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The Long Crusade of Clarence Thomas and Ginni Thomas

The Long Crusade of Clarence Thomas and Ginni Thomas
Date Posted: Thursday, February 24th, 2022

The Supreme Court justice and his wife battled for years for a more conservative America. New reporting shows how far she was willing to go after Donald Trump’s 2020 election loss.


The call to action was titled “Election Results and Legal Battles: What Now?” Shared in the days after the 2020 presidential election, it urged the members of an influential if secretive right-wing group to contact legislators in three of the swing states that tipped the balance for Joe Biden — Arizona, Georgia, and Pennsylvania. The aim was audacious: Keep President Donald J. Trump in power.

The group, the Council for National Policy, brings together old-school Republican luminaries, Christian conservatives, Tea Party activists, and MAGA operatives, with more than 400 members who include leaders of organizations like the Federalist Society, the National Rifle Association, and the Family Research Council. Founded in 1981 as a counterweight to liberalism, the group was hailed by President Ronald Reagan as seeking the “return of righteousness, justice, and truth” to America.

As Trump insisted, without evidence, that fraud had cheated him of victory, conservative groups rushed to rally behind him. The council stood out, however, not only because of its pedigree but also because one of its newest leaders was Virginia Thomas, the wife of Justice Clarence Thomas and a longtime activist in right-wing circles. She had taken on a prominent role at the council during the Trump years and by 2019 had joined the nine-member board of C.N.P. Action, an arm of the council organized as a 501(c)4 under a provision of the tax code that allows for direct political advocacy. It was C.N.P. Action that circulated the November “action steps” document, the existence of which has not been widely known. It instructed members to pressure Republican lawmakers into challenging the election results and appointing alternate slates of electors: “Demand that they not abandon their Constitutional responsibilities during a time such as this.”

Such a plan, if carried out successfully, would have almost certainly landed before the Supreme Court — and Ginni Thomas’s husband. In fact, Trump was already calling for that to happen. In a Dec. 2 speech at the White House, the president falsely claimed that “millions of votes were cast illegally in swing states alone” and said he hoped “the Supreme Court of the United States will see it” and “will do what’s right for our country, because our country cannot live with this kind of an election.”

The Thomases have long posed a unique quandary in Washington. Because Supreme Court justices do not want to be perceived as partisan, they tend to avoid political events and entanglements, and their spouses often keep low profiles. But the Thomases have defied such norms. Since the founding of the nation, no spouse of a sitting Supreme Court justice has been as overt a political activist as Ginni Thomas. In addition to her perch at the Council for National Policy, she founded a group called Groundswell with the support of Stephen K. Bannon, the hard-line nationalist and former Trump adviser. It holds a weekly meeting of influential conservatives, many of whom work directly on issues that have come before the court.

Ginni Thomas insists, in her council biography, that she and her husband operate in “separate professional lanes,” but those lanes in fact merge with notable frequency. For the three decades he has sat on the Supreme Court, they have worked in tandem from the bench and the political trenches to take aim at targets like Roe v. Wade and affirmative action. Together they believe that “America is in a vicious battle for its founding principles,” as Ginni Thomas has put it. Her views, once seen as on the fringe, have come to dominate the Republican Party. And with Trump’s three appointments reshaping the Supreme Court, her husband finds himself at the center of a new conservative majority poised to shake the foundations of settled law. In a nation freighted with division and upheaval, the Thomases have found their moment.

This article draws on hours of recordings and internal documents from groups affiliated with the Thomases; dozens of interviews with the Thomases’ classmates, friends, colleagues, and critics, as well as more than a dozen Trump White House aides and supporters and some of Justice Thomas’s former clerks; and an archive of Council for National Policy videos and internal documents provided by an academic researcher in Australia, Brent Allpress.

The reporting uncovered new details on the Thomases’ ascent: how Trump courted Justice Thomas; how Ginni Thomas used that courtship to gain access to the Oval Office, where her insistent policy and personnel suggestions so aggravated aides that one called her a “wrecking ball” while others put together an opposition-research-style report on her that was obtained by The Times; and the extent to which Justice Thomas flouted judicial-ethics guidance by participating in events hosted by conservative organizations with matters before the court. Those organizations showered the couple with accolades and, in at least one case, used their appearances to attract event fees, donations, and new members.

New reporting also shows just how blurred the lines between the couple’s interests became during the effort to overturn the 2020 election, which culminated in the rally held at the Ellipse, just outside the White House grounds, aimed at stopping Congress from certifying the state votes that gave Joe Biden his victory. Many of the rally organizers and those advising Trump had connections to the Thomases, but little has been known about what role, if any, Ginni Thomas played, beyond the fact that on the morning of the March to Save America, as the rally was called, she urged her Facebook followers to watch how the day unfolded. “LOVE MAGA people!!!!” she posted before the march turned violent. “GOD BLESS EACH OF YOU STANDING UP or PRAYING!”

But her role went deeper, and beyond C.N.P. Action. Dustin Stockton, an organizer who worked with Women for America First, which held the permit for the Ellipse rally, said he was told that Ginni Thomas played a peacemaking role between feuding factions of rally organizers “so that there wouldn’t be any division around January 6.”

“The way it was presented to me was that Ginni was uniting these different factions around a singular mission on January 6,” said Stockton, who previously worked for Bannon. “That Ginni was involved made sense — she’s pretty neutral, and she doesn’t have a lot of enemies in the movement.”

