Trump hints at pardon for criminal sheriff

Joe Public: During his 24-year career, Arpaio became well known across the country. © Getty

At a rally in Arizona, the president suggested that he may pardon Joe Arpaio, the local ex-sheriff whose controversial methods have earned him a criminal record. Would this be right?

In January 2016, when Donald Trump was still just an unlikely candidate for the Republican nomination, Joe Arpaio took a gamble. The sheriff of Arizona’s Maricopa County publicly backed the candidate, calling him “a great patriot”. The endorsement boosted Trump’s campaign.

The president has not forgotten this. Arpaio, now 85, has since been voted out of office and convicted of contempt of court; he faces up to six months in jail. But at a rally in Arizona on Tuesday, Trump suggested that he might pardon his supporter.

“I think he’s going to be just fine,” he said to loud cheers. He returned Arpaio’s compliment, calling him “a great American patriot”.

Trump and Arpaio are natural allies. In his 24 years as Maricopa’s top law enforcer, Arpaio took a hard line on crime and illegal immigration, anticipating Trump’s own views. He called himself “America’s toughest sheriff” and thrived on publicity. He even spread Trump’s “birther” conspiracy theory.

As sheriff, Arpaio often employed controversial methods — the terrible conditions in Phoenix’s outdoor “Tent City” jail kept making headlines. But it was his stance on immigrants that got him into the most trouble.

The federal government is broadly responsible for immigration policy, but it often gets state and local officials to help it identify illegal aliens. Arpaio’s office performed this role.

However, in 2011 the Department of Justice ruled that Arpaio’s agents were discriminating against Latinos, often arresting them over minor issues so that they could check their legal statuses. Multiple times, judges ordered Arpaio to stop looking for illegal immigrants. He continued.

The legal battles dragged on for years, and may explain why the people of Maricopa County got rid of him last November. His refusal to obey the judges led to his criminal conviction in July. He maintains his innocence. If the president pardoned him, it would shield him against jail and send out a clear message to other sheriffs in the country.

Would that be the right move?

Law and border

Absolutely, say some. Whatever you think of his methods, you cannot fault Arpaio for his goal: to uphold the law. Fighting illegal immigration should be the federal government’s job. Instead, under Obama, it went after the man who was doing its work for it. That makes no sense. Trump should rectify this mistake.

Tackling immigration is one thing, reply others. Blatant racial profiling is another. Hounding certain people because of their ethnicity is both unfair and unconstitutional. But if Trump pardoned Arpaio, he would effectively be saying that it is fine. He must respect the court’s decision: this “great patriot” is a criminal.

You Decide

  1. Should Trump pardon Arpaio?
  2. Should presidents have the power to pardon criminals?


  1. Imagine you are interviewing Joe Arpaio tomorrow. Come up with five questions for him.
  2. Who do you think most deserves a presidential pardon? Make your case to the class in a brief speech.

Some People Say...

“Where there is no law, there is no freedom.”

— John Locke

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Presidents have the exclusive power to pardon someone convicted of a federal crime. This act effectively wipes out the crime and restores the full rights of citizenship to the recipient, although it does not mean that they have been deemed innocent. Alternatively, the president can commute (ie, reduce) a sentence if they think it is too harsh. This is what Barack Obama did for Chelsea Manning.
What do we not know?
Whether Trump will actually pardon Arpaio. He has yet to pardon anyone; presidents rarely do so in their first year. The Department of Justice, which is usually consulted on such matters, said on Monday that it has heard nothing about this. Some believe that his words on Tuesday were only meant to fire up his support base, and should not be taken too literally.

Word Watch

Maricopa County
As of the last census, Maricopa was the fourth most populous county in the USA. As it is both home to Phoenix and near the Mexican border, it sees a lot of immigration.
Contempt of court
The crime of disrespecting or defying the authority of a court.
Six months in jail
Many legal experts believe that Arpaio is unlikely to serve any time in jail, given his age and lack of prior convictions.
The collective name for conspiracy theories which hold that Barack Obama is not a natural-born American citizen, and was therefore not eligible to be president. Arpaio’s office had a team of volunteers investigate Obama’s birth certificate.
Tent City
In 1993 Arpaio set up old military tents in an outdoor part of a Phoenix jail compound. Tent City became notorious for its poor facilities and lack of protection against the intense summer heat. Arpaio referred to it as a “concentration camp”.
Discriminating against Latinos
The department also found that Maricopa’s jails treated Latino prisoners with limited English unfairly, denying them critical services.


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