Commentary: Trump, Arpaio and the storm on decency

By John Krull 

INDIANAPOLIS – Forget about draining the swamp.

This is more like burning down the house.

John Krull, publisher,

As the high winds and water prepared to hammer Houston and other parts of Texas, President Donald Trump thought the moment was right to deliver a few blows of his own.

He issued a presidential pardon for former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and banned transgender Americans from serving in the military.

The former was an insult to the idea of law, the latter an assault on love of country.

And the timing of the announcement?

An affront to decency.

Let’s talk about the ban on transgender Americans first.

As is often the case, neither the president nor his followers really are thinking about what they’ve done.

The reason we have a military is to defend the nation and its interests. As such, the decisions made about which citizens will make up our armed forces are based on their capacity to defend the country.

The reason we don’t let 8-year-old children or 90-year-old men and women serve, for example, is that we know they are unlikely to be able to stand up to the rigors of combat.

The standard is that the defense of the nation comes first when we decide who will wear our country’s uniforms.

That’s why the late U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Arizona – the political patriarch of the conservative moment – once famously said that he didn’t care whether a prospective soldier was “straight” or not, so long as he or she could shoot straight.

The president and his narrowing band of true believers now want to substitute a new primary focus on military service. They want the nation first to satisfy their bias against some fellow citizens, and then, only after that’s been done, think about defending the nation.

Some patriots.

The president’s pardon of Arpaio is similarly short-sighted.

While he was campaigning for office, Trump pledged, again and again, that we Americans would have “law and order” if he were in the White House.

But, to do that, one must follow the law. There’s little evidence Arpaio did that.

In violation of both civil right laws and the U.S. Constitution’s promises of due process, Arpaio targeted citizens for arrest and incarceration based on their skin color, denied them medical care and, at times, access to their legal counsel and, ultimately, defied a court order telling him he had to stop. He boasted, in fact, that he liked to run his jail “like a concentration camp.”

Then, when he found himself facing legal charges and incarceration himself, Arpaio complained that his rights were being violated.

That’s what’s known as irony.

According to The Washington Post, Trump tried to get Attorney General Jeff Sessions to end the prosecution of Arpaio. When Sessions told Trump that would be “inappropriate,” the president opted to issue the pardon.

A pardon, though, carries with it an implicit admission of guilt and a waiver of several constitutional rights, including the Fifth Amendment one that allows a person to avoid incriminating himself or herself. That means Arpaio won’t be able to refuse to answer questions in any court proceedings without facing punishment.

Because both Trump and Arpaio have made a practice of spitting on the nation’s judges and the judicial branch, the courts likely won’t give Arpaio the benefit of the doubt. The Arizona sheriff, thanks to the president, now may find himself trapped in a quagmire without the legal protections people in the United States so often count upon and even take for granted – a bit like the people he slapped in his “concentration camp.”

Still more irony.

As troubling as Trump’s actions were regarding Arpaio and transgender Americans, the timing of his announcement was even more offensive.

Politicians long have chosen to drop controversial or unpopular announcements late on Fridays in summer. They do so because they know most Americans just want to think about the weekend and they’re not likely to be paying attention to politics.

Something generally stops most politicians – even the most ambitious and hardened ones – from doing this when a natural disaster is in the offing and American lives are at risk.

It’s something this president doesn’t seem to have.

It’s called a conscience.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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