Ginni Thomas, who turns 65 on April 25, did not respond to requests for comment, and Justice Thomas, who is 73, declined to comment through a court spokesperson. In a posting on a private Facebook group for her high school classmates, Ginni Thomas wrote that “a NYT reporter” might have “contacted you looking for stories, etc on me. This reporter seems to have been told to write a hit piece” and “has knocked on many doors and written many emails. They all contact me and are not responding. ????” she wrote. “Whatever. ????‍??” (The message was forwarded by one of those classmates to the reporter in question.)

In the weeks that followed Jan. 6, as public condemnation of the insurrection grew to include some Republican leaders like Senator Mitch McConnell, the Council for National Policy circulated in its newsletter another previously unreported memo, written by one of its members, that outlined strategies to make the Capitol riot seem more palatable. “Drive the narrative that it was mostly peaceful protests,” a leading member of the group advised, according to a copy reviewed by The Times. “Amplify the concerns of the protestors and give them legitimacy.”

In the year since the insurrection, a number of friends and allies of the Thomases, and even a former Thomas clerk, have received subpoenas from the congressional committee investigating the events of Jan. 6. Ginni Thomas co-signed a letter in December calling for House Republicans to expel Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger from their conference for joining the Jan. 6 committee. Thomas and her co-authors said the investigation “brings disrespect to our country’s rule of law” and “legal harassment to private citizens who have done nothing wrong,” adding that they would begin “a nationwide movement to add citizens’ voices to this effort.”

A few weeks later, the Supreme Court ruled 8 to 1 to allow the release of records from the Trump White House related to the Jan. 6 attack. Justice Thomas was the sole dissenter.

Nearly 10 months after the dramatic events at the Capitol, Ginni Thomas ventured out onto a small balcony inside the Heritage Foundation, the conservative redoubt that stands on Massachusetts Avenue a few blocks from the Capitol. In a bright red dress, she beamed and waved to friends in the crowd who gathered last October to celebrate her husband’s three decades on the Supreme Court. Beyond a sweeping bank of windows, the sun had sunk to just above the horizon, next to the Washington Monument.

The attendees represented the cream of Washington’s Republican legal establishment, “really a who’s who of all-stars,” as one of them, Donald F. McGahn II, the first White House counsel under Trump, would say when the speeches started. Many had clerked for Justice Thomas, including a number of Trump-appointed judges who are themselves touchstones on the right, like Neomi Rao and James Ho. Others were activists who had worked alongside Ginni Thomas, a Tea Party veteran.

Though efforts to overturn the election had failed and Joe Biden was deep into his first year as president, the mood in the room was buoyant, even triumphal. Justice Thomas, who for years labored at the margins of the court, now found himself with a new 6-to-3 conservative majority. At the Heritage tribute, Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, called Thomas “a legal titan” and “the brightest possible north star.” Playing to the crowd of nearly 250 of his party’s elite, he dryly asked: “What could I, Mitch McConnell, possibly know about a notable leader who is parsimonious with his public statements? Who shuns the performative aspect of public life? And who is viewed as a boogeyman by the radical left? What would I know about that?” Among the crowd’s laughter, Thomas’s deep baritone was most audible.

‘He has charted a very radical approach to judging — it’s surprising, actually, how far the court has moved in his direction.’

Much has changed since Thomas joined the court in 1991, when the judicial orthodoxy of the right had little traction — including the belief that Roe v. Wade, which established a right to abortion, relied on a phantom “right to privacy” that isn’t explicit in the Constitution, or that there was “no device more destructive to the notion of equality” than affirmative action and racial quotas, as former Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist once wrote in a dissenting opinion. During his first decade on the court, Thomas was often characterized by his critics as a cipher who almost never asked questions from the bench and was an underwhelming understudy to Justice Antonin Scalia.

But on the right, Thomas has come to be regarded as an epochal justice. The man who succeeded Thurgood Marshall, becoming the second Black justice, may end up with a legacy just as consequential. Trump’s conservative appointments have tipped the balance of the Supreme Court toward Thomas and his originalist philosophy, which purports to interpret the Constitution as it would have been in the era in which it was written, transforming him into a shadow chief justice. When the consensus-seeking justice who formally holds that title, John G. Roberts Jr., sides with the court’s shrunken liberal wing, as is increasingly the case, it falls to Thomas, who has served the longest on the court, to assign who will write the majority opinion.

Three decades into his lifetime term, Thomas has not built his reputation by writing landmark majority rulings. Instead, he has been setting the stage for a shift in influence, writing solo opinions on issues like free speech, guns, and abortion that are now poised to become majority opinions. “Take his jurisprudence on unborn life,” McConnell told the Heritage Foundation crowd. “Every time, without fail, Justice Thomas writes a separate, concise opinion to cut through the 50-year tangle of made-up tests and shifting standards and calmly reminds everybody that the whole house of cards lacks a constitutional foundation.”

“Justice Thomas does not break, or bend, or bow,” he said. “We need a federal judiciary full of men and women who are as bright as Justice Thomas, as expertly trained as Justice Thomas, but most importantly, most importantly, as committed to total unflinching judicial independence.” But in Thomas’s own remarks, he alluded to the shared purpose of those gathered. “It is a joy, an absolute joy, to be able to stand here and celebrate this moment,” he said, “not because of me but because of you all and what we’re trying to defend in this great country.”

If Thomas has been laying the groundwork for a conservative revolution, so has his wife, who once worked at Heritage herself. Groundswell, the group she founded, plotted what it called a “30-front war” on hot-button issues and seeded talking points throughout the right-wing media, including with Bannon’s own publication at the time, Breitbart News. “She’s an operator; she stays behind the scenes,” Bannon said in an interview. “Unlike a lot of people who just talk, she gets shit done.”

