Donald Trump on Friday issued the first clemency of his presidency, pardoning controversial former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
The 85-year-old Arpaio, an early Trump supporter, had been convicted of criminal contempt after defying a judge’s order to stop racially profiling Latinos.
In Arpaio’s defense, a White House statement cited his age and “life’s work of protecting the public from the scourges of crime and illegal immigration.”
Critics slammed the move, saying Trump acted to protect a political crony and didn’t follow Department of Justice guidelines in issuing the pardon.
It is the latest in a long line of controversial clemencies granted by U.S. presidents.
Pardons vs. commutations
Under the Constitution, U.S. presidents have broad power to extend forgiveness to those who have committed federal crimes.
This usually takes one of two forms: pardons, whereby the crime is erased from an individual’s record; and commutations, which leaves the conviction in place but reduces the sentence.
Former President Barack Obama granted clemency to over 1,900 people — more than any other president in over 60 years. The vast majority of those were commutations — most for nonviolent drug offenders whose sentences Obama had deemed too harsh.
Before leaving office, Obama also issued commutations to former intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, who was convicted of disclosing sensitive information to Wikileaks, and Puerto Rican nationalist Oscar Lopez Rivera, who was convicted of seditious conspiracy for his involvement with a group that fought for Puerto Rican independence.
The commutations angered many conservatives who saw the decisions as an abuse of Obama’s presidential pardoning power.
On Monday, Trump used those cases to deflect criticism of his Arpaio decision. Trump retweeted a conservative columnist who accused Obama of pardoning a “traitor who gave U.S. enemies state secrets” and a “terrorist who killed Americans.”
The tweet was incorrect. Obama, in fact, issued commutations — not pardons — to both individuals, and only after they had spent significant time in prison. Rivera was 35 years into a 55-year jail term; Manning had served seven years of a 35-year sentence.
Other controversial clemencies
Former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were also criticized for their use of the presidential pardon.
Most notably, in his last day in office Clinton pardoned Marc Rich, a wealthy financier and prominent Democratic fundraiser, who had been on the run in Switzerland avoiding prosecution for tax evasion.
Bush commuted the jail sentence of Scooter Libby, the former chief of staff of his vice president, Dick Cheney. Libby had been convicted of perjury, obstruction of justice and lying to investigators in the probe of the leak of the name of a CIA operative.
Perhaps sensing the Arpaio pardon would also be criticized, the White House announced the move late on a Friday, a time traditionally reserved for getting out bad news, and during a major hurricane that was dominating the bulk of media attention.
But the timing of the announcement didn’t silence Trump’s critics. While very few questioned whether Trump had the constitutional authority to pardon Arpaio, both liberal and conservative commentators quickly slammed the move as inappropriate.
Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders accused Trump of using his power to defend racism. The conservative National Review magazine said Trump’s pardon “effectively endorses Arpaio’s misconduct.”
Others pointed out that Trump’s pardon of Arpaio was different from other cases because the sheriff was convicted not just of breaking a law, but also failing to obey a court order — an act, they say, that undermines the rule of law.