Washington: President Donald Trump defended his pardon of former Phoenix-area sheriff Joe Arpaio in the face of criticism from lawmakers of both parties, calling him a patriot who was unfairly treated by the Obama administration.

“A lot of people think it was the right thing to do," Trump said Monday at a press conference at the White House with President Sauli Niinistö of Finland. “I stand by my pardon of sheriff Joe."

Trump said Arpaio was more worthy of a pardon than some people granted clemency by his two Democratic predecessors, former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. He specifically cited the controversial pardon of financier Marc Rich, who was convicted of illegally trading with Iran and pardoned on Clinton’s last day in office. He also mentioned Obama’s decision to commute the sentence of Chelsea Manning, a former Army soldier convicted by court martial for disclosing classified and sensitive government documents to WikiLeaks.

The reprieve of Arpaio, who was convicted of federal misdemeanour criminal contempt this year after a judge found he had defied a court order to stop targeting Latinos with sweeps of suspected undocumented immigrants, has drawn fresh criticism of the president’s handling of racially-charged issues. The pardon follows Trump comments on violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, that many people interpreted as drawing an equivalence between white supremacists and counter-protesters.

The Arpaio pardon, announced late on a Friday night while the nation focused on Hurricane Harvey’s landfall in Texas, stirred broad criticism, including objections from Republican lawmakers such as House Speaker Paul Ryan.

‘Higher ratings’

Trump said he didn’t try to bury the news of the pardon on a Friday night because “ratings would be higher" for news programs thanks to coverage of the hurricane. During 24 years as sheriff of Maricopa County, Arpaio, 85, segregated prisoners by race and forced them to live in outdoor tents in the sun, wear pink underwear, and work on chain gangs.

While supporters argued the tactics were a successful deterrent to criminal behaviour in the county, which includes the city of Phoenix, detractors said the practices were racist and pointed to multiple instances of mistreatment that led to the death or injury of prisoners. Arpaio also drew attention for his support of Trump’s effort to falsely accuse Obama of not being born in the US.

An aide to Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, said the pardon undermined respect for the rule of law.

“Law enforcement officials have a special responsibility to respect the rights of everyone in the United States," Ryan spokesman Doug Andres said in an email. “We should not allow anyone to believe that responsibility is diminished by this pardon."

Arizona senators

John McCain and Jeff Flake, the two Republicans representing Arizona in the US Senate, also said they had concerns with the pardon. Trump’s pardon “undermines his claim for the respect of rule of law as Mr. Arpaio has shown no remorse for his actions," McCain said in a statement.

Arpaio said he felt “vindicated" by the pardon in a telephone interview. “I have to thank the president of the United States," he said.

In a separate interview with the Washington Examiner, Arpaio, who was defeated last year in his bid for a seventh term as sheriff, said he was contemplating reentering the political fray, and said he was considering a primary challenge of Flake next year.

“All I’m saying is the door is open and we’ll see what happens," he said. “I’ve got support. I know what support I have."

Trump didn’t vet the pardon through the Justice Department, breaking with standard procedure for issuing presidential pardons, according to an official with knowledge of the decision who asked not to be identified.

Justice Department guidelines say pardon requests shouldn’t be made until five years have passed between a conviction or completion of a sentence. And requests are usually vetted by the Pardon Attorney. But there are no legal constraints on the president if he decides to issue a pardon. Bloomberg

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