By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS and MAGGIE HABERMAN
© 2017 New York Times News Service
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Friday pardoned Joe Arpaio, the former Arizona sheriff whose aggressive efforts to hunt down and detain unauthorized immigrants made him a national symbol of the divisive politics of immigration and earned him a criminal contempt conviction.
Trump called Arpaio “an American patriot” in a tweet later Friday. “He kept Arizona safe!” the president said.
In his own tweets, Arpaio thanked Trump and called his conviction “a political witch hunt by holdovers in the Obama Justice Department.” He also pointed his supporters to a website that was accepting donations to help him pay off his legal fees.
Trump, who made cracking down on illegal immigration a signature campaign issue and had pressed for local officials to do more to assist federal authorities in rounding up unauthorized immigrants, had been openly flirting with the idea of pardoning Arpaio.
“I won’t do it tonight because I don’t want to cause any controversy,” the president said Tuesday night at a campaign-style rally in Phoenix, after asking, “Was Sheriff Joe convicted for doing his job?”
“I’ll make a prediction: I think he’s going to be just fine,” Trump said.
Arpaio, 85, served for 24 years as sheriff of Maricopa County — which includes Phoenix — building a national reputation for harsh conditions in his county jail, and for his campaign against undocumented immigrants.
The criminal conviction grew out of a lawsuit filed a decade ago charging that the sheriff’s office regularly violated the rights of Latinos, detaining them based solely on the suspicion that they were in the country illegally.
A federal district judge hearing the case ordered Arpaio in 2011 to stop detaining people based solely on suspicion of their immigration status, when there was no evidence that a state law had been broken. But the sheriff insisted that his tactics were legal and that he would continue employing them.
He was convicted last month of criminal contempt of court for defying the order, a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail.
The pardon was swiftly condemned on Twitter by Democrats in Congress as “outrageous and completely unacceptable” and a “disgrace.”