The Thomases have long emphasized how little distance there is between them. As Justice Thomas once wrote, his searing 1991 confirmation, buffeted by sexual-harassment allegations, brought them closer together: “The fiery trial through which we passed had the effect of melding us into one being — an amalgam, as we like to say.” At the Heritage Foundation celebration, he made it clear that bruised feelings about the “very, very dark time” of his confirmation have lingered, thanking “the senators who voted for me, all 52 of them.” He named supporters who had stuck by him, including Heritage’s president at the time, Kay Coles James, who he said was “among my prayer partners 30 years ago.” And he called his wife “the rock of my life.”

While no one suggests that Thomas is writing his opinions to please his wife, he does speak of a shared Thomas philosophy. And his wife has advocated hard-line positions on many of the cultural and political issues that come before the justices, presenting an unprecedented conundrum for the Supreme Court. Orin Kerr, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said that while there are no clear-cut rules outlining when justices need to recuse themselves, there are appearance concerns. “I’m sure there are justices’ spouses who have had strong opinions about politics,” Kerr said. “What’s unusual here is that Justice Thomas’s wife is an activist in politics. Historically, this is the first example of something like this that I can think of at the Supreme Court.”

Justice Thomas has flipped such criticisms on their head, saying that those who raise such issues were “bent on undermining” the court. And he defended “my bride” in a 2011 speech at an event sponsored by the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group, as reported by Politico at the time. He said she worked “24/7 every day in defense of liberty,” adding, “We are equally yoked, and we love being with each other because we love the same things.” If the Thomases are at the height of their powers, the question, now, is how they will use that power in the years to come.

“He has charted a very radical approach to judging — it’s surprising, actually, how far the court has moved in his direction,” John Yoo, a law professor at U.C.-Berkeley and former Thomas clerk known for drafting some of the “torture memos” under President George W. Bush, said during a discussion at the Heritage event. (Yoo also advised former Vice President Mike Pence that he did not have the authority to reject electoral votes on Jan. 6.) “What do you think is going to happen in the next 10 years when he might have a workable majority of originalists? I think we’re going to see the fruition of the last 30 years in the next 10.”

The founders saw the courts as the guardians of the Constitution. In Federalist No. 78, which laid out the role of American courts, Alexander Hamilton wrote that they “were designed to be an intermediate body between the people and the legislature” and “keep the latter within the limits assigned to their authority.” But at the same time, he wrote, the judiciary would be the weakest of the new government’s three branches. While the executive “holds the sword” and the legislature “commands the purse,” the judiciary “will always be the least dangerous to the political rights of the Constitution; because it will be least in a capacity to annoy or injure them.”

The Supreme Court must rely on public acceptance of its decisions. For decades, the desire to shield the court from charges of partisanship has given rise to institutionalist justices who uphold certain norms. They avoid opinions that get too far out ahead of public opinion or too blithely overturn precedents. Instead, they adhere to the doctrine of stare decisis, for the most part treating prior decisions as settled law, and prefer to rule in ways that win broad support. They also steer clear of attending openly partisan events.

But as the court has taken a hard right turn with Trump’s appointments, it is also increasingly seen as composed of clashing ideologues, both liberal and conservative, rather than independent jurists. Even the court’s newest justice, Amy Coney Barrett, is sensitive to the charge. “My goal today is to convince you that this court is not comprised of a bunch of partisan hacks,” she said during a speech last year, accompanying Mitch McConnell at a center named for him at the University of Louisville. And as the court signals an appetite to take up cases that may well overturn settled law, including Roe v. Wade, more Americans view it as increasingly politicized, with a steep decline over the past year to a 40 percent approval rating, a new low in Gallup polling.

This dynamic has left Chief Justice John Roberts in an increasingly isolated position as the Supreme Court’s leading institutionalist. He refrains from attending partisan legal forums, like those at the Federalist Society. And his wife, Jane, stepped down as a litigator at her law firm after his appointment. Justice Thomas, however, “believes that human beings have free will to chart our own course,” said Helgi Walker, a former Thomas clerk and a partner at Gibson Dunn. “And I have no doubt that applies, perhaps especially so, to his wife.” That said, she added, he “takes direction from no one but the law.”

Thomas has also rejected the institutionalist approach when it comes to the doctrine of stare decisis. “When faced with a demonstrably erroneous precedent, my rule is simple,” he wrote in a 2019 opinion. “We should not follow it.” When he has cited Federalist No. 78, he has underscored Hamilton’s comment that judges “would require an uncommon portion of fortitude” to defend constitutional principles when they are unpopular. “The trait that Hamilton singles out — fortitude — is fundamental to my philosophy of life,” Thomas said in a 2001 speech to the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

He has said the route to safeguarding the Supreme Court is simply through stricter adherence to the Constitution, and he warned at a recent speech at the University of Notre Dame that judges have been exceeding their authority. “There’s always a temptation, I think, to go beyond,” he said, adding that when judges “begin to venture into political, legislative or executive-branch lanes,” they “are asking for trouble.” He laid out the consequences: “I think the court was thought to be the least dangerous branch, and we may have become the most dangerous.”

But more than any other sitting justice, Thomas has stoked concerns of a hyperpartisan court. He has frequently appeared at highly political events hosted by advocates hoping to sway the court. He and his wife sometimes appear together at such events, and their appeal is apparent: He fulfills the hard right’s longing for a judge — and especially a Black judge — oblivious to the howls of the left, while she serves up the red meat the base wants to hear in her speeches. They often portray themselves as standing in the breach amid a crumbling society. “It’s very exciting,” Ginni Thomas said during a 2018 Council for National Policy meeting, “the fact that there’s a resistance on our side to their side.”

