Monday 23 April 2018

Bad news, buried deep

White House accused of hiding controversial pardon behind hurricane dead, writes Nick Allen

No remorse: US President Donald Trump and Joe Arpaio, whom he pardoned last week. Arapio had been found guilty of criminal contempt for illegally profile Latinos living in Arizona Photo: PA
No remorse: US President Donald Trump and Joe Arpaio, whom he pardoned last week. Arapio had been found guilty of criminal contempt for illegally profile Latinos living in Arizona Photo: PA

The White House was accused last night of "using the cover of a hurricane" to release a slew of controversial announcements.

As the potentially catastrophic storm made landfall, Donald Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio, America's "toughest sheriff", high-profile British-born adviser Sebastian Gorka left the administration, and the president officially signed his ban on transgender people in the military.

Veteran: John McCain
Veteran: John McCain

A row then erupted over Mr Gorka's departure, as the former deputy assistant to the president claimed he had resigned, while a senior White House official said: "Sebastian Gorka did not resign, but I can confirm he no longer works at the White House."

Mr Gorka, who previously worked at the news website Breitbart, had caused discord within the administration by espousing hard-line views on national security in numerous media appearances. He released a "resignation letter" in which he wrote: "It is clear to me that forces that do not support the 'Make America Great Again' promise are, for now, ascendant within the White House."

Mr Gorka also criticised Mr Trump's recent speech on Afghanistan, calling the prospect of future US actions there "worrying".

His departure had been widely expected following that of Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist, who recently returned to his previous role running Breitbart. The pardoning of Joe Arpaio, the Arizona sheriff, was the first of Trump's presidency and sparked a fierce backlash.

Veteran senator John McCain has led criticism of the pardon, saying it "undermines his claim for the respect of rule of law".

Joe Arpaio, 85, ignored a 2011 court ruling that blocked him from racially profiling Latino residents and was convicted of contempt of court less than a month ago, leaving him facing potential time behind bars. He had gained notoriety for backing Trump's "birther" campaign and for his massive round-ups of suspected illegal immigrants. At Maricopa County jail he reinstated chain gangs and banned coffee, salt and pepper. Mr Trump said Mr Arpaio was an "American patriot" who "kept Arizona safe!".

But his longtime critic, Mr McCain, said: "No one is above the law and the individuals entrusted with the privilege of being sworn law officers should always seek to be beyond reproach in their commitment to fairly enforcing the laws they swore to uphold. Mr Arpaio was found guilty of criminal contempt for continuing to illegally profile Latinos living in Arizona based on their perceived immigration status in violation of a judge's orders.

"The President has the authority to make this pardon, but doing so at this time undermines his claim for the respect of rule of law as Mr Arpaio has shown no remorse for his actions."

Cecillia Wang, a lawyer who helped press the racial profiling case against Arpaio, called the pardon "a presidential endorsement of racism". Mr Trump "has acted in support of illegal, failed immigration enforcement practices that target people of colour and have been struck down by the courts", she said.

Her view was echoed by former Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders, who said the pardon "has again made clear Trump will use the powers of the presidency to defend racism and discrimination".

Mr Arpaio was due to be sentenced in October and faced up to six months in prison. Mr McCain has been a public target of Mr Trump's anger for his July vote against the repeal of Obamacare - a legislative win Mr Trump desperately needed.

Such is the battering that Mr Trump has taken just seven months into his presidency, Republicans and right-leaning independents have begun to contemplate the possibility of an organized bid to take down the sitting president in 2020.

No president in the modern era has been defeated by a member of his own party, and significant political and practical barriers stand in the way. The Republican National Committee, now run by Trump loyalists, owns the rulebook for nominating the party's standard-bearer and is working with the White House to ensure a process favourable to the president.

Yet Trump's muddled response to the white power rally in Charlottesville, Virginia looks like a turning point. Even before Trump's divisive remarks, his public approval ratings were bad. Gallup found in mid-August that the president earned the approval of just 34pc of all adults and 79pc of Republicans.

Ohio governor John Kasich has not ruled out a second run in 2020. And a handful of wealthy outsiders including outspoken Texas billionaire Mark Cuban, and wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson, are being encouraged to throw their hats into the ring. The actor (No2 best-paid in the world, earning $65m last year) is a former Republican-turned-independent, who said in May that he'd "like to see a better leadership" from the Republican president.

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