former sheriff.

"A vast majority of Republicans are supportive of a pardon because they think he got a raw deal," said Chad Willems, a Republican strategist in Arizona who is close to Arpaio.

Trump first brought up the consideration of a pardon last month in an interview with Fox News. His comments at Tuesday night's rally were the most pointed signals yet that he planned to follow through.

"I don't know how he backs out of that now," said Willems, noting that the ex-lawman and his legal team are moving ahead with the appeal. "Without a pardon, I think [the judge] is going to give him jail time."

Trump and Arpaio met for the first time in July of 2015, after the Trump campaign reached out to the then-sheriff ahead of a planned campaign rally in Phoenix. But they had developed a remote bond years earlier, when Arpaio launched a probe into the validity of President Obama's birth certificate.

Arpaio endorsed and campaigned for Trump around the state and elsewhere in 2016. And Trump insisted Arpaio be given a speaking slot at the party's national convention after the campaign removed him from the schedule, according to Willems. Trump frequently called Arpaio during the campaign and afterward to check on his ailing wife.

The former sheriff says he will continue to support Trump whether he issues a pardon or not. "I’m with him till the end. As long as he’s the president, I will support him," he said in an interview with Fox Business Network.

Pardon Would Animate Democrats

Notably, a pardon would likely play into Democrats' hands and animate the base around immigration and legal issues, particularly in purple states where they see opportunity to expand the party.

"A pardon of Sheriff Arpaio would be excusing racist and illegal policing policies," said Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and former head of the Department of Justice’s civil rights division under the Obama administration. "If President Trump uses his power to pardon a discredited law enforcement official who persistently engaged in illegal racial profiling of the Latino community, it will not be a dog whistle to the so-called ‘alt right’ and white supremacists, but a bull horn."

Additionally, Democrats have raised concern about the precedent such a pardon would set about the rule of law.

"Granting it would buy Trump a few positive headlines in friendly media outlets at the high cost of another long-term stain on the presidency, Trump’s own reputation and our status as a nation ruled by laws rather than men," said Arizona Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva.

Some Republicans, meanwhile, are already distancing themselves from a potential pardon. Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, one of the most vulnerable Republicans up for re-election next year, said this week he did not support a pardon. Heller represents a state with an increasing number of Hispanic voters, and the state went for Hillary Clinton last year. His primary opponent, however, is aiming to squeeze him on this issue. Danny Tarkanian, who has run unsuccessfully for public office several times in the state, endorsed the pardon and blasted Heller for opposing it.

While the midterms are still far off, the Arpaio pardon could play into a broader argument against Trump and Republicans. "It just becomes again another arrow in the quiver for those who want to attack Republicans and Trump on issues like this to try to drive up the Hispanic vote," said Jon Ralston, a longtime Nevada political analyst. "The Republicans here in Nevada are very, very worried about the impact of Trump and what he is doing on Republican prospects in the state."

In Arizona, Trump has been trying to gin up opposition to Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, who has been critical of the president. He tweeted after the rally:

Flake has not commented yet about Arpaio, but his primary challengers are likely to make immigration an issue in the campaign.

Flake, who helped draft the Gang of Eight bill on comprehensive immigration reform, defended his record on border security in an interview with Fox News and argued he would be a partner on the issue.

"I'm glad the president came to Arizona, and in particular, his visit down to Yuma on the border. We in Arizona have been working together to get a secure border for years,” he said. "We need a secure border and I look forward to working with him on that."

Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that President Obama pardoned Chelsea Manning. In fact, he commuted Manning's 35-year sentence.

Alexis Simendinger contributed to this report.

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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