President Trump’s comments at a Monday afternoon news conference reveal a morally obtuse character who is blind to the impact of his own words. Whatever scripting provided by his generals, they cannot conceal Trump’s near pathological lack of concern for others.
Asked about his controversial pardon of ex-sheriff Joe Arpaio, Trump acknowledged using the hurricane — that is the impending disaster — to get ratings. “Actually, in the middle of a hurricane, even though it was a Friday evening, I assumed the ratings would be far higher than they were normally.” Trump is so lacking in empathy and simple human decency that he sees nothing wrong with taking political advantage of others’ misery.
Rather than defend his actions on the merits, he played the whataboutism game, challenging President Barack Obama’s and President Bill Clinton’s pardons. Like a child, Trump seems to think that their wrongs justify his own. Without reviewing any of the facts, Trump claims Arpaio was treated “unfairly” and commended his service. For those who know the details of Arpaio’s tenure, this is offensive in the extreme. As Andrew Cohen of the Brennan Center writes:
The truth is that “America’s toughest sheriff,” as Arpaio liked to call himself, was an incompetent buffoon, a sour mash of cruelty and inattention that cost his county hundreds of millions of dollars in fines, fees and legal settlements. The only thing he accomplished in his decades in power was to become, first, a national symbol of brutality toward jail inmates and, later, a poster child for anti-immigrant racism. But pardon decrees cannot say any of that. They cannot say: “Because no one can stop us we are today rescuing a sheriff who violated his oath of office and broke the law and never apologized for doing so.”
Trump’s pardon makes sense only as a raw act of self-perpetuating power designed to give succor to those caught in the middle of the investigation into the Trump team’s ties to Russia, and to encourage other lawless law officers to ignore those court orders with which they disagree.
To make matters worse, Trump claims his move is popular in Arizona. You will recall that Arpaio was roundly defeated in his last election — 56 percent to 43 percent in a state Trump carried. If the people of Arizona “loved” Arpaio, why then did they vote him out of office? At least one poll taken before the pardon was issued shows the pardon is overwhelmingly unpopular: “Half of Arizonans surveyed over the weekend believe that President Donald Trump should not announce a pardon for former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio at a Tuesday rally, compared with 21 percent who said it would be a good move, according to [the OH Predictive Insights] poll.” Nevertheless, Trump is always convinced (“people say”) that the public supports him.
His affection and defense of a rogue law enforcement officer is chilling. As Max Boot recounted:
He housed inmates in such inhumane conditions — an outdoor tent city that was an inferno in the summer and a freezer in the winter — that he himself described it as a concentration camp. He overlooked routine brutality by his deputies, which led to legal settlements costing taxpayers at least $140 million. He arrested the owners of a newspaper, the Phoenix New Times, which ran critical coverage of him, leading to a $3.75-million settlement. He was so busy pursuing immigrants that he neglected to investigate cases of rape and child abuse.
It’s telling that Trump thinks his action in pardoning such a monstrous figure is justified if it is popular (which it is not). His inability to address the merits of his actions and to grapple with the enormity of Arpaio’s abuse and contempt for the court system shouldn’t be surprising. Trump shares a love of bully-boy tactics and Arpaio’s ugly views of immigrants. Trump must resort to hiding behind the skirts of other presidents or popular opinion. In this case those are of little help. His pardon — based on his obvious affection for a cruel racist who defied the courts and shows no regret — is in a class by itself.