“I’m not trying to say he copies me,” Sheriff Joe Arpaio said of Donald Trump. “It just so happens we see eye to eye.”
He added: “He’s somewhat like me. Or I’m like him. I don’t know which way it goes.”
Whether the Republican frontrunner was influenced by Arizona’s notorious anti-immigrant sheriff or the other way around is probably beside the point for voters in Tuesday’s primary. What is beyond dispute is the two men are cut from the same cloth.
Arizonans searching for a glimpse of what a Trump administration would be like could do worse than reflect on the 23-year reign of the Maricopa County sheriff. Arpaio, the Republican frontrunner’s most high-profile backer in the state, has a record for courting controversy that rivals Trump’s own.
Arpaio, who has been found to have systematically racially profiled Latinos, runs a notorious jail in which inmates are housed in tents – a facility that even he has joked is comparable to a concentration camp.
He once launched an investigation into Barack Obama’s birth certificate, which he still maintains is a forgery. Trump, who once offered $50m to see the same birth certificate, has avoided questions on the issue since launching his campaign for the White House.
During an eve-of-election interview with the Guardian that lasted close to two hours, Arpaio, 83, reflected on how he had been thrust to the centre of both the Republican and Democratic races, and toyed for the first time with the possibility of a role in a Trump administration.
In a twist that is also likely to amuse the sheriff’s many detractors, he also lamented the difficulty he is currently facing in trying to get into Mexico.
‘Right now my mission is to get Trump elected’
Given how divisive the 2016 presidential election has become, it is perhaps unsurprising that Arpaio, a hugely polarizing figure in Arizona politics, has become a key figure in the dying days of the state’s primaries.
Both Hillary Clinton, who leads polls in the Democratic race, and her challenger, Bernie Sanders, have sought to rally their supporters in opposition to the controversial sheriff.
Clinton, who is running TV ads featuring Trump and Arpaio side-by-side, spent a portion of her final appearance in the state before the election, on Monday, lambasting the sheriff. He “just makes my heart sink”, she said.
Sanders said his wife, Jane, was “ambushed” by the sheriff when he gave her an impromptu tour of his jail last week. The Vermont senator added: “What he is doing is un-American and uncivilised.”
However Arpaio is as cherished among conservatives in Arizona as he is loathed by liberals, and is often courted by Republican candidates including establishment figures such as George W Bush and Mitt Romney, both of whom he endorsed.
His support of such candidates, however, pales in comparison to his work for Trump, who he has joined at rallies across the country, from Iowa to Nevada.
“Right now my mission is to get him elected,” he said of the billionaire.
The Arizona primary could be a pivotal moment in the Republican race. Trump has amassed a significant delegate lead over his nearest rival, Ted Cruz. However, it is unclear if he can reach the tally of 1,237 required to secure the nomination without a contested convention.
Arizona is a major prize – the largest winner-takes-all state left on the Republican calendar. Trump enjoys a substantial lead over Cruz in the polls, but the Texas senator has a record of performing better than his polling suggests. Local experts are predicting a tight race.
At the weekend, Arpaio was in the unlikely position of introducing Trump at a raucous rally in his hometown of Fountain Hills while simultaneously handling the fallout from protests at that rally. He then hopped on Trump’s plane for a second rally, in Tuscon.
The sheriff said he had never spoken to Trump before he was introduced to the billionaire at a rally in Phoenix last July.
“He’d heard of me,” he said. “Who hasn’t heard of me?”
Self-admiration is a trait in which neither man is lacking.
“Instead of saying ‘ego’,” Arpaio said, “let’s say ‘personality’. I’m guilty too of that word.”
Much like Trump’s Manhattan office, which visitors attest is something of a shrine to its occupant, Arpaio has adorned the walls of the Maricopa County sheriff’s office with pictures, newspaper clippings and magazine covers featuring himself.
Many of the 4,000 profiles Arpaio proudly says have been written about him repeat his self-styled brand: “America’s Toughest Sheriff”.
