Picture this: A president, just a week after going off-script to declare that there were “some very fine people” among the torch-wielding white supremacist marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia, decides to hold a rally in Arizona—a state with frequently roiling tensions between hard-right border hawks and undocumented immigrants. The president also signals ahead of his visit that he may spend his first presidential pardon on Arizona’s infamous former Maricopa County sheriff, Joe Arpaio, who has recently been convicted of criminal contempt for disobeying a court order requiring him to stop rounding up suspected undocumented immigrants without reasonable suspicion.
That would sound a lot like a president who knows his support is now the base of his base, and is trying to pick a fight on their behalf because that’s all he’s good at.
President Trump will host a rally at the Phoenix Convention Center on Tuesday night, against the wishes of Phoenix’s mayor and to the concern of some of his own White House staff. The New York Times reported last weekend that officials in both “the White House and in Arizona are bracing for a furious reception” at the rally “amid the fallout from his comments faulting ‘both sides’ for racially charged violence in Charlottesville.” Quite a few protest groups, ranging from the local Democratic Socialists chapter and Antifa to “Cosplayers Against Hate,” plan to be there. One of the largest advocacy groups for undocumented immigrants, the Puente Human Rights Movement, will host a rally outside the convention center under the slogan, “White Supremacy Will Not Be Pardoned.”
“By pardoning America’s best-known racial profiler just one week after defending neo-Nazis and white supremacists,” Cristóbal J. Alex, president of the Latino Victory Project, a group that aims to get more Latinos elected to office, said in a statement, “President Trump would send the message to law enforcement that it’s acceptable to violate Latinos’ civil rights.”
Arizona Rep. Ruben Gallego, a Democrat representing Phoenix, told me in an interview last week that he was “very, very concerned” about what could happen between protesters and counterprotesters outside the rally, pardon or no pardon.
“We know that there is a strong group of neo-Nazis that would love nothing more than to start fights,” he said. “And they have nothing better to do, so they’ll come do it.”
The only person who knows whether the president will pardon Arpaio is the president, and he himself probably won’t be certain until one minute before the rally. Arpaio himself has no idea and told the Times that he was surprised to hear the president was considering it. (Trump “has a mind of his own,” Arpaio said. “We all know that, don’t we?”)
Gallego is worried that Trump will go through with it because “he knows the white nationalists are really pissed off because he just fired the head white nationalist in Steve Bannon.”
The only thing that is certain about this rally is that it’s going to be—and already is—a pain in the ass for local officials. The Phoenix Police Department last week issued a statement saying that it would maintain “maximum staffing during the visit,” noting that it expects “a lot of activity in the downtown area.” And Greg Stanton, Phoenix’s Democratic mayor, pleaded with the president last week to cancel the rally while “our nation is still healing from the tragic events in Charlottesville.” If the president intends to pardon Arpaio, Stanton added, “then it will be clear that his true intent is to enflame emotions and further divide our nation.”
Several Arizona Republican operatives that I’ve spoken to are just as nervous about the potential pardon as Democrats are. The Arizona Republican Party is living on borrowed time as demographic trends slowly chip away at its safely red status. One operative, voicing a common sentiment, told me that it would be nice if the state could simply put Arpaio, and his legacy of dreadful treatment toward undocumented immigrants, behind them.
But Arpaio—who was finally defeated by a Democrat last year—was sheriff for 24 years and maintains a loyal core following in the state, even if the party’s long-term prospects are better the further in the rearview his legacy goes. Rep. Trent Franks, a far-right conservative representing a Maricopa County district just northwest of Phoenix, says he’s pulling for Trump to pardon the former sheriff.
“In his twilight years,” Franks said in a statement, “he deserves to retire peacefully and enjoy the satisfaction of a hard-earned and honorable retirement.”
The question of whether to pardon Arpaio, or to announce that it’s his intention to do so, at this rally is not just one of public safety. It is a question of how Trump intends to govern for the rest of his term. His polling has reached an all-time low. Does he try to start over his presidency and govern less divisively, with less drama, as a means of winning back some of those reluctant supporters who might have had it with him? Or does he run into the arms of his loyal loving base and pick ugly fights on their behalf?
Yeah, yeah, I know. If only it were more of an open question.