Her role became increasingly public in the Trump era, when she started emceeing an annual awards ceremony celebrating some of the best-known Trump allies. The awards are handed out in conjunction with United in Purpose, a group created by Bill Dallas, an evangelical political activist. Some recipients lead organizations that have business before the Supreme Court.

“When the Batphone rings and it’s Commissioner Ginni Gordon, otherwise known as Ginni Thomas, of course you have to show up,” said Dan Bongino, a former Secret Service agent turned popular pro-Trump radio host, after receiving one of Thomas’s Impact Awards in 2017. “I can’t say enough about Ginni,” Bongino told the audience at the event, which included the Fox News pundit Sean Hannity and Ed Meese, a Reagan administration attorney general. “I idolize her husband — he’s an icon to me,” Bongino said, but added that it was Ginni Thomas who connected him with right-wing leaders when he was making several unsuccessful congressional bids. “I think in the long run, when you look at the impact on the conservative movement and the principles we hold dear, I think her and her husband stand toe to toe.”

The federal judicial code of conduct, adopted in 1973, restricts judges from being “a speaker, a guest of honor or featured on the program” at fund-raising events. While the code doesn’t officially apply to the nine justices, Roberts said in a 2011 report that the justices “do in fact consult” it when “assessing their ethical obligations” — a statement reiterated by a spokeswoman for the court when we asked for comment. But according to documents and recordings of such events reviewed by The Times, Justice Thomas has at least twice headlined annual conferences at the Eagle Forum, a conservative grass-roots group opposed to abortion and modern feminism. The first was in 1996 when he received an Eagle award. “He’s better than Rehnquist, he’s better than Scalia, he’s just wonderful,” Phyllis Schlafly, the founder of the Eagle Forum and one of the most influential conservative activists of her generation, told the audience, according to a cassette recording of the speech. She even recited a poem in his honor, which began: “No high court justice shows such promise/As our favorite, Clarence Thomas/You’re a jurist for the ages/Who sends liberals into rages.”

The couple returned to the Eagle Forum years later, in 2017; this time his wife received the Eagle award. It was the year after Schlafly died, and the organization, which is dependent on member and conference fees, was struggling. They were featured on the event program, and documents show that Ginni Thomas urged attendees to come hear her and “my amazing husband” in a personal letter that was part of the event’s promotional materials, adding, “God can use such an occasion for encouragement and insights!” (Full registration for the group’s annual conference cost $350 as of 2019.) Afterward, the organization tweeted a promotional video aimed at prospective members that included footage of the couple’s appearance.

In 2008, Justice Thomas delivered a keynote speech to donors to the Manhattan Institute and spoke at a secretive political retreat hosted by the billionaire Charles Koch. And he has had a long relationship with the Heritage Foundation, which employed his wife as a liaison to the George W. Bush White House. The group once invoked Justice Thomas’s speech at one of its Leadership for America fund-raisers in a direct appeal that it sent to Philip Morris seeking a $50,000 contribution. And in 2020, he objected to an ethics proposal circulated by the policymaking body of the federal court system that would have barred judges from membership in ideological legal groups like the Federalist Society, while he was speaking at the group’s convention. “I think they’re about to silence the Federalist Society,” he said. “So I guess I can’t come back.”

Perhaps most important in understanding the couple’s far-reaching philosophy and project is their long relationship with the Council for National Policy, aspects of which have not been previously reported. Justice Thomas headlined an event for the group in 2002, and in 2008 he attended one of its meetings and was photographed with a gavel behind a lectern bearing the group’s name.

Just over a decade later, Ginni Thomas would join the board of the council’s action arm. During a presentation in 2019, she warned that “conservatives and Republicans are tired of being the oppressed minority,” adding that they were being “falsely vilified, slandered and defamed as extremists and bigots and haters.” The left, she said, was “making it justifiable and normalized to fight us, to hurt us, to kill us even.” For her, this was a fight decades in the making.

Before introducing Justice Thomas at the Eagle Forum in 1996, Schlafly spoke about his mother-in-law. “Now, first I want to present the wife of our distinguished speaker, Ginni Thomas, and I want to tell you that she is, I’m very proud to say, a second-generation Eagle,” she said. “It was back in 1973 that a little group in Omaha, Nebraska, decided that they would rescind Nebraska’s ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, and it was just about half a dozen of them, but Ginni’s mother was in that group,” she added, calling it “a real turning point in our long battle” against the amendment, which the forum said would not “celebrate womanhood” but “erase it.”

“And then later on,” Schlafly continued, “after the feminists moved on to another goal, after we beat them on E.R.A., they took up the goal of comparable worth” — a reference to a largely unsuccessful movement in the 1980s to require equal pay for men and women, which Schlafly called “an effort to give us wage and price control.”

“Ginni was then with the Chamber of Commerce, and she was a great help in that, and now she is a major assistant for our good friend Dick Armey,” Schlafly said, referring to the Republican congressman from Texas who was then the House majority leader. “So, Ginni, stand up. We appreciate your being with us tonight.”

Virginia Thomas is the daughter of a president of a Nebraska architecture firm; the well-to-do family had two houses, one in Omaha and one in a nearby lakeside development called Ginger Cove that her father built. Ginni Lamp, as she was known then, was on a cheer squad for taller girls known as the Squires, brandishing a sword and a shield before football games. “She would march in front with that; she loved doing that,” said Sue Norby, a classmate. “My other friends were on the pompom squad because they were so short, but Ginni was on a different squad because she was tall, with other tall girls. She was the warrior woman.”

