SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
President Trump dropped a big, fat hint Tuesday night in a speech in Phoenix.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I'll make a prediction. I think he's going to be just fine, OK?
SIMON: And last night, the president followed through. He pardoned former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Arpaio was found guilty of criminal contempt of court just last month. He could've served six months in jail, except he hadn't been sentenced yet. A statement from the White House called the sheriff, quote, a "selfless public service" - I'm sorry - that he exemplifies selfless public service and called him, quote, a "worthy candidate for a presidential pardon." NPR's Ted Robbins covered Sheriff Arpaio for a decade in Arizona. Ted's now at our studios at NPR West in Culver City. Ted, thanks for being with us.
TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: My pleasure, Scott.
SIMON: The sheriff was convicted of a misdemeanor. And it stemmed from a case involving racial profiling, right?
ROBBINS: Yes. He was convicted less than a month ago by a federal judge in Phoenix. Arpaio had been ordered by a different judge to stop his deputies from detaining Latino drivers just because they looked like they might be undocumented immigrants. That is racial profiling, and it's illegal. Arpaio kept doing it for a year and a half anyway, so he was convicted of contempt. Arpaio admitted he didn't follow the judge's order, but he claimed it was unintentional. A sentencing was set for October. And, as you said, he faced up to six months in jail and a fine.
SIMON: And what's the range of reaction been so far?
ROBBINS: Well, Sheriff Joe, as he's known, tweeted, thank you @realDonaldTrump for seeing my conviction for what it is, a political witch hunt by holdovers in the Obama Justice Department. He also thanked his supporters, and he asked them for money for his legal defense fund. Arizona's governor, who's a Republican, Doug Ducey - he supports the pardon. The mayor of Phoenix, Greg Stanton, who's a Democrat, called it a slap in the face, especially to Latinos. And both of Arizona's senators, who are Republicans, John McCain and Jeff, Flake opposed it. Flake said he had wished the president let the judicial process take its course. McCain said the pardon undermines Trump's claim that he respects the rule of law.
And it's a good idea to note here, Scott, that the president does have the constitutional authority to pardon federal criminals. But Justice Department rules require a five-year waiting period after sentencing, except in the rarest of cases. And, also, Arpaio has not admitted guilt. He said he was going to appeal. But if he accepts the pardon, he's admitting guilt. I mean, you can't be pardoned for something you didn't do.
SIMON: And I believe legal scholars have said that he might be vulnerable to civil suits now, private settlements. He called himself America's toughest sheriff. What did he mean by that?
ROBBINS: Well, he was known in the early days for setting up outdoor tent cities for inmates in Phoenix's heat, giving them pink jumpsuits to wear, green bologna sandwiches to eat. And then in 2005, he decided to start going after undocumented immigrants. He would hold them in his jails for federal ICE officers to pick up. He would deliver immigrants to the Border Patrol when ICE didn't want them. He did what he called saturation patrols in neighborhoods. I rode with his deputies on a few of those patrols. They would sweep up whoever they thought looked suspicious.
And that's what led to a lawsuit by the ACLU on behalf of Latino citizens who had been stopped. And I should say, all during this time, Sheriff Joe was criticized for poor jail conditions, prisoner abuse, poor response times to citizen calls. And that was by the conservative and libertarian Goldwater Institute. So Arpaio is 85 now. And he was elected sheriff of Maricopa County for 23 years, six terms. He lost for the first time last year.
SIMON: And he and President Trump go back a long ways, don't they?
ROBBINS: Yep. He was an early supporter of Trump's presidential campaign. Before that, both were leading proponents of the falsehood that President Obama was not a U.S. citizen. The two men share a love of publicity. Arpaio was always up for a public experience - appearance or an interview. I spoke with him many times. He even at a short-lived reality TV show called "Smile... You're Under Arrest," where fugitives were lured by the promise of things like Super Bowl tickets. And then they were arrested on camera.
SIMON: NPR's Ted Robbins, thanks so much.
ROBBINS: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.