President Donald Trump on Friday night issued a controversial pardon to Joe Arpaio, the former Arizona sheriff who was found guilty of criminal contempt in a racial profiling case.
It is the first pardon issued by Trump since he took office on Jan. 20, benefiting a supporter who shares with the president hard-line views on illegal immigration. The move will play well with Trump's conservative base, but sparked outrage from Democrats and civil rights groups.
With no reference to the controversies that dogged Arpaio during his two decades as Maricopa County, Ariz., sheriff, the White House issued a statement referencing "25 years of admirable service" that included leading the federal Drug Enforcement Agency's branch in Arizona.
“Sheriff Joe Arpaio is now eighty-five years old, and after more than fifty years of admirable service to our nation,” the White House said, adding: “he is worthy candidate for a presidential pardon.”
A Justice Department spokesman said in a statement that "the president exercised his lawful authority and we respect his decision." Asked if the Justice Department had any role in Trump’s decision, the DOJ spokesman pointed to a department fact sheet that indicated the president acted alone and within his authority.
The pardon also came two weeks after race-fueled clashes in Charlottesville, Va., that involved white supremacists, neo-Nazis and members of the Ku Klux Klan. Trump was harshly criticized for his initial response to that incident.
Democratic National Chairman Tom Perez, a former head of the Justice Department's civil rights division in the Obama administration, referenced the timing of Trump's action.
“Prejudice doesn’t deserve a pardon. 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," Perez said in a statement.
Arpaio was found guilty of defying a court order in a racial profiling case that had dragged for a decade. He was scheduled to be sentenced in October and could have faced up to six months in prison. Arpaio, nationally known for his anti-immigrant stance, was defeated in 2016 by Democrat Paul Penzone.
“Arpaio’s life and career, which began at the age of 18 when he enlisted in the military after the outbreak of the Korean War, exemplify selfless public service,” the White House said in a statement from Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ office.
Trump alluded to Arpaio's conviction on Tuesday night before a friendly crowd in Phoenix.
"He should’ve had a jury, but I’ll make a prediction: I think he’s going to be just fine, okay?" Trump said. "I won’t do it tonight because I don’t want to cause any controversy."
Civil rights groups quickly responded by condemning Trump’s decision.
"In pardoning Joe Arpaio, Trump further clarifies his twisted view of what America should look like," Judith Browne Dianis, Executive Director of The Advancement Project's national office, said in a statement. "He envisions a country where white nationalists get a nod from the White House and rogue cops are encouraged to abuse their power and profile people of color. This move signals to police that even if the courts find them guilty of racial profiling, they will have the backing of the president of the United States. This is yet another drastic moral and leadership failure from Trump."
Vanita Gupta of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights said in a statement that “instead of a dog whistle, President Trump picked up a bullhorn and let out a hateful shout tonight when he pardoned someone who personifies the same bigotry and intolerance we witnessed in Charlottesville.
“For more than two decades, Sheriff Arpaio terrorized and profiled Arizona’s Latino citizens, was finally voted out of office, and was convicted for failing to follow a court order to cease his unlawful, racist policing,” Gupta said.
Todd Ruger contributed to this report.