Ginni’s mother, Marjorie Lamp, was an outspoken Republican activist and became a towering figure in her daughter’s life. When Schlafly lost a bid to become president of the National Federation of Republican Women in 1967, Marjorie Lamp withdrew from the organization and called the voting “rigged.” She ran unsuccessfully for the Nebraska Legislature in 1972 and was a 1976 Reagan delegate, railing against Gerald Ford’s lack of leadership; “Reagan people are more hard-core,” she once said. She warned in a local paper that if Jimmy Carter was elected, “we’d be heading toward socialism.” Democrats, she wrote in a 1983 letter to The Lincoln Journal Star, “almost brought our great country to its knees with their wild spending policies.”

Ginni Thomas has underscored her parents’ resolve in her own remarks. “Our family didn’t believe Nixon did anything wrong in Watergate until way after he admitted guilt,” she once said. “We believed any Republican until all the evidence was in, and then a little more.” She joined her high school’s Republican club in 1974, the year it started, and she and her mother attended the 1976 Republican National Convention together. It was her mother, she would later say, who “modeled conservative political feminism for her daughters.” She attended Creighton University in Omaha and earned her law degree there while working for a Nebraska congressman, Hal Daub, the first of a string of political jobs that took her far from Omaha.

Clarence Thomas’s journey to Washington was far different. He grew up in poverty, first in Pin Point, Ga., a tiny enclave, now part of Savannah, that was established by formerly enslaved Black people after the Civil War. He and his mother and brother then moved to Savannah itself — his father left the family when he was 2 — and he was largely raised by an exceedingly strict and temperamental grandfather.

For the future justice, conservatism was part of an ideological journey, much of it forged at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., where he was among a small group of Black men that did the difficult work of integrating the institution in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He and other students, including the prominent defense attorney Ted Wells, started a Black Student Union, and for a time Thomas protested the Vietnam War. A pivotal moment came after a demonstration in Cambridge, Mass., turned into “a full-scale riot,” he wrote in his memoir. “Horrified,” he rejected what he saw as a posture of anger and resentment and threw himself into his studies.

“Just about every evening, a few minutes after 11, there Clarence would be coming through the door from the library, every single evening,” recalled Edward P. Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction writer known for his work chronicling Black lives in Washington, who lived down the hall from Thomas as a sophomore. “There was a fierce determination I sensed from him, that he was going to get as much as he could and get as far, ultimately, as he could.”

Thomas got his law degree from Yale but stuck a 15-cent cigar sticker to the frame of his diploma after failing to get a big law job — such firms, he would write, attributed his academic pedigree to preferential treatment. Instead, he took the only job offer he received and went to work for Missouri’s Republican attorney general, John Danforth, and discovered the writings of the Black conservative Thomas Sowell, who assailed affirmative action as undercutting self-reliance; Thomas wrote that he “felt like a thirsty man gulping down a glass of cool water” to see his own beliefs articulated. A few years later, after he was appointed by Reagan to head the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, he would complain that Black civil rights leaders “bitch, bitch, bitch, moan and moan, whine and whine.”

Thomas venerated his grandfather, Myers Anderson, who was as influential in his life as his wife’s mother was in hers, and titled his memoir “My Grandfather’s Son.” But the relationship was often fractious. Anderson, who donated to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, “wasn’t happy with his grandson’s choices,” Kevin Merida, now the executive editor of The Los Angeles Times, and Michael A. Fletcher wrote in a 2007 biography, “Supreme Discomfort.” The authors quoted Ketanji Brown Jackson, a Black former clerk for Justice Stephen Breyer whom Biden is now considering for the vacancy being created by Breyer’s retirement. She remembered sitting across from Thomas at lunch and thinking: “ ‘I don’t understand you. You sound like my parents. You sound like people I grew up with.’ But the lessons he tended to draw from the experiences of the segregated South seemed to be different than those of everybody I know.”

Clarence and Ginni met in 1986 at a conference on affirmative action, which they both opposed. After a stint at the civil rights office of the Education Department, he was running the E.E.O.C.; she was an attorney at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and mused that year to Good Housekeeping about someday running for Congress. She had extracted herself from a New Age-y self-help group called Lifespring, which she would denounce as a cult, but was still attending meetings held by a cult-deprogramming organization, and she took him along to one. He would describe her as a “gift from God,” and they married in 1987 at a Methodist church in Omaha; it was her first marriage, his second. “There’s no other way to politely say this, but the fact she married a Black man must’ve caused an uproar in that family, I can’t even imagine,” said Scott Bange, who dated Ginni in high school. In 1991, one of Ginni Thomas’s aunts told The Washington Post that the future justice “was so nice, we forgot he was Black,” adding, “He treated her so well, all of his other qualities made up for his being Black.”

Thomas had custody of a teenage son, Jamal, from his previous marriage to Kathy Ambush, his college girlfriend. For several years, the couple also raised his great-nephew, Mark Martin. Jamal Thomas, who did not return requests for comment, has spoken warmly, if rarely, of his father on Facebook, writing in a 2015 Father’s Day post: “Dad showed me that you can enjoy all sorts of music. His album collection is legendary. Country, R&B, Classical, Blues, Gospel, Jazz, and yes, even Culture Club. But I kind of compare that to his ability to relate and connect with anyone.”

Together, the Thomases considered themselves happy warriors. If he was estranged in some ways from his own upbringing, he embraced her world, and even became an ardent fan of the Nebraska Cornhuskers. “They have this happy-kindness, Nebraska thing going on,” one longtime friend of the couple’s said. “Ginni can be annoying and obnoxious with the happy talk, but when you’re with her one on one, she can be very kind. And with Clarence too, there’s a kindness too; it’s not just the manipulative happy talk. But there’s an underbelly of pain, and they turn it against other people.”

