PHOENIX (CN) — President Donald Trump’s Friday night pardon of former Sheriff Joe Arpaio caused a raucous reaction in Arizona as Republican supporters applauded and civil rights workers called it support for white supremacy.
The announcement came as no surprise after Trump all but promised at a Tuesday rally in Phoenix that he would pardon the six-term sheriff for his criminal contempt of court, for which he faced up to six months in jail.
Trump said in his pardon message that Arpaio’s life and career “exemplify selfless public service.”
“Throughout his time as sheriff, Arpaio continued his life’s work of protecting the public from the scourges of crime and illegal immigration,” Trump added.
But Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, a Democrat, called the pardon a “slap in the face.”
“He received a fair trial and a justifiable conviction, and there’s nothing the president can do to change that awful legacy and the stain he has left on our community,” Stanton said in a statement.
Arpaio was convicted of misdemeanor criminal contempt on July 31 for disobeying a federal judge’s order to stop racially profiling and arresting Latinos. Arpaio’s immigration raids and self-promotion as “America’s toughest sheriff” popular following among Republicans in Arizona and across the United States. His officers’ treatment of prisoners in “tent city” jails, where at least two men died — Arpaio called them “concentration camps” — also spurred dozens of lawsuits, which cost his state millions of dollars, and one of which, a class action, led to his criminal conviction.
He lost his bid for a seventh term last November to Paul Penzone, a Democrat.
At a Friday news conference outside the federal courthouse where Arpaio was convicted, one civil rights leader likened Trump’s pardon to “spitting in our face.”
Carlos Garcia, executive director of the immigrant justice group Puente, added that by pardoning Arpaio, Trump was lining up with white supremacists.
“For a president that claims to be a rule of law president, he has done the opposite,” Garcia said. “He has ignored what the court behind us said, and he has pardoned a criminal.
“What Donald Trump has done today is not just pardon Arpaio … but he tied himself to the legacy of white supremacy, racism and the racial profiling.”
Arpaio was to be sentenced on Oct. 5.
While pardon applications are typically submitted to the Department of Justice for recommendations to the White House, Arpaio’s was not.
Alejandra Gomez, a director of Living United for Change in Arizona, or LUCHA, said the pardon was another example of “the erosion of our democracy.”
“It’s the dehumanization of our families,” Gomez said. “Trump has sent a message from day one of his campaign trial that he was going to uphold white supremacy and racism.”
LUCHA, Spanish for struggle or fight, is a civil rights groups founded in 2009.
Arpaio acknowledged his civil contempt last year after allowing his deputies to continue racially based immigration patrols for 18 months in defiance of a federal court order.
He claimed innocence throughout his criminal trial, however, blaming his actions on poor legal advice from an attorney.
Viridiana Hernandez, executive director for the Center for Neighborhood Leadership, said the pardon will rally the community to speak out against Trump.
“Our community has fought and our community has won, and Trump is just one more that we are going to fight, that we are going to get him out,” Hernandez said through tears. “Our local leadership, local people, all those supposed allies, there is no more middle group. You have to take a side.”
Most of Arizona’s Republican leadership applauded the pardon.
“Sheriff Joe deserves credit for helping to reduce crime in Maricopa County,” Gov. Doug said. “Sheriff Joe is my friend, and now he, [his wife] Ava and his family can move on and enjoy their retirement together.’
U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Prescott, said in a statement that the pardon “reflects the very reason we voted President Trump into the Oval Office, to uphold the rule of law.”
U.S. Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, said the country owes Arpaio a “debt of gratitude.”
“Sheriff Joe Arpaio made many enemies in the judicial system, the media, and the left because he enforced laws that the federal government ignored,” Biggs said. “He did right by the law – even as the political consequences continued to mount.”
Among the reasons that landed Arpaio is that immigration enforcement has traditionally been a federal, not a state, responsibility.
Gosar and Biggs appeared on stage with Trump on Tuesday at his Phoenix rally, where he thanked them for their support.
Arizona’s senior senator, John McCain, however, was not pleased. McCain, a Republican, said Trump’s pardon “undermines his claim for the respect of the rule of law.”
“No one is above the law, and the individuals entrusted with the privilege of being sworn law officers should always seek to be beyond reproach in their commitment to fairly enforcing the laws they swore to uphold,” McCain said. “Mr. Arpaio was found guilty of criminal contempt for continuing to illegally profile Latinos living in Arizona based on their perceived immigration status, in violation of a judge’s orders.”
In a tweet, Arpaio thanked Trump for the pardon and called his prosecution a “political witch hunt” from the Obama administration. He also gave supporters a link to make donations to his legal defense fund.