In August, Donald Trump used his first presidential pardon on Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, who had been convicted for illegally profiling Latinos even after a federal judge ordered him to stop. But as John Oliver explained in depth on Sunday, the sins of Arpaio, “a man who answers the question, What if a decaying russet potato somehow hated Mexicans?,” weren’t limited to just that one conviction. Arpaio’s entire career was marked by cruelty and a number of human rights violations that led to criticism and lawsuits from the ACLU, Amnesty International, and the Justice Department, among others.
It’s easy to see why Arpaio might appeal to someone like Trump. Not only does his crackdown on immigrants and people who look like immigrants appeal to Trump’s base, but as Oliver explained, Arpaio comes from the same reality-show mindset Trump does. “He loves being on camera so much that he essentially spent years treating prisoners as props,” said Oliver, playing a clip from Arpaio’s unbelievable but very real short-lived series, Smile … You’re Under Arrest, which lured people with outstanding warrants into custody on camera.
Not all of Arpaio’s actions have been so cartoonish: He has proudly compared his own “tent city” jail, which served prisoners rotten meat and reached unbearably hot temperatures, to a concentration camp. When footage from cameras installed in the restrooms of female inmates was made available online and linked to by porn sites, Arpaio maintained that he had done nothing wrong. Stories of inmate deaths from suicide, mistreatment, or failure to provide adequate medical care are extremely disturbing, including that of Scott Norberg, who died in custody after being beaten and restrained by guards who allegedly responded to someone pointing out that Norberg wasn’t breathing with, “Who gives a shit?”
Ahead of his pardon of Arpaio, Trump suggested that the sheriff was “just doing his job” by profiling Latinos in defiance of a court order, but as Oliver points out: “You wouldn’t say that John Wayne Gacy was just doing his job, even though he was, by all accounts, a pretty good birthday clown. It’s the stuff he was doing on top of that that needed addressing.” That’s what makes Trump giving Arpaio a pass, after all he has done, such a slap in the face, not just to Latinos but to “the very rule of law itself.”