In Washington, D.C., Friday afternoons are known as a time when public officials may take controversial actions for which they want to draw little notice.
Last night, with the ferocious Hurricane Harvey heading toward the Texas coast, the public may have been paying even less attention to politics than usual for the end of a work week.
Then it came — a pair of controversial moves by the administration and the departure of a divisive figure in the White House, all over the span of three hours.
First, at 6 p.m. ET, came the announcement that President Trump had sent a much-anticipated memo to the Pentagon codifying his seemingly impromptu Twitter announcement last month to ban transgender people from the armed services.
Exactly two hours later came the second story. The White House sent a press release announcing Trump’s pardon of Joe Arpaio, the highly controversial former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, who is reviled and admired for his harsh treatment of undocumented immigrants. The press release and a subsequent tweet by the president lauding Arpaio for “admirable service” made no mention of the fact that the pardon was for the sheriff’s conviction on criminal contempt for violating a federal court order that he stop detaining people solely for immigration offenses.
The pardon, Trump’s first as president, appears to distinguish him from other recent presidents who waited to issue their most controversial pardons or commutations until the end of their terms.
The news on Friday night didn’t stop there. Just minutes after word came of the Arpaio pardon, the conservative news site The Federalist posted what it called a “resignation letter” from Sebastian Gorka, a special assistant to Trump who had drawn scrutiny for his alleged ties to a far-right Hungarian nationalist group and questions over his national security expertise.
The news site quoted the letter from Gorka to Trump as saying, “Regrettably, outside of yourself, the individuals who most embodied and represented the policies that will ‘Make America Great Again,’ have been internally countered, systematically removed, or undermined in recent months.”
A White House official later confirmed that Gorka was no longer working there but said he had not resigned, spurring speculation that he may have been forced out.
Gorka’s White House tenure was largely defined by his appearances on cable news and his presenting himself as a warrior against bias in mainstream media. Just a week before violence broke out amid a white nationalist gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia, Gorka in an interview with Breitbart criticized for focusing on white supremacists in the context of covering domestic terrorism.
The timing of Trump’s actions on Arpaio and transgender people in the armed services draw a harsh rebuke from the Senate’s top Democrat, Chuck Schumer of New York, who accused the president of deliberately taking controversial moves at a time when the nation was focused on Hurricane Harvey.