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Sunday Politics: Backlash Over Arpaio Pardon


President Trump is coming under more fire from his own party for pardoning Joe Arpaio, the former Arizona sheriff found guilty of contempt of court. A spokesman said Speaker of the House Paul Ryan does not agree with the decision to pardon Arpaio. Other GOP lawmakers also rebuked the president. For more on the growing rift between the president and congressional Republicans, we're joined by Washington Post political reporter Robert Costa. Thanks for coming in.

ROBERT COSTA: Great to be with you.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. Speaker Ryan was pretty clear he said law enforcement officials like Arpaio have a special responsibility to respect everyone's rights. John McCain - even harsher criticizing the president. What's the political calculus of Republicans on the Hill right now?

COSTA: The unraveling continues within the Republican Party when it comes to President Trump. But it's important to put all these disagreements about the Arpaio part in context because Republicans on Capitol Hill are coming back next month, and they're going to pursue a budget. They're going to try to extend the debt ceiling and go after tax reform. They need President Trump for these initiatives. So as much as they criticize, they're not actually fleeing the president.

MARTÍNEZ: Because they don't seem as harsh as Trump is to them. Trump was in Arizona not so long ago. He attacked McCain and Jeff Flake, too. Bob Corker of Tennessee he also went after - and the House speaker. So what is President Trump's calculus here?

COSTA: President Trump believes - and this is a view shared by most congressional Republicans - that the president has a grip over the Republican base. And he thinks as much as he gets a finger wag from congressional GOP leaders, they're not going to break with him in such a significant way that his presidency is actually in peril, whether because of the investigations or on the legislative front. So he just continues to barrel forward, doing what he thinks he needs to do to keep that base with him.

MARTÍNEZ: Kind of they need him more than he needs them?

COSTA: Exactly. And they're all seeing poll numbers where the president's numbers nationally have slipped into the 30s. But when it comes to Republican voters, the president remains strong.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, your newspaper, The Washington Post, is reporting this morning that President Trump tried to get Jeff Sessions to drop the charges against Sheriff Arpaio. But he was advised that this would be inappropriate. Is this just another instance of the president being a newbie politician, someone that's kind of just new to the job here?

COSTA: It's also an example of how the president's not only an outsider trying to intervene in these kinds of legal affairs. But he's been working on this Arpaio pardon for months, going as far as to ask the attorney general, one of his top allies, at least early in the administration to stop the prosecution from moving forward to help Arpaio get off. And this is raising concerns in both parties about the kind of behavior the president has when it comes to criminal justice. Is he doing too much to intervene? That's the question on Capitol Hill.

MARTÍNEZ: So not a snap decision. You say he's been working on it for a while.

COSTA: Before the pardon, he was thinking about working through the Justice Department to help Arpaio off. And this was not because, necessarily, the merits of the case. The Washington Post reports that this was because the president saw Arpaio as an ally, a loyalist who needed to be protected.

MARTÍNEZ: You mentioned Congress comes back after Labor Day. Do you think Republicans go it alone and maybe pass what laws they want and then send them up to President Trump for his signature at this point?

COSTA: When it comes to tax reform, Congress will take the lead. The White House is not trying to outline the details. Look for Congress to try to set where the rates are on corporations and on individuals and just try to get the president to sign it so he can maybe get a victory. That's what they've been seeking in Congress. They weren't able to get health care through. They're going to try to get a simple tax care package through.

MARTÍNEZ: Robert Costa is national political reporter for The Washington Post. Robert, thanks a lot.

COSTA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.