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Pardoning Racism

Joe Arpaio with detainees at his Tent City, which has been slapped with a federal lawsuit. Peter Yang

Before he was voted out of office, ending his 24-year reign of terror, former Sheriff Joe Arpaio committed serial violations of the constitutional rights of Arizonans, but largely avoided being held personally accountable. Courts repeatedly found that Arpaio had violated the law, but because he was sued in his official capacity, it was Maricopa County on the hook for millions of dollars in civil damages. It was only after Arpaio repeatedly and openly defied a court order that he faced a criminal charge for contempt of court. His disobeying and lying to a federal court resulted in a misdemeanor conviction for which Arpaio could have been sentenced up to six months in jail.

Why it matters: Trump claimed at his Arizona campaign rally last week that Arpaio was convicted for “doing his job.” In Trump’s mind, the job of law enforcement is to make life miserable for those he deems undesirable – typically, black and brown people and political opponents – whether or not they have been found guilty of any crime and without regard to whether the punishment is lawful even for those who are found guilty. By pardoning someone with Arpaio’s history of illegally targeting racial minorities, Trump endorsed the use of policing practices to deprive people of color of their rights under the Constitution. Furthermore, by pardoning Arpaio for the specific crime of defying a court order, Trump announced his intention to free his cronies from accountability for lawbreaking, raising the possibility that he will discourage his campaign associates from providing evidence in the Russia investigation with the promise of pardons if they are held in contempt of Congress or the courts.

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