KELLY MCEVERS, 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. With us to talk more about the pardon is NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Hello there.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hey, Kelly.
MCEVERS: So 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. There were allegations he was engaging in racially profiling people, detaining people there for no good, legal reason, sometimes ensnaring U.S. citizens. There were also complaints he failed to investigate other crimes - sexual assaults - and that he mistreated inmates in his jails. A federal judge found that Arpaio had defied a court order to stop detaining Latinos, referred him to the Justice Department on contempt charges. And earlier this year, Kelly, he was convicted.
MCEVERS: Joe Arpaio had been a longtime supporter of Donald Trump, and they were allies in making the false claim that President Obama had been born outside of the United States. Why did President Trump say that he granted this pardon?
JOHNSON: According to a White House statement late Friday, Arpaio is 85 years old, military veteran, a longtime law enforcement figure devoted to his country. President Trump was motivated by those factors. Now, the president has sweeping power under the Constitution to grant pardons for federal crimes. Joe Arpaio never went through the Justice Department process for applying for clemency, which usually requires a conviction, punishment and a wait about five years. But under the law, President Trump's able to bypass that system and go it alone. The consequences for him are political, not legal.
MCEVERS: Supporters of the White House have pointed out that there is a long history of presidents who give out pardons for political reasons. Is that true?
JOHNSON: Yes and no. President Obama granted more clemencies than any president since Harry Truman, nearly 2,000 of them mostly to drug criminals. But Obama also commuted or shortened the prison sentence of Chelsea Manning. Manning was convicted of leaking State Department cables and war logs to WikiLeaks. She served seven years.
Obama also pardoned his favorite general. That's a man named James Cartwright, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in another leak case. Cartwright was not yet sentenced when he won the pardon from Obama soon before Obama left office. And of course in the Bill Clinton years, his last-minute pardon of the fugitive money man Marc Rich launched investigations by Congress and the Justice Department.
MCEVERS: So how is Joe Arpaio's case different, if at all, from those examples?
JOHNSON: Well, I've been talking to legal experts since last weekend. Legal experts are pointing out that Arpaio was convicted of violating a federal judge's order, which goes to the heart of the judicial system and its legitimacy from a president who's blasted judges and his own attorney general. Speaking of that attorney general, the Washington Post reported Trump asked Attorney General Sessions to get rid of the case against Arpaio before it went to trial this year. Sessions said no. I talked with a guy named Matt Axelrod, who was an official in the Obama Justice Department, about that. Here's what he had to say.
MATT 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: So independent of politics - speaking of that independence, President Obama's attorney general, Eric Holder, tweeted over the weekend, the number of times over six years that Obama called and asked me to think about dropping a case - zero.
MCEVERS: NPR's Carrie Johnson, thank you so much.
JOHNSON: You're welcome.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.