Donald Trump has defended his widely condemned decision to pardon Joe Arpaio, calling the former sheriff in Arizona a “patriot” and launching a counter-attack on past presidential pardons.
Trump has received bipartisan criticism for sparing Arpaio, one of the most divisive law enforcement figures in the US, possible jail time for defying a court order to stop racially profiling Latino people.
During a joint press conference with the visiting president of Finland, Trump insisted of Arpaio: “He’s done a great job for the people of Arizona. He’s very strong on borders, very strong on illegal immigration. He is loved in Arizona. I thought he was treated unbelievably unfairly when they came down with their big decision to go get him right before the election voting started.”
Last November, Arpaio, a hardliner on illegal immigration, lost his bid for a seventh term as sheriff of Maricopa County, which contains Phoenix, as many Latino voters backed his opponent.
When Trump pardoned him last week, the White House released only a perfunctory two paragraph statement by way of explanation. At the press conference, the president seemed to imply that the noise generated by his supporters was a factor in his thinking. “When I mentioned him the other night, you saw the massive crowd we had,” he said, referring to a rally in Phoenix last Tuesday. “People went crazy when I said, ‘What do you think of Sheriff Joe?’ or something to that effect.”
Trump said he had anticipated Monday’s question and proceeded to read, from some pre-prepared notes, a list controversial pardons and commutations by previous presidents. It included Bill Clinton’s pardon of commodities trader and fugitive Marc Rich, who was wanted for tax evasion and whose ex-wife donated to the Clintons, and “dangerous criminals” such as Weather Underground bomber Susan Rosenberg.
He continued: “You’ve heard the word leaker. President Obama commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning, who leaked countless sensitive and classified documents to WikiLeaks, perhaps and others. But horrible, horrible thing that he did, commuted the sentence and perhaps pardoned.”
The Arpaio pardon was announced last Friday night as Hurricane Harvey closed in on Texas with heavy winds and severe flooding. But Trump rejected accusations that he was hoping to bury the news, claiming instead that he announced the pardon then because he knew people would be watching.
“In the middle of a hurricane, even though it was Friday evening, I assumed the ratings would be far higher than they would be normally,” he said.
Trump also continued to insist that Mexico will pay for his long-promised border wall. “One way or the other Mexico will pay for the wall,” he said, arguing that, while the project may initially be funded by US taxpayers, “ultimately” Mexico will pay through reimbursement.
Trump recently threatened to force a federal government shutdown unless Congress provides funding for his wall. He said: “I hope that’s not necessary. If it’s necessary, we’ll have to see.”
Yet again he seemed reluctant to criticise Russia, which borders Finland. Asked if Russia poses a security threat, he replied: “I consider many countries as a security threat.” He repeated previous comments hoping that Washington could eventually “get along” with Moscow.
Facing the first major natural disaster of his presidency, Trump said he would visit Texas on Tuesday and return on Saturday. “There’s probably never been anything like this.” He promised an aid package for recovery will come “very quickly”, adding: “The real number, which will be many billions of dollars, will go through Congress.”
At one point during Monday’s press conference in the East Room of the White House, president Sauli Niinistö agreed to a question from a Finnish journalist whom Trump mistakenly thought had already asked one. Trump said: “Again? You’re going to give her the same one?” Niinistö replied: “No, she is not the same lady, they are sitting side by side.” The journalist interjected: “We have a lot of blonde women in Finland.”