Clarence Thomas has always maintained that he had to be talked into accepting an appointment to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit when he was nominated as a federal judge in 1989. “I was minding my business,” he said, recounting the story in his remarks at the Heritage celebration. He was championed by Danforth, by then a senator, who said on the Senate floor: “I hope that people would not attack Clarence Thomas because of some stereotype of what they think a Black lawyer should believe.”

Thurgood Marshall announced his retirement from the Supreme Court in 1991, and President George H.W. Bush turned to Thomas. His confirmation hearings, presided over by Joe Biden, then the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, began with an attempt to determine his views on Roe v. Wade. Then, after an F.B.I. report was leaked, Anita Hill, a law professor who worked under Thomas at the Department of Education and the E.E.O.C., testified that he made numerous unwelcome advances, persisted in workplace conversations about his “sexual prowess,” described graphic pornography and said he found a pubic hair on a cola can and asked who had put it there. The future justice flatly rejected the allegations, calling the public inquiry “a high-tech lynching for uppity Blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas.”

Asked during the hearing whether he wanted to withdraw, he said, “I’d rather die.” He did not watch Hill’s testimony. “I was the one that tried to watch what was going on for as long as I could,” Ginni Thomas said in a 2020 documentary on Justice Thomas’s life and legal philosophy, “Created Equal,” made with the Thomases’ participation and funded by the far-right Charles Koch and Bradley Foundations. “It was all so wrong,” she continued. “It was so untrue.” When Biden informed Thomas in a phone call that he would vote against him, he tried to reassure him about the process. As she listened in, Ginni Thomas took a spoon from a kitchen drawer and pretended to gag herself, her husband later recounted. (Biden was also criticized for excluding testimony favorable to Hill and, much later, expressed regret.) Friends and associates said that the couple’s rage over the confirmation battle came to both define and unify them.

“He was in a state of shock,” said Armstrong Williams, a Black conservative pundit and longtime friend of Justice Thomas’s, who worked for him at the E.E.O.C. and served as an adviser during the hearings. “Everything that he ever worked so hard for, everything that his grandparents and his mother were proud of him for, was reduced to sexual innuendos. And no one knew anything about his career except for those innuendos. The first time people were hearing about him were these salacious allegations.” And so, Williams said, “he threw himself into the court and becoming the best justice he could be, and that still remains his refuge.”

Thomas’s early years on the court were distinguished by vigorous dissents and iconoclastic opinions. While some justices seek a narrow enough argument to garner five votes, he often staked out a lonelier, more oppositional role as a dissenter. In a 1997 Second Amendment case, he opened the door for future challenges to local gun laws. In a 2000 Nebraska abortion case, he assailed Roe v. Wade, which he called “grievously wrong.”

“He was tilling the ground,” said Leonard Leo, a former executive vice president of the Federalist Society, a Council for National Policy member and a close family friend of the couple’s. “In other words, the field’s not ready for things to blossom or flourish, but he’s doing what he can to prepare it. And that’s what he’s been doing.”

Leo, a Catholic like the justice, first met him when he was clerking on the District of Columbia Circuit. Thomas, then a judge on that court, became a mentor. The justice has spent time at Leo’s New England vacation home, is godfather to one of his children and has supported him through hardships, including the death of his 14-year-old daughter from spina bifida. The two men often discussed religion — Thomas once recommended he read “A History of Christianity” by Paul Johnson — and Leo says Justice Thomas saw parallels between how the church grew and how to build a body of conservative jurisprudence.

“It’s very similar to what happened with the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages,” he said of the justice’s approach, adding that the church and its institutions “did their work during that time, laying the foundations for future Catholic thinking and Catholic thought to sort of grow the church and preserve its traditions. It happened quietly; it did not happen in the grand chambers of the Vatican, but it happened.”

Thomas has described his judicial philosophy as one of natural law, in which liberty and equality are endowed by God. In the Thomas view, slavery and Jim Crow segregation were betrayals of the ideals enshrined in the nation’s founding documents — and so are progressive programs like affirmative action: He is equally opposed to government imposing obstacles or providing special protections. “Whether deemed inferior by the crudest bigots or considered a victim by the most educated elites, being dismissed as anything other than inherently equal is still, at bottom, a reduction of our human worth,” he said in a recent speech. In an essay called “Clarence X?” Stephen F. Smith, a Notre Dame professor and former Thomas clerk who is also Black, argues that his former boss “frequently (if not invariably) seeks to demonstrate that his conservative positions on matters of race are beneficial for Black Americans, as well as legally required.”

But those positions are often out of step with a majority of Black Americans, and in his autobiography, Thomas laments being “branded a traitor to my race” for “daring to reject the ideological orthodoxy that was prescribed for blacks by liberal whites.” Such rejection of orthodoxy was evident in a 1995 concurring opinion on desegregation, when he questioned why majority-Black schools were necessarily a problem: “It never ceases to amaze me that the courts are so willing to assume that anything that is predominantly black must be inferior,” he wrote.

During these years, the couple were embraced on the right; they even hosted Rush Limbaugh’s third wedding at their Virginia home in 1994, with Justice Thomas officiating. Ginni Thomas was laboring in establishment Republican circles, but an ideological ferocity akin to her mother’s simmered. “I’ve been on a mission for a long time,” she told U.S. News & World Report in 1995. “I wouldn’t be in this town if I wasn’t on a mission.” By the time the Tea Party movement arose in opposition to the Obama presidency, her sense of mission was redoubled. “Over the last 30 years, I have worked and struggled inside this Beltway, waiting for you people to show up,” she told Tea Party activists in a 2010 speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference. “I adore all of the new citizen patriots who are rising up across this country, and I am happy to help show you the ropes in the Washington area, ’cause we need help.”

