Trump defends Arpaio pardon, pushes back on questions over timing

Trump pardoned the controversial sheriff Friday as Harvey approached Texas.

— -- Provided the opportunity to defend his pardon of Joe Arpaio, President Donald Trump on Monday claimed the controversial former Arizona sheriff was treated "unbelievably unfairly," called attention to the controversial pardons of former presidents and refuted the suggestion that the timing of the action was intended to bury the news beneath coverage of Hurricane Harvey.

"I thought [Arpaio] was treated unbelievably unfairly when they came down with their big decision to go get him right before the election voting started," the president said. The statement seemed to reference the Department of Justice's October 2016 decision to charge the sheriff with criminal contempt of court after he refused to comply with a 2015 order that his office cease racial profiling efforts.

Arpaio was ultimately found guilty of contempt in July, and was awaiting sentencing when Trump pardoned him on Friday. The 85-year-old became a national figure over the past two decades as Maricopa County sheriff for his uncompromising endeavors to combat illegal immigration and for his treatment of prisoners -- including housing some of them in an improvised "tent city" at the county jail.

"He lost in a fairly close election," continued Trump Monday during a joint press conference with the president of Finland at the White House. "He would have won the election, but they just hammered him just before the election. I thought that was a very, very unfair thing to do."

The Republican Arpaio was defeated 56-43 percent to Democrat Paul Penzone in November, over eight years after the Justice Department first began investigating discrimination allegations against the sheriff. Trump further tied the Justice Department's pursuit of Arpaio to former president Barack Obama, despite the fact that the profiling probe began during the administration of former president George W. Bush.

While providing justification for the pardon, Trump further denied that the act was intended to be hidden beneath developments on Hurricane Harvey, which was approaching the Gulf Coast of Texas on Friday as news of the pardon broke.

"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, you know the hurricane was just starting," said Trump, seemingly implying that his pardon garnered greater attention because of the increased coverage of the storm.

As he attempted to deflect attention from the pardon, Trump also pointed to the actions of Obama and former president Bill Clinton.

"I wanted to look at some of the other people that were pardoned over the years," said Trump, citing a number of these instances, including Clinton's 2001 pardon of Mark Rich, who was wanted on tax evasion and racketeering charges, and Obama's 2017 commutation of the prison sentence of Chelsea Manning, who was convicted of espionage.

"I stand by my pardon of Sheriff Joe, and I think the people of Arizona who really know him best would agree with me," Trump said.