President Donald Trump asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions this past spring whether it would be possible to drop the federal case against Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio but was rebuffed at the time, a White House official has confirmed to CNN.
Trump had been closely following Arpaio’s case long before pardoning him on Friday, and months ago asked Sessions and other administration lawyers, including White House counsel Don McGahn, whether his administration could intercede in the matter, the official said Sunday.
Sessions and other officials told the president the case could not be closed, the official said. The official confirmed the account, first reported by The Washington Post, that the president was eager to help Arpaio, a longtime supporter who shares similar views to the president on immigration.
Sessions told Trump it would be inappropriate for him to interfere in the federal case against Arpaio, one of Trump’s most ardent allies, according to three people with knowledge of the conversation who spoke with the Post.
Trump eventually decided to let the case go to trial with the plan of pardoning Arpaio if he was convicted, according to the report.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to characterize the discussions but confirmed they took place in a statement to CNN on Sunday.
“It’s only natural the president would have a discussion with administration lawyers about legal matters. This case would be no different,” Sanders said, repeating remarks she first gave to the Post.
The Justice Department declined to comment to the newspaper. It also declined to comment to CNN when asked about the Post’s story.
Trump quietly pardoned Arpaio late Friday as the national focus turned toward Hurricane Harvey, which was about to hit Texas. Trump hinted at the pardon earlier in the week during his rally in Phoenix, but the White House was circumspect about what would happen.
Arpaio was found guilty last month of contempt of court for refusing to comply with a federal judge’s orders that he stop racially profiling Latinos. Arpaio was scheduled to be sentenced in October.
Trump’s pardon of Arpaio enraged Democrats across the board and divided Republicans. Many in the GOP, including House Speaker Paul Ryan and Sen. John McCain, denounced the pardon, while others, including Arizona Rep. Trent Franks, praised the move.
Unlike almost all presidential pardons, this one did not involve any role for the Justice Department, according to a source with knowledge of the process. Typically, an office at the Justice Department reviews clemency applications and gives a recommendation to the president.
“This is the president’s pardon,” the source said.