President Trump described himself as "the law and order candidate" on the campaign trail, but he has consistently shown he really meant "the candidate of busting heads."
Trump's pardon of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio — a man who responded to overly-lax immigration enforcement with a lawless and overly-harsh crackdown on illegal immigrants and suspected illegal immigrants — showed once again Trump really means "busting heads" when he says "law and order."
There's plenty of overlap between toughness and law and order. Tough policing under the "broken windows" theory was central to the restoration of law and order in New York City in the 1990s. President Obama's softness on illegal immigration, especially late in his administration, amounted to disregard for immigration law. Trump's pledge to enforce immigration law with toughness has restored some order, with the number of illegal crossings apparently dropping in a few months.
But "law and order," if the words have any meaning, has to apply to government actors as well. Lawless sheriffs promote disorder, and that's what Arpaio did to get himself convicted.
Arpaio's defiance of a judge's order to stop detaining people simply based on the suspicion that they were illegal immigrants was worthy of punishment. His career as a veteran and a long-time public servant does not change that. As sheriff, Arpaio's office would routinely detain Latinos solely on the suspicion they had broken immigration law, without any evidence whatsoever that a crime had been committed. It was government overreach that was backed up by Arpaio's authority, all while it was supposed to be Arpaio's job to protect the people of Maricopa County from injustice.
As Sen. John McCain said, "No one is above the law and the individuals entrusted with the privilege of being sworn law officers should always seek to be beyond reproach in their commitment to fairly enforcing the laws they swore to uphold. ... The President has the authority to make this pardon, but doing so at this time undermines his claim for the respect of rule of law as Mr. Arpaio has shown no remorse for his actions."
If judicial decisions are not given their proper respect, the rule of law will break down. That's not to say precedent can't be overturned or convictions can't be appealed, but established judicial processes must be followed.
If Arpaio were later given an excessively-harsh sentence, a commutation might be in order. But Arpaio's conviction was punishable by up to only six months in jail – hardly a mean sentence, even for an 85-year-old.
In the normal pardon process, convicts apply to the Office of the Pardon Attorney at the Department of Justice. That office reviews each case and makes a recommendation to the deputy attorney general, who gives a recommendation to the president. It's an established process that is only rarely slighted, and with good reason: the president has wide authority to grant pardons, and it's an authority that can easily be abused.
In this case, it's clear Trump has abused that power for a friend and political ally.
To be sure, Democratic attacks that Arpaio shouldn't have been pardoned simply because he committed a crime were silly. Furthermore, Obama also granted some inappropriate pardons – just look at his commutation of the sentences of terrorist Oscar López Rivera and Chelsea Manning.
But no amount of "Whataboutism" makes it okay for Trump to disregard the rule of law for his friends.
Trump promised to drain the swamp if elected. But America hates the swamp because politicians and bureaucrats give special, undeserved favors to their friends and the well-connected.
America needs tougher immigration enforcement. But enforcement, like all government action, needs to follow the precepts of law and order.