Donald Trump is undermining the authority of a Mormon federal judge – and the rule of law while he’s at it.
Donald Trump has Mormon problems.
During his presidential campaign, he struggled to win over Mormon voters, suffered a humiliating defeat during the Utah Republican primary, and was the first Republican since George H.W. Bush to win Utah in the general election by a plurality instead of a majority. America’s most prominent Mormon, former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, castigated Trump in a no-holds-barred speech at the University of Utah, where he said that Trump lacked the temperament to be president. Jeff Flake, a Mormon senator from Arizona, recently published a book titled Conscience of a Conservative, where he decried his party’s “Faustian bargain” with Trump. The list goes on.
But Trump’s most recent clash with the country’s Mormons was on full display during his unhinged speech in Phoenix last night, in which he intimated that he might pardon the disgraced former sheriff of Maricopa County, Joe Arpaio. Arpaio, a demagogic race-baiter with a relationship with the truth every bit as frayed as Trump’s, was the defendant in a 2011 class-action suit by a group of Latinos who alleged that Arpaio ordered his sheriff’s department to racially profile them. In 2013, U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow issued an injunction ordering Arpaio to stop his discriminatory policing tactics, an injunction that Arpaio promptly and blatantly defied. His refusal to follow Snow’s order led U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton to find him guilty of criminal contempt in July of this year, a ruling that could expose him to up to 6 months of prison time when he is sentenced this October.
The injunction issued by Judge Snow, a Mormon and graduate of BYU’s law school, was unequivocal and crystal clear. And Arpaio’s refusal to follow it was proper grounds for his conviction for contempt. That should have been the end of the story.
Then entered Donald Trump.
Donald Trump feels a special kinship with Sheriff Arpaio. Just as Arpaio became the darling of the far-right for his bigoted approach to his Latino constituents, Trump rocketed to national prominence after his racist excoriation of Hispanic immigrants during a Trump Tower speech in June 2015. That appeal to the nativist, prejudiced impulses of a segment of the Republican base ushered him through the GOP primaries, helped him capture the party’s presidential nomination, and eventually landed him the Oval Office. Race-baiting may be bad for the country, but it has unfortunately worked out pretty well for Donald Trump.
Given the role of fomenting racial hatred in Trump’s ascent to power, it shouldn’t be a surprise that he has viewed with skepticism Arpaio’s conviction for prejudiced policing. He first manifested that skepticism on August 13, when he told Fox News that he was “seriously considering” a pardon for Arpaio. Trump doubled down on that statement on August 15, when he retweeted Fox’s account of the interview. Then last night, during a jaw-dropping display of demagoguery and megalomania in an address to a rally in Phoenix, Trump all-but-confirmed that Arpaio would be pardoned:
So, was Sheriff Joe convicted for doing his job? . . . I’ll make a prediction. I think he’s going to be just fine, OK? But — but I won’t do it tonight, because I don’t want to cause any controversy. Is that OK? All right? But Sheriff Joe can feel good.
Yes, presidents have an almost unlimited power to pardon persons accused or convicted of federal crimes, but that doesn’t mean they should exercise that power when it clearly undermines the rule of law. In the case of Arpaio, the lawman openly violated Judge Snow’s order, showing by his actions that he thought the rules didn’t apply to him. And lest someone argue that Judge Snow’s injunction was somehow biased against Arpaio, making a pardon justifiable, it’s worth remembering that Snow is a Republican appointee to the bench (he was tapped for the position by George W. Bush) who received his legal education at BYU’s relatively conservative law school.
The rule of law is one of the great “crown jewels” of our nation. While other countries struggle with politicized courts subject to the arbitrary whims of those in power, America’s judicial system is known for its impartiality, providing a predictable, fair legal atmosphere in which businesses and citizens can thrive. By suggesting that he will pardon Sheriff Arpaio, not only is Trump “giving the finger” to the sacred juridical authority of Judge Snow, he is also eroding the foundations of the legal system that has always made our country great.