During an interview at his New Jersey golf club on Sunday, Donald Trump offered a revelatory statement that was largely lost amidst the furor over his lackluster response to the weekend’s white supremacist violence in Charlottesville. One day after the alleged murder of Heather Heyer, the president told Fox News that he was considering a pardon for Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, who was recently convicted of criminal contempt. Arpaio, Trump said, “has done a lot in the fight against illegal immigration. He’s a great American patriot and I hate to see what has happened to him.”
Considering the president’s praise of Arpaio, and promise to consider a pardon for the ex-sheriff, Monday’s overdue, undercooked rebuke of racial animus registers as even more risibly insincere. During his 24-year tenure as sheriff, Arpaio proudly strove to implement white nationalism through a brutal assault on Maricopa County’s Latino population. His barbaric tactics included extreme racial profiling and sadistic punishments that involved the torture, humiliation, and degradation of Latino inmates. Courts repeatedly found that Arpaio violated the United States Constitution, but the sheriff often ignored their efforts to rein him in. There are few more potent symbols of mainstream white nationalism than Arpaio. Taken together with Tuesday’s unhinged press conference, Trump’s praise of Arpaio proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the president has made common cause with white nationalists.
Many of Arpaio’s worst abuses are documented in a 2011 Justice Department report on the sheriff’s office. At the time, a DOJ expert said that Arpaio oversaw the worst pattern of racial profiling he had ever seen. The agency found that Arpaio’s deputies had consistently targeted and harassed Latinos, pulling them over far more frequently than non-Latinos. Arpaio’s office initiated “immigration-related crime suppression activities” when 911 callers complained about Spanish speakers and individuals with “dark skin.” It conducted immigration sweeps that routinely violated the Fourth Amendment. And in many instances, officers detained lawful Latino residents for hours, days, or weeks based on fabricated or exaggerated charges.
Those individuals unfortunate enough to languish in the county jails, which Arpaio’s office operated, suffered grievously. Arpaio’s deputies allegedly put Spanish-speaking inmates in solitary confinement to punish them for not understanding English. They also refused to accept requests for basic daily services that were written in Spanish and pressured Latino inmates into signing deportation forms. The vast majority of inmates in these jails were Latinos detained on suspicion of being undocumented. Jail staff regularly referred to Latino inmates as “wetbacks,” “Mexican bitches,” and “stupid Mexicans.” A federal judge ruled twice that Arpaio’s deputies unlawfully deprived detainees of food and medical care, and tortured inmates who were on psychotropic medication by locking them in unbearably hot solitary confinement cells, which caused an increased risk of heat-related illness. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that these practices violated the Eighth Amendment’s bar on cruel and unusual punishment.
Arpaio, who once acknowledged in court that he did not know the contents of the 14th Amendment, specialized in this sort of heat-based punishment. He set up “tent cities” to house overflowing jail population and boasted that they were actual “concentration camps.” In the summer, the heat in these facilities reached 145 degrees Fahrenheit; inmates’ shoes literally melted. Arpaio told the inmates not to complain, declaring: “It’s 120 degrees in Iraq and the soldiers are living in tents and they didn’t commit any crimes, so shut your mouths.”
In fact, many of these inmates had not yet been convicted of a crime—but Arpaio treated all detainees as though they had already been found guilty. He introduced a number of schemes designed to humiliate inmates, including chain gangs for women and juveniles, and a live webcast that broadcast video of jailed pretrial detainees on the internet. One camera captured the toilet in the women’s holding cell. The 9th Circuit ultimately blocked these webcasts, but not before millions of people had tuned in.
Arpaio also worked with former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas to investigate and prosecute their political enemies. Together, Arpaio and Thomas went after judges who ruled against them, attorneys who opposed them in court, and even a journalist who covered them critically for a local paper. The county wound up paying out tens of millions of dollars in settlement money to Arpaio and Thomas’ victims, and Thomas was disbarred. Arpaio famously investigated President Barack Obama’s birth certificate, as well, and concluded that it was forged.
In 2012, the Justice Department issued a new civil rights complaint alleging that Arpaio’s obsession with Latinos diverted his office’s attention from violent crimes. In particular, his office ignored or inadequately investigated more than 400 alleged sex crimes, including at least 32 reported child molestations involving victims as young as 2 years old. Most of the victims of these reported crimes were undocumented immigrants and their children.
Instead of following up on these reports, Arpaio’s office conducted immigration raids and traffic stops that a federal judge found violated the constitutional rights of Latinos. The judge ordered Arpaio to halt his office’s illegal practices, but he refused and was held in civil contempt of court. In the 2016 election, voters ejected him from office. Then, in July, a federal judge found that, as sheriff, Arpaio had continued to violate the constitutional rights of immigrants after he had been ordered to stop and held him in criminal contempt. He faces up to six months in jail.
What Maricopa County experienced under Arpaio’s reign was law enforcement by white nationalism, plain and simple. In the name of cracking down on undocumented immigrants, Arpaio brutalized and terrorized thousands of Latinos, including tourists, legal residents, and U.S. citizens. Under Arpaio’s regime, those suspected of having Hispanic heritage were deprived of their constitutional rights and subjected to monstrous cruelty. His office engaged in a years-long effort to systematically purge Latinos from the county.
Trump may claim to abhor racism. But his eagerness to consider pardoning Arpaio reveals much more than the declaration he read off a teleprompter on Monday. Trump told Fox that Arpaio “doesn’t deserve to be treated this way” because he “has protected people from crimes and saved lives.” How could we expect the president to understand that Arpaio was convicted precisely because he himself committed crimes in the name of law enforcement? To him, this story only has one side: The white guy did his job, and his minority victims deserved what they got.