Newly emboldened, that same year Ginni Thomas called Anita Hill, leaving a voice mail message on a Saturday morning. “I just wanted to reach across the airwaves and the years and ask you to consider something. I would love you to consider an apology sometime and some full explanation of why you did what you did with my husband,” she said. “So give it some thought. And certainly pray about this and hope that one day you will help us understand why you did what you did. OK, have a good day.” (Ginni Thomas characterized the call by saying she was “extending an olive branch.”)

When asked if Justice Thomas agreed with making the call, Armstrong Williams was quick to answer. “Of course not! But he had to deal with it,” he said. “It’s his wife, it’s his best friend, his most trusted confidante, and he loves her unconditionally. He doesn’t agree with everything, but they work it out privately.”

Hill was taken aback and made the call public: “She can’t ask for an apology without suggesting that I did something wrong, and that is offensive.” Hill had not been the only woman to level accusations against Clarence Thomas: At the time of his confirmation hearing, another former E.E.O.C. employee, Angela Wright, who was fired by him, detailed inappropriate sexual comments she said he made, including remarking on her bra size. A third former agency employee said, “If you were young, Black, female and reasonably attractive, you knew full well you were being inspected and auditioned as a female.” Neither was called to testify.

In 2010, shortly after news broke of Ginni Thomas’s call to Hill, Lillian McEwen, a former assistant U.S. attorney who dated Clarence Thomas for several years after his separation from his first wife, spoke out: “He was always actively watching the women he worked with to see if they could be potential partners,” she told The Washington Post in support of Hill’s account. “I have no hostility toward him,” she said. “It is just that he has manufactured a different reality over time.” In 2016, Moira Smith, the general counsel at an Alaska natural-gas company, said she was groped in 1999 by Justice Thomas while she was a 23-year-old Truman Foundation scholar, eight years after he joined the court.

The Thomases have rejected all such allegations. “I think, and I’ve said this only a few times publicly, one of the best things that could have happened to me was to have gone through the kind of confirmation I went through,” he told the conservative activists at the Eagle Forum in 1996. “I am the freest person on the court. I have no illusions, no desires for accolades, no desires for praise. I’m there to do a job. I will do it, and I will go home.”

A few weeks after Mitt Romney lost the 2012 presidential election, Ginni Thomas called Steve Bannon, then the chairman of Breitbart, and they had lunch at the Washington townhouse that was both Bannon’s residence and Breitbart’s headquarters. Romney’s loss presaged a battle for the Republican Party’s direction, and Thomas wanted to start a hard-right round table to serve as an alternative to an establishment meeting run on Wednesdays by Grover Norquist, the anti-tax crusader. “She had the idea, ‘I think we need something to counter Grover’s Wednesday meeting,’” recalled Bannon, who didn’t know her well at the time. “And I said, ‘That’s a brilliant idea.’”

The previous year, Thomas’s activism drew scrutiny of her and her husband, when Common Cause, an advocacy group, reviewed I.R.S. filings and criticized Justice Thomas for failing to disclose his wife’s income — nearly $700,000 over five years from the Heritage Foundation — as required by federal law. He subsequently amended 20 years of filings. After her stint at Heritage, Ginni Thomas ran a Washington-based constitutional studies center for Michigan’s Hillsdale College, a conservative bastion that her husband has called “a shining city on a hill.” She also briefly ran her own advocacy group called Liberty Central, which campaigned against a planned Islamic community center and mosque in Lower Manhattan near ground zero; that group was funded in large measure by Harlan Crow, a friend of the Thomases’ and board member of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank whose work Justice Thomas has cited. Crow, a major Republican donor, gave $500,000 to Liberty Central. (Ginni Thomas’s 2010 pay of $120,511 was nearly 13 percent of the organization’s revenue that year, tax records show.) In the wake of the financial disclosures, more than 70 House Democrats asked the justice to recuse himself from deliberations about President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which Ginni Thomas lobbied against. He declined.

‘When you look at the impact on the conservative movement and the principles we hold dear, I think her and her husband stand toe to toe.’

Now her new group, Groundswell, took shape, coupling a theatrical cloak-and-dagger sensibility with an inability to keep secrets. Early participants drew from a number of hard-line interest groups, including Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy, Tom Fitton of Judicial Watch and Ken Blackwell of the Family Research Council, as well as Leonard Leo and Allen West, an outspoken former Florida congressman, and a number of right-wing journalists, including Mark Tapscott, then the executive editor of The Washington Examiner. A trove of internal emails was promptly leaked to Mother Jones magazine, highlighting the group’s use of tactical terms like “OpSec” (“operations security”) and its hatred of establishment Republican figures, in particular Karl Rove, whom they reviled as a moderating influence on the party.

Ginni Thomas oversaw the group’s plan for its “30-front war” as Groundswell became a platform for far-right leaders, donors, and media figures — the people Bannon called the “honey badgers” of the movement — to exchange and amplify hard-line positions on immigration, abortion and gun control. It was, as Bannon put it, “all the stuff that became the foundational stuff of the Trump movement.”

Voting was an early focus. Among the early Groundswell participants was Russell J. Ramsland Jr., an influential Texas-based backer of evidence-free voting-fraud claims who would make a failed congressional run. So was James O’Keefe, the founder of Project Veritas, a right-wing group that has used deception and hidden cameras to try to buttress claims of voter fraud. Another participant was Catherine Englebrecht, a Texas activist who in 2009 founded True the Vote, a group that says it is battling “groups who subvert our elections to serve their own purposes” and has pushed for voting restrictions.

