ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Every president makes at least one controversial pardon. But Donald Trump's pardon of former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio is different. It came just seven months into the Trump presidency, and it was announced late Friday night on the verge of a historic storm headed for the Texas coast. President Trump stood by his decision at a news conference earlier today.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Sheriff Joe is a patriot. Sheriff Joe loves our country. Sheriff Joe protected our borders. And Sheriff Joe was very unfairly treated.
SHAPIRO: With us now to talk more about the pardon is NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Hi, Carrie.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Why did Joe Arpaio need to be pardoned in the first place?
JOHNSON: Arpaio had been sheriff in Maricopa County, Ariz., for years since 1993. But his treatment of Latinos had come under scrutiny. He was under allegations of racially profiling people, detaining people there for no legal reason, sometimes ensnaring U.S. citizens in the process, other complaints that he failed to investigate crimes like sexual assaults and that he mistreated inmates in his jails. A federal judge found he had defied a court order to stop detaining Latinos, and that judge referred him to the Justice Department to face federal contempt charges. He was convicted earlier this year.
SHAPIRO: He had been a longtime supporter of Donald Trump. They were allies in making the false claim that President Obama was born outside of the U.S. What reason did Trump give for granting this pardon?
JOHNSON: The president gave Joe Arpaio credit for being a military veteran, a law enforcement figure devoted to the people of Arizona. And essentially, Ari, the White House has sweeping power under the Constitution to grant these pardons for federal crimes. The consequences for President Trump would be political, not legal ones.
SHAPIRO: At the press conference today, President Trump went on offense. He said there is a long history of presidents doling out pardons for political reasons. Put that into context for us.
JOHNSON: Well, as Trump said, in his own defense, President Obama commuted or shortened the prison sentence of Chelsea Manning. Chelsea Manning was convicted of leaking State Department cables and war logs to the website WikiLeaks. She served seven years of a 35-year sentence. Obama also pardoned his favorite general, James Cartwright. Cartwright had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in another leak case, and he wasn't yet sentenced when he won that pardon from Obama. Also mentioned by Trump today - in the Bill Clinton years, Clinton's last-minute pardon of fugitive money man Marc Rich wound up launching investigations by Congress and the Justice Department.
SHAPIRO: So what makes the Arpaio case different from those examples?
JOHNSON: Well, legal experts are pointing out that Arpaio was convicted of violating a federal judge's order. That goes to the heart of the judicial system and its legitimacy from a president who's already been blasting judges and his own attorney general. Speaking of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, The Washington Post has reported Trump asked Sessions earlier this year to get rid of the case against Arpaio before it went to trial, but Sessions said no. I've been talking to a former Justice Department officials about that. Matthew Axelrod worked for the Obama Justice Department. Here's what he had to say.
MATTHEW AXELROD: It's a distressing breach of a traditional and necessary wall of separation between the White House and the Department of Justice when it comes to criminal cases. It's a bedrock principle of law enforcement that criminal investigations and prosecutions must be conducted independent of politics.
JOHNSON: Independent of politics - and President Obama's attorney general, Eric Holder, tweeted this weekend, the number of times over six years that President Obama called and asked me to think about dropping a case - zero.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson on the controversial pardon of Sheriff - former Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Thanks a lot, Carrie.
JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.