It may be a couple more days before we know how much death and damage Harvey is causing in Texas. And it may be much longer before we can fully assess how much death and damage Trump is causing around the globe. But yesterday, we got a glimpse.
Taking advantage of the weekend plus Harvey, the Trump White House made three significant moves. Ones, it flushed Sebastian Gorka. This is a good thing, of course, and I don’t believe for a minute that Gorka voluntarily resigned.
But it’s all downhill from there. Trump issued an executive order that formally bans transgendered people from serving in the military. Details for how this is going to be implemented have yet to be worked out; Trump doesn’t do details. A lot of good servicepeople must be wondering what’s next.
It is hard to gauge the political fallout of the presidentâ€™s decision â€” announced as it was late on a Friday night during an impending hurricane. Normally, though, as political scientist Jeffrey Crouchâ€™sÂ book on the pardon powerÂ makes clear, pardons are granted for two reasons: either to provide mercy or correct a miscarriage of justice, in an individual case; or on more general grounds based on public policy.
Arpaio’s pardon hardly fits that description.
As a procedural matter, theÂ guidelinesÂ of the Justice Departmentâ€™s office of theÂ pardon attorneyÂ â€” not binding on the president, of course, and not consulted in this instance â€” state that petitions for clemency are normally considered only after five years have passed after a conviction. (Further,Â in considering such petitions, â€œThe extent to which a petitioner has accepted responsibility for his or her criminal conduct and made restitution to its victims are important considerations.â€)
Pardons also serve as a check against the judicial branch, when the president feels a grave miscarriage of justice has occurred. At his Phoenix rally,Â Trump seemed to make this claim,Â saying that â€œSheriff Joe was convicted for doing his job.â€
The problem with that, though, is that Arpaio was convicted for doing the opposite of his job. As a sworn officer of law enforcement, he violated the law and then ignored court orders designed to bring his policies in line with statutory and constitutional mandates. Two differentÂ federal judges found, respectively, that the â€œconstitutional violationsâ€ committed by Arpaioâ€™s office were â€œbroad in scope, involve its highest ranking command staff, and flow into its management of internal affairs investigationsâ€ and that he â€œwillfully violatedâ€ directives to correct those violations.
But Trump thinks he’s a good guy, so the laws don’t have to apply to him.
The broader question raised by the pardon, then, is where Trump would draw the line. If heâ€™s willing to pardon Joe Arpaio for ignoring a court order in service of a political goal Trump embraces, why wouldnâ€™t he pardon another individual he respects for similarly ignoring a demand from the court. Say, a former employee or a family member who, say, was issued a subpoena to testify before a special prosecutor?
One message from the Arpaio pardon is precisely that Trump sees his evaluation of the boundaries of legality as superior to the boundaries set by the legal system. The Constitution gives him that power. As weâ€™veÂ noted beforeÂ the presidential pardon is absolute. He can pardon anyone for any federal crime at any time â€”Â even before the person actually faces any charges and even if no crime actually took place. Thereâ€™s nothing anyone can do about it, except to impeach Trump and remove him from office to prevent him from doing it again. (The president who replaces him might be able to revoke a recent pardon, one expert told us, but itâ€™s far from certain.)
And he’ll do it, too. Trump has no moral compass and no scruples. None whatsoever.