"I'm going to surround myself only with the best and most serious people," Donald Trump said when he was a candidate for president. Top-notch, grade A, cream of the crop, platinum-quality people, people so terrific they're the human equivalent of marble floors and gold-leaf wallpaper.
Yet even then, there were subtle hints that perhaps Trump was not in fact going to surround himself with the best people. Maybe it was the enthusiastic support he got from the likes of convicted rapist Mike Tyson, or jerktastic basketball coach Bobby Knight, or NFL bully Richie Incognito. Maybe it was all those spittle-flecked dudes in "Trump that bitch" T-shirts at his rallies. Maybe it was the Nazis and Klansmen who kept expressing their enthusiasm about his candidacy. ("The reason a lot of Klan members like Donald Trump is because a lot of what he believes in, we believe in," said one Imperial Wizard of the KKK.) Put it all together and you may have gotten the idea that something other than the best people were by Trump's side.
So it wasn't surprising that Trump bestowed his first presidential pardon not on someone given an unjust sentence or someone who had turned their life around after a conviction, but on Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona. Trump and Arpaio apparently first bonded over their shared interest in the racist conspiracy theory that Barack Obama isn't actually an American, and Arpaio was an enthusiastic supporter of Trump's campaign. Because Arpaio is being widely described as "controversial," we ought to remind ourselves of some of the things he did during his time as sheriff. While the crime for which he was convicted—refusing to obey a court order to cease his department's relentless racial profiling of Latinos—showed the contempt Arpaio had for the law, it was nowhere near the worst of what he did in the reign of terror that was his time as sheriff.
Arpaio ran jails with conditions so squalid and brutal that an estimated 160 prisoners died in his care. He put detainees in tents outside in the oppressive Arizona heat in temperatures that reached 145 degrees; Arpaio himself called his tent city "a concentration camp." He was particularly fond of humiliating prisoners with things like chain gangs, and he once put a webcam in the bathroom of a women's jail so prisoners would have to relieve themselves in full view of the internet. He used his office to harass and intimidate people who were critical of him; according to a 2011 Justice Department investigation, Arpaio's department "arrested individuals without cause, filed meritless complaints against the political adversaries of Sheriff Arpaio, and initiated unfounded civil lawsuits and investigations against individuals critical of MCSO policies and practices," including journalists and judges. That report also said his department had "a pervasive culture of discriminatory bias against Latinos." The department was so obsessed with pursuing undocumented immigrants that it let serious crimes vanquish with little or no investigation, including hundreds of cases of rape and child sex abuse. Then there was the time he and his deputies staged a phony assassination plot and framed an innocent man for it, who ended up spending four years in jail before being cleared of the charges. Taxpayers had to pay out an average of over $6 million every year of the more than two decades of Arpaio's tenure from lawsuits filed by people his department abused and harassed in various ways.
There was zero question of Arpaio's guilt in the case for which he was convicted—he not only defied the court order, he went on Fox News to proclaim he was going to do so. But as soon as President Trump took office, he wanted to help out his buddy. As The Washington Post reported this weekend, "The president asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions whether it would be possible for the government to drop the criminal case against Arpaio, but was advised that would be inappropriate."
So it was left to Jeff Sessions—another of Trump's "best people," who took time out from bringing back the War on Drugs—to rein in Trump's lawless instinct to squash the trial of a racist authoritarian who believed he was above the law ("No one tells the sheriff what to do," Arpaio would regularly brag). A clear message has been sent to those who might get swept up in the Russia investigation: As long as you stay on Donald Trump's good side, you might get bailed out of trouble when you break the law.
As ever, Trump is focused intently on distinguishing the good people from the bad people. The Arpaio pardon of course came not long after Trump went to such great lengths to defend and compliment those who marched with neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville. He called them "very fine people," a contrast to the assessment he gave days later of those in the media who have the temerity to write down the words he says: "These are really, really dishonest people, and they're bad people. And I really think they don't like our country. I really believe that."
Meanwhile, Trump's White House has suffered an endless cycle of resignations and firings, from Flynn to Priebus to Spicer to Scaramucci to Bannon to Gorka (not to mention a bunch of aides you've barely heard of), in large part because the actual "best people" in the Republican Party don't want to forever besmirch their reputations by working for this president. So instead he gets not the best people, but the best people by one particular definition. It's not those with the most skill or competence or integrity, it's those who are loyal to Donald Trump. As long as they stay loyal, they're the best; once that loyalty is in doubt, they become the worst.
But those around Trump were always the worst people—that's who he attracted, and that's who he's attracted to. It was true during the campaign, and it gets more true all the time.