I think it’s pretty clear to most impartial observers that the pardoning of Joe Arpaio was a cheap political stunt. Considering Joe wasn’t likely to go to jail, and was only convicted of a misdemeanor, it would be hardly worthy of presidential attention – unless the president stood to gain from the act. In this case, the president was kind enough to confirm it to us, as he mentioned that the Hurricane Harvey coverage would give him a larger soapbox from which to announce his action. (Thanks for letting us know, Don.)
But now that the dirty deed is done, it’s time to consider the ramifications of this ill-conceived act.
First and foremost, the pardon is something of a paper tiger. The only thing Trump can pardon Arpaio for is federal transgressions, not for breaking state law. So his pardon really only applies to the federal contempt conviction and not much else. And in Trump’s impatience to take advantage of the hurricane’s news cycle, he issued his pardon well before the case was even fully adjudicated because the appeal is still in process. This leaves the pardon in something of a gray area, legally speaking as Arpaio is seeking to have the conviction vacated completely and pardons historically imply the recipient has admitted guilt since the recipient is supposed to have demonstrated remorse.
And there’s more. Pardons aren’t typically issued for political purposes, as was this one, and so the natural consequence is that is raises constitutional questions that must now be answered by the courts. This is because the president can’t ignore the constitution while issuing a pardon. For instance, were the president to accept a cash payment in return for a pardon, he would probably be liable to some kind of prosecution for bribery.
All this will inevitably lead to months of uncertainty as the various legal wheels begin to turn and issues land before judges for rulings. Ultimately there could be one or more supreme court decisions that grant or limit presidential power with respect to issuing pardons. Either way, only one thing is absolute: the president doesn’t really have unlimited power to issue pardons after all, regardless of what Trump may currently think and say.
And that brings us to the final and most important point of all, and what may one day be judged as one of Trump’s biggest miscalculations. With all the legal challenges to this pardon, other individuals close to the president will begin to take notice and question whether or not Trump can really provide the legal cover he may have promised them if they broke the law at his request or for his benefit. So Trump has, in effect, squandered his power to suggest to others that he’s got their backs, which is a big deal when there’s a powerful independent council looking into your administration’s actions. Ultimately, he may have wasted his golden signature on a silly misdemeanor conviction for a racist, asshole sheriff.
People who might have been content to lie for Donald will and should be much more careful to consider whether or not it’s worth the risk, as they know other pardons he may issue will be looked at that much more carefully. If nothing else, this political stunt will place doubt in the minds of those around Trump who might now think that his pardon is not necessarily the get-out-of-jail-free card they imagined it would be. In the end, it was just another way for Trump to win short-term political adoration from his breathless followers but at the expense of any long term objectives he might have and the people who idiotically break the law expecting him to cover for them.