‘Trump is the same way. Smart’
Arpaio and Trump do not just share hardline policies on immigration and gun control. Both are masterful self-publicists, stoking controversies and then riding the waves of media attention.
“Me, I have a love-hate relationship with the media,” the sheriff said. “If you do this story, I’m going to get 50% out of it good, I would think. The other 50? It doesn’t hurt me either. In fact, if in the other 50 you’re badmouthing me, it is going to help. See: I understand. Trump is the same way. Smart.”
See: I understand [how the media work]. Trump is the same way. Smart
Sheriff Joe Arpaio
As if to prove his point, Arpaio’s interview with the Guardian was interrupted by three sheriff’s officials, each of whom had a new press update.
There was a printout of a Drudge Report mention of Arpaio; a transcript of something conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh had said; a request for an interview from PBS; another from CNN International; and a third from a woman reporter who had turned up unannounced from Vice magazine.
“What is that?” the sheriff asked. “A porno?”
He granted the reporter a five-minute Q&A.
The sheriff’s office appeared to be a publicity-generating machine. Arpaio signed off on a press release declaring that he would allow his inmates to watch Tuesday’s election results on C-Span. They are usually only allowed to watch the Food Network and the Weather Channel.
Moments later, he offered the Guardian an exclusive – what he said was a “a scoop” about a soon-to-be-unveiled attempt to combine an effort to clean up the desert around Phoenix with a counterterrorism operation.
“I’m going to send out my inmates – chain gangs – and I’m going to get out there and clean up all the garbage,” he said. “In the process, I’m going to look at the garbage, and I’m going to see what’s in the garbage.
“They keep saying that terrorists are coming across [the border]. I want some proof. What’s the best way of getting proof? See if they’re dumping manuscripts or whatever, or cigarettes from another country.”
Wasn’t it far-fetched to assume inmates picking up trash in the desert would stumble across discarded evidence from Isis or al-Qaida?
“So what,” Arpaio shot back. “We’re cleaning up the garbage. Isn’t that nice?”
‘I’m talking about meeting with high officials of Mexico’
For months, Arpaio had been working on his next project: a visit to Mexico. It is a country he knows well, having been stationed there in the 1970s when he ran the Latin America bureau of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) under the Nixon administration.
Now Arpaio wants to go south of the border for the first time since around 1982. He was not, he stressed, talking about going to Mexico as a tourist, to “get a nice Mexican dinner”. He wanted to go in an official capacity.
“I’m talking about meeting with high officials of Mexico,” he said.
His repeated attempts to secure a formal invitation have been ignored, he said. He has even elicited the help of US diplomats and congressmen.
Given his thirst for official recognition, and the high regard in which he is held by the Republican frontrunner, Arpaio would appear an obvious candidate for a role in any future Trump administration.
Would he be a director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), perhaps? Or even the Homeland Security secretary?
Arpaio, who is up for re-election himself in November, gave confusing and at times contradictory answers.
During an exchange that lasted several minutes, he veered from a cast-iron “promise” that he would never abandon his duties as sheriff to a hint that he might contemplate a role as some sort of adviser to President Trump.
He asked if the media might conduct a survey to see whether people thought he should remain sheriff.
“It would be probably 80% for me to resign and work for Trump,” he said.
Arpaio noted that if Trump were elected to a second term in the White House, in 2020, he might be then be free of his duties in Maricopa County.
He finally asserted that while he might be willing to share some of his wisdom with President Trump, he would never serve in an official capacity.
“They’d have to put handcuffs on me,” he said, “drag me to Washington. OK? I don’t plan on going to Washington.”
Having seemingly put the issue to rest, Arpaio paused. As if an afterthought had casually crossed his mind, he threw in a caveat.
“What are you going to do when I say I’m going to Washington? What are you going to do? You gonna write another story? ‘Oh, the Sheriff promised, and then he reneged?’ And then the whole world would say: ‘Hey, we need you, the president called you, thank you sheriff, we could care less what you promised.’”
It sounded like Arpaio was toying with the idea of going back on his word.
“I’m not,” he said. “I’m just saying I could do that.”
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