It was a Friday night news dump like rarely seen before: President Donald Trump’s administration announced a series of polarizing decisions that had been under discussions for weeks, just as a hurricane bore down on the Texas coast.
Trump privately had signaled for weeks he would pardon Sheriff Joe Arpaio, praising the sheriff’s loyalty and telling at least one adviser that his base wanted it badly.
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Seb Gorka, a national security aide, was on the outs with Chief of Staff John Kelly after criticizing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on TV earlier in August. Kelly had told others Gorka had no future in the White House, and Gorka had aligned himself closely with now ousted chief strategist Steve Bannon.
And Trump’s top advisers had scrambled to write implementation orders for the military transgender ban for several weeks, after Trump startled lawyers and advisers with tweets they considered ill-advised and had warned against.
The pardon, the exit and the guidelines all came on Friday evening, as a ferocious hurricane barreled down the Texas coastline, dizzying chyron operators and buzzing phones across Washington. White House aides and advisers said it was coordinated to handle polarizing decisions that were sure to alienate various constituencies.
“With a natural disaster on the horizon, you have one shot at the public seeing the news and then they quickly move on to more important issues,” said Mark Corallo, a veteran consultant who briefly worked for Trump’s White House. “It is Washington PR 101.”
The Arpaio pardon was the most contentious within Trump’s White House. More moderate advisers and aides had tried to talk Trump out of pardoning the convicted ex-sheriff, who ran sweltering, punishing jails where inmates died and was accused of targeting Latino residents. Trump had floated announcing the pardon at a rally in Arizona Tuesday night, but was persuaded to hold off.
One White House adviser said that it wasn’t a “matter of if he was going to do it, it was a matter of when.” So it was announced Friday evening even though sentencing was months away.
The move surprised top officials at the Justice Department, this adviser said, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to describe private discussions.
The pardon was met with swift and widespread condemnation, drawing comparisons to Bill Clinton’s infamous Marc Rich pardon. The two Republican senators from Arpaio’s home state of Arizona suggested the move showed a lack of respect by Trump for law and order.
“The President has the authority to make this pardon, but doing so at this time undermines his claim for the respect of rule of law as Mr. Arpaio has shown no remorse for his actions,” McCain said in a statement.
Democrats were harsher.
“Joe Arpaio ignored the courts of law in order to systemically target Latinos in AZ. Definition of racism and bigotry,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) wrote on Twitter, who added he “ran to Camp David” to “use the cover of Hurricane Harvey to avoid scrutiny.”
“So sad, so weak,” Schumer added, parroting some of Trump’s favorite put-downs.
Republican strategist Alex Conant, a former adviser to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla), said that while “there are a lot of Republicans that want to support the president,” the pardon “goes against a lot of what Republicans have traditionally stood for.”
Trump knew the move would rankle Flake and McCain and be popular with his base, said one adviser who speaks with him often. And the president often saw the sheriff on TV defending the president and himself, and came to believe the conviction was unfair.
Corallo said that those who hated Trump would hate him regardless, but the pardon would energize many in the base — and that the president acted well within his authority.
“It was a politicized persecution by the Obama Justice Department,” said Tom Fitton, who leads the conservative group Judicial Watch. “The president has a very different understanding than the establishment class. He creates absolute hysteria in his opponents. Absolute hysteria.”
Gorka’s dismissal had been simmering for weeks, and several officials said it essentially had to happen at some point. He was increasingly isolated in the White House, with many officials unsure what he did other than go on TV to praise the president.
Gorka issued a resignation letter that criticized the White House for taking a new direction and installing too many aides who didn’t align with the president’s “Make America Great Again” vision, imploring Trump to shift direction. But the White House quickly disputed that he resigned, even sending a note to surrogates so they would spread the message that the exit was not voluntary.
“Hopefully no one remembers Seb Gorka by this time next week,” one White House official said Saturday morning. But others close to the White House noted that Gorka was well-liked by the president and is popular among the nationalists who propelled his victory.
Gorka did not respond to a phone call seeking comment.
The announcement likely to have the widest impact are the guidelines for his ban on transgender people in the military. It was another issue the White House knew it had to address but would would create a firestorm when it landed. Trump had tweeted out his decision to issue the ban in July without any policy guidance, and it caught even some top White House officials by surprise.
There was no clear word on whether transgender troops already in the military could continue to serve or how the ban would be enforced.
The president was convinced to leave transgender troops serving in the military alone in discussions after his declaration, but the guidelines once again alighted a firestorm over a social issue.
Conant said that with the changing direction of news, it is unclear whether dumping news on Friday evening — a longtime strategy — would blunt its impact like it once did. There may be some residual effect from news they hoped would wash away with the hurricane, he said.
“Controversies build over time,” Conant said. “The announcements you made on Friday night, you can still be dealing with next week.”
Emily Goldberg contributed to this report.