Imagine if the President of the United States were willing to order members of his administration to violate the law and the constitution, while offering to protect them from accountability for their illegal actions by promising pardons? It’s not a theoretical question in the wake of President Trump’s pardon of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio last Friday. America is already headed down that road.
Sure, Trump didn’t order Arpaio to violate the constitution. Arpaio did that himself, by routinely and purposefully targeting Hispanics for traffic stops and unspeakable brutality. After numerous civil rights lawsuits, a federal court finally ordered Arpaio to halt his abuses of power. Arpaio thumbed his nose at the court, which finally found him guilty of criminal contempt in July. He faced up to six months in prison for his actions, but deserved much more. During his reign of terror, Arpaio cost the taxpayers of his county more than $140 million in legal judgments, settlements, and court costs. He and his deputies caused intentional injury and suffering to thousands of citizens and residents in their custody, housed those arrested in horrific conditions, and even intentionally killed pets in bogus raids simply because they could. These were not agents of law enforcement. They were sadistic thugs. And the courts finally said enough is enough. Thankfully, so did the voters of Maricopa County.
Presidents with an understanding of history and an appreciation for the wisdom inherent in the constitution’s checks and balances would never consider pardoning a public official who so flagrantly violated constitutional rights. Presidents, after all, take an oath to uphold the constitution, not rip it out by the roots.
A president willing to use the power of the pardon to effectively cast aside the ability of the judicial branch to halt abuses of power by government officials is a president flirting with tyranny. Indeed, history has shown time and again that weakening the judicial branch of government is frequently the first step on the road to despotism.
Other presidents have pardoned, of course. But the beneficiaries of those pardons are typically people who have run afoul of the law in some private capacity, not as government officials. There are a few exceptions, such as President Reagan’s decision to pardon some of those involved in the Iran-Contra scandal. But none of those instances involved a public official who openly defied a court order and continued to violate the rights of citizens based simply on the color of their skin.
For an administration that claims to be seeking unity in the face of its mishandling of the Charlottesville violence, this is just another affront to the vast majority of Americans who seek racial harmony. This is a message made loud and clear to the most unsavory elements of Trump’s white supremacist base: the president has their back. He may be forced to denounce them in public, but his actions speak louder than his words. Racial discrimination and violations of civil rights won’t be discouraged by the Trump administration. Rather, they’ll be actively defended by the president himself.
Yet this goes well beyond acts of discrimination. Trump’s pardon sends the signal to officials in his own administration that they need not concern themselves with the law or the constitution, as long as they’re taking actions likely to win the favor of the president. If open contempt of federal courts is acceptable to the president, what’s to prevent members of his own administration from ignoring subpoenas from the special prosecutor in the Russia investigation, or simply stonewalling the inquiry?
Neither the courts nor Congress have police of their own. They are reliant on the executive branch of government to enforce their orders. So, what if the president refuses to do so, or simply pardons officials who defy the courts?
He’s already done it, and he’s likely to do it again.
This is how republics fail. America’s institutions don’t draw their strength from the words of the constitution. They survive only on the good intentions of elected and appointed officials who are willing to abide by the checks and balances enshrined in our founding documents. Trump has made it clear, through his pardon of Arpaio, and in so many other ways, that he feels no such constraint. And that should frighten every American. Our nation is losing its grip on a very slippery slope.