But you probably won’t hear about it on cable television, not with a hurricane raging. President Trump timed this pardon for what a compulsive TV viewer would regard as maximum stealth, for a time when the imperatives of viewership demand non-stop coverage of the dangers and drama of a great storm. Then will come the aftermath: the heart-rending stories of loss; the harrowing stories of survivorship. Then the storm will pass, the untelegenic work of rebuilding will commence, and it will be next week, and soon after that back to school—and time for the president to generate new dramas.
Donald Trump, a showman who understands better than any of his recent predecessors how to seize and command the nation’s attention, will have applied that same showman’s talent to a diversion of attention from a story he would prefer that most Americans not hear about.
At the beginning of the Trump presidency, I quoted a wise observer from Hungary: “The benefit of controlling a modern state is less the power to persecute the innocent, more the power to protect the guilty.” Trump has exhibited what that power of protection can do.
Here’s what he will accomplish while most of the nation follows the all-absorbing human drama from the Gulf Coast:
1. He has intervened in the Senate race he cares about most in the whole 2018 cycle—boosting enthusiasm among the die-hard Republicans who back Kelli Ward in her primary challenge against the incumbent senator Jeff Flake. Ward is an Arpaio supporter. Meanwhile, Flake, an Arpaio non-fan in a pro-Arpaio party, has been thrust into an awkward middle position. “Regarding the Arpaio pardon, I would have preferred that the President honor the judicial process and let it take its course,” Flake tweeted Friday night. Flake may be the GOP’s best hope to hold the Arizona seat in a difficult electoral year. Trump does not think in those terms. Instead, Trump notices that Flake has opposed him and criticized him. So Flake must be destroyed, regardless of consequences for Senate Republicans or even Trump’s own longer-term interests. In that goal, Trump has just succeeded.
2. The president has proven that he is master within his own White House. It is hard to imagine that anybody in the White House—even his deferential White House counsel Don McGahn—could have advised or approved this provocative pardon of an unrepentant defier of court orders. Obviously the pardon could not have flowed through the usual presidential review process. That process is, among other things, slow: President Obama issued his first round of pardons on December 31, 2010, almost two full years into his presidency; George W. Bush not until May 20, 2004; nearly three-and-a-half years into his.
3. Trump has given hope to anyone implicated in his own scandals that—if they keep loyal to him—he will defy all other considerations and ignore all contrary advice to protect them. Like his presidency, Trump’s pardons will be a one-man show, conducted without regard to ethical niceties or even ordinary political calculations. That must come as reassuring news to a whole host of characters embroiled in the Russia probe.