President Trump gave a strenuous defense of his pardon of former Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona on Monday, calling him a “patriot” and saying his two Democratic predecessors had pardoned criminals who should never have received clemency.
“A lot of people think it was the right thing to do,” Mr. Trump said of his pardon. “He’s really strong on the border, really strong on illegal immigration. Sheriff Joe is a patriot. Sheriff Joe loves our country.”
In a half-hour press conference, Mr. Trump also stood firm on his threat to shut down the government if congressional Democrats block funding for a wall on the border with Mexico, saying the wall was crucial to U.S. security and stopping the flow of illegal drugs.
Mr. Trump said he hoped a shutdown wouldn’t be necessary.
“We’ll have to see,” he said. “The wall is needed from the standpoint of security. The wall is needed from the standpoint of drugs — the tremendous drug scourge. We will build the wall and we will stop a lot of things including the drugs. The drugs are pouring in at levels nobody has ever seen. We will be able to stop them once the wall is up.”
In his first public comment since issuing the pardon Friday night for Mr. Arpaio, a lightning rod for years in the national immigration debate, Mr. Trump came to a White House press conference prepared to justify his action.
When a reporter asked about the pardon, Mr. Trump reached into the pocket of his suit coat and pulled out a sheet detailing some of his predecessors’ more egregious clemency orders.
Mr. Trump noted that former President Bill Clinton, just before leaving office, pardoned financier Marc Rich, “who was charged with crimes going back decades, including illegally buying oil from Iran” while Tehran was holding American hostages. He also pointed out that Rich’s wife “donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Clintons.”
Rich was a fugitive who owed the U.S. $48 million in taxes and was charged with 51 counts of tax fraud when Mr. Clinton pardoned him. His ex-wife, Denise Eisenberg Rich, made large donations to the Clinton presidential library and to Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the U.S. Senate.
Mr. Trump said Mr. Clinton pardoned “dangerous criminals” such as Susan Rosenberg, a member of the Weather Underground terrorist group that carried out deadly bombings and bank robberies in the U.S. in the 1970s and 1980s, and granted clemency to major drug dealers.
He criticized Mr. Obama for commuting the sentences of transgender military-secrets leaker Chelsea Manning, and Oscar Lopez Rivera, a member of a violent Puerto Rican independence group responsible for deadly bombings in the U.S.
Mr. Arpaio was convicted of criminal contempt of court for ignoring a court order to stop arresting people on suspicion of being illegal immigrants. He was to be sentenced later this fall.
The former Maricopa County sheriff, who lost a bid for re-election last November, was an early supporter of the president’s campaign as Mr. Trump made an immigration crackdown a key issue in his bid for the White House.
Mr. Arpaio’s lawyers filed a motion Monday asking the judge who convicted him to not only end the case, but also to expunge even the record of there ever having been a conviction.
The lawyers, pointing to a precedent in the District of Columbia, said that because Mr. Arpaio hadn’t exhausted all of his appeals, his conviction was never final, so he shouldn’t have that stain on his past.
Mr. Trump also said Mr. Arpaio “was very unfairly treated by the Obama administration,” saying the previous administration “just hammered him” with a criminal prosecution before his re-election bid last year.
Democrats and some Republicans, including House Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, have criticized the pardon of Mr. Arpaio. Mr. Ryan’s office said law enforcement officials “have a special responsibility to respect the rights of everyone in the United States.”
The pardon, the first of Mr. Trump’s presidency, came Friday night as Hurricane Harvey bore down on the Texas coast and was dominating the news cycle. Critics accused the president of trying to slip in the pardon when much of the country wasn’t paying attention.
The president disagreed with that assessment, saying he chose the timing because he believed more people would be watching TV at the time.
“In the middle of a hurricane, even though it was a Friday evening, I assumed the ratings would be far higher than they would be normally,” Mr. Trump said. “You know, the hurricane was just starting.”
On the campaign trail, Mr. Trump promoted the border wall mostly as a way to stop illegal immigrants. But at the press conference he stressed its value in combating the drug trade, as the country remains in the rip of an epidemic opioid and heroin addiction.
“You need the wall to do the rest and you need the wall for the drugs. The drugs are a tremendous problem,” Mr. Trump said. “It will greatly help with the drug problem and ultimately that’s a good thing with Mexico also.”