Trump Defends Convicted Criminal Arpaio, Hints Again at Pardon

“His nod to Arpaio is the latest sign of the white supremacy that is governing the White House and it will not be pardoned."

Anti-Trump protesters marching to downtown Phoenix. Nicole Knight / Rewire

President Donald Trump on Tuesday night in Phoenix once again backed Joe Arpaio, the infamous former Arizona sheriff who long terrorized undocumented families. 

Protesters met the president’s arrival in their city with resistance. Fanning across several city blocks in 104 degree heat, thousands of Arizona immigration rights advocates chanted “No Trump! No KKK! No fascist USA!” They marched, carrying signs that read, “Down With White Supremacy,” and “No Wall. No Racism,” before converging at the Phoenix Convention Center, where they feared the president would later that night pardon Arpaio, the former Maricopa County sheriff.

Trump supporters, meanwhile, congregated in long lines for the president’s address, brandishing signs that read “Trump Won. Go Ahead and Cry.”

Rather than pardon Arpaio, Trump used the night’s campaign-style address to rewrite the “dishonest media’s” record on his much-criticized response to the deadly violence in Charlottesville, while hinting at a future pardon for the former sheriff before a crowd of amped-up supporters.

Arpaio faces possible jail time. The former six-term sheriff was convicted last month of criminal contempt for defying a judge’s order to stop targeting undocumented immigrants. Arpaio garnered national attention as the chief steward of the country’s most draconian anti-immigration laws. 

Gathering in a nearby park, Lucy Sandoval, with the immigrant rights organization Puente Human Rights Movement, said advocates swiftly mobilized to protest the possible pardon. She said Puente and other coalition groups reject the president and his anti-immigrant policies.

“We’re marching to resist the bigotry of his actions,” she told Rewire.

During his 24 years as sheriff of Maricopa County, Arpaio rose to prominence thanks in large part to laudatory coverage from Fox News, which Trump cited last night as the only news outlet that has treated him “fairly.” While Fox reported positively on Arpaio’s dehumanizing tactics, including his use of chain gangs and forcing those in prison to live in tents in 120-degree heat, Arpaio was targeting communities of color with racist policies, misappropriating funds, racially profiling undocumented immigrants and detaining them unlawfully (and sometimes unlawfully detaining U.S. citizens), and ignoring cases of sexual assault that included the children of undocumented parents.

“Was Sheriff Joe convicted for doing his job?” Trump asked the crowd inside the convention center. “He should have had a jury, but I’ll make a prediction: I think he’s going to be just fine.”

Trump gave no indication of when the pardon might come, only saying to his thousands of cheering supporters, “I’m not going to do it tonight because I don’t want to cause any controversy … but he should feel fine.”

As sheriff, Arpaio was one of the state’s most vocal proponents of SB 1070, one of the harshest anti-immigrant laws in the country. Arpaio during his 24 years in office came under fire for mishandling sexual assault cases. From 2004 to 2007, more than 400 sexual assault cases reported to Arpaio’s office, including dozens of alleged child molestations, were not only poorly investigated, but sometimes not investigated at all, according to a 2011 Associated Press report. A retired police official told the AP that many of the victims were children of undocumented parents.

Hours before the president’s rally, local activists told Rewire they feared a pardon would drive already frightened immigrant communities further into hiding, denying them access to their most basic needs—like justice, education, and health care.

“Families should not be separated, and people should not be detained when trying to access health care at health centers,” said Tayler Tucker with Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona.  “Health care is a human right. It does not have borders. It does not have an immigration status.”

Although the president spoke for well over an hour, he was quick to point out in the first minutes of his speech that the anti-Trump protests outside were very small. He then hit on several themes his base holds dear, such as a border wall that he once claimed would be paid for by the Mexican government.

Supporters of the president told Rewire the wall and strict immigration remained a priority.

Robert Futch, 63, who drove that morning to Phoenix from his home in Dolan Springs, suggested paying for the wall with tax reforms, and a “flat tax on everybody.”

“Everybody pays the same, 9 percent, 10 percent,” said Futch, a retiree. “And he’d have the money in a couple of days to get the wall built. Cause all the rich people paying the same as we do, yeah, it’d be fixed.”

Rich Wilson, of Mesa, said stricter immigration wouldn’t hurt the economy or deny immigrants opportunities. He compared border security to home security.

“You lock your door at night,” Wilson told Rewire. “What the difference? You should know who is coming in your country.”

For much of the rally, Trump rehashed the three sets of remarks he’d made following the violent white supremacist rampage in Charlottesville, which killed anti-hate demonstrator Heather Heyer.

Holding up copies of his past comments, Trump omitted re-reading his initial “many sides” comment that had generated an outcry for likening anti-racism protesters to neo-Nazis. Instead, as Trump re-read aloud to the crowd, he slammed the “very dishonest media” and “fake media” for “not reporting the facts.”

“I love all of the people of our country,” Trump said, defending himself. “I didn’t say I love you because you’re Black, or I love you because you’re white, or from Japan, or from China, or you’re from Kenya, or Scotland, or Sweden. I love all the people of our country.”

While Trump downplayed the number of counter-protesters in Phoenix, thousands took to the streets in anti-Trump protests that consisted of marches downtown that converged at the convention center.

Demonstrations were peaceful until the end of the rally, when some protesters attempted to break through barricades erected near an entrance to the convention center. Police, who claimed protesters had thrown rocks and bottles at them, used tear gas and pepper balls to dispense the crowd. Riot police were also on the scene.

Members of Puente were targeted by police, according to advocates. Puente’s Carlos Garcia released a statement saying that Trump came to Phoenix to rally white supremacists.  

“His nod to Arpaio is the latest sign of the white supremacy that is governing the White House and it will not be pardoned,” Garcia said. “If Trump wants to actually address the division in this country, he would quit. Trump came to Phoenix to tie himself to the racial profiling, the abuse, and the immigration policies of convicted Joe Arpaio that resulted in the former Sheriff being sued more than 2,000 times.”

Alejandra Gomez, co-director of the Arizona-based immigrant rights organization LUCHA that took part in the campaign that worked to unseat Arpaio in 2016, participated in Tuesday’s protests. 

“Throughout his campaign, Trump kept saying and doing things that were really playing into extremist and hateful rhetoric,” Gomez said. “Once elected, he has really demonstrated that he will play to his base of primarily white supremacists and racists and that has meant targeting communitiesimmigrants and Latinos, communities of color, Black communities, Muslims, and women. It’s all been hateful and harmful. Communities are outraged and they’re showing that their organizing can transcend this racist and white supremacist agenda. Today Arizona is standing up to it.”