The activists were particularly inflamed after Obama signed an executive order on March 28, 2013, that created a commission to study elections. “OBAMA TAKES TOTAL CONTROL OF ELECTIONS,” one Groundswell member wrote in an email to the group. Englebrecht warned in response that the commission, which had no authority beyond writing a report and making recommendations, “has the capacity to wipe out fair elections.”

Bongino, another Groundswell member, wrote: “We need to reframe this. The narrative of the Left has already taken hold.” He added, “The words ‘Voter ID’ are already lost & equated with racism.” Thomas weighed in, listing key House staff members working on elections matters, and asked, “Who else are key working group members on ELECTION LAW, ELECTION REFORM, and THE LEFT’S NARRATIVES, Groundswell???”

Three months after the email exchange, Justice Thomas provided a critical vote in the court’s 5-to-4 Shelby County v. Holder decision, which effectively stripped the Voting Rights Act of language that protected voters in places that had historically disenfranchised them on the basis of race. The act had required states and counties with a history of discriminatory practices, mostly in the South, to get federal preclearance of such measures. The case was led in part by one of Thomas’s own former clerks, William Consovoy, whose arguments echoed the justice’s views. In fact, Thomas had advanced the argument for Shelby four years earlier, when he raised concerns about the constitutionality of preclearance in a case from Texas, arguing that there was no longer “a systematic campaign to deny black citizens access to the ballot through intimidation and violence.” Four years later, in his concurring opinion in Shelby, he wrote, “Our Nation has changed.”

The ruling was cheered on the right, with The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board calling it “a triumph of racial progress.” Civil rights groups were dismayed. “The Shelby decision is one of the biggest affronts to our democracy in modern history,” said Janai Nelson, associate director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, arguing that it “unleashed a wave of voter suppression that is like what we witnessed in the Jim Crow era.” The decision freed states to enact restrictive laws, she added, that were “often based on mythical justifications” of supposed voter fraud and “by no coincidence disenfranchise minority voters at alarmingly disproportionate rates.”

That same year, Ginni Thomas turned her attention to internal battles on the right. In 2013, the Republican National Committee came out with a report after Romney’s loss that was known as the “autopsy” of the party’s failures. But its prescriptions — to broaden the base and appeal to minorities and gay people — were roundly rejected by Ginni Thomas and Bannon. “It’s a joke, and it has nothing to do with what happened,” Bannon said in an interview, recalling how he reacted to the report. “We have to have something to counter it.”

Groundswell, in a message circulated among its members after the autopsy, said that “Priebus is sending messages to the party,” referring to Reince Priebus, the R.N.C. chairman at the time. It continued: “If we were all gay illegal aliens, the party likes us. He is preparing the way for a change on social issues by giving a warning, ‘don’t go Old Testament.’”

The Thomases faced other headwinds. In addition to Groundswell, Ginni Thomas had started her own small firm, Liberty Consulting, but was often relegated to symbolic gestures, as when she wrote to the I.R.S. in 2014 protesting that the Obama administration was “attempting to force the disclosure of donors to conservative organizations,” amid criticism from the right that the agency was singling out conservative groups for scrutiny. Justice Thomas, meanwhile, wrote vigorous dissents from what seemed to be a narrowing conservative position; in 2015, he was the only justice to back Abercrombie & Fitch’s dress code, which prevented the hiring of a woman who wore a head scarf. (He said the store was not intentionally discriminating but simply refusing “to create an exception.”)

For their 28th wedding anniversary in May 2015, Justice Thomas bought his wife a charm bracelet. It had knots and ropes and a pixie, because, as she later recounted, he thinks of her as a pixieish troublemaker. But there was another charm too. “I said: ‘Wait, there’s a windmill here. What’s that mean?’” She was, after all, a former attorney for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a bastion of Big Oil, and has fumed aloud that kids are being turned into “robots for climate change.” But her husband had an explanation, she said: “He goes, ‘We both tilt at windmills.’”

The death of Antonin Scalia in February 2016 left a void on the court and for Justice Thomas. He delivered an emotional eulogy for his friend, a longtime ideological ally, even if Scalia had once referred to his own brand of originalism as “fainthearted.” “For this, I feel quite inadequate to the task,” Thomas said, adding that the two had “many buck-each-other-up visits, too many to count.” He recounted gleefully chiding Scalia for excoriating an opinion he came across: “Nino, you wrote it.” For years, Thomas was overshadowed by his more voluble colleague, but a reconsideration followed. “For the first year or two, Justice Thomas was seen as Justice Scalia’s lapdog by some, which was wildly denigrating,” said John Malcolm, vice president of the Heritage Foundation’s Institute for Constitutional Government. “Now, in books and notes that have been released, it seems that Justice Scalia was just as influenced by Justice Thomas as Justice Thomas was by Justice Scalia.”

Thomas has warm relationships with many of his court colleagues; he called Ruth Bader Ginsburg “simply a joy to work with” and was often seen helping her navigate the courtroom’s steps. But after Scalia’s death, it seemed as if he might become even more ideologically isolated. Mitch McConnell made it clear that Scalia’s successor would be left to the next president, even though nearly a year remained in the Obama administration. But with Hillary Clinton leading in the polls, it seemed that the court could soon see its “first liberal majority in nearly 50 years,” USA Today wrote in October 2016.

Ginni Thomas attended the Republican National Convention as a Virginia delegate, this time on behalf of Senator Ted Cruz. There, she backed a convention-floor effort to overturn the will of Republican primary voters by awarding Trump’s delegates to Cruz. After the plot failed, Thomas expressed her disapproval of the party’s nominee in Facebook posts later compiled by Trump aides. “Donald Trump will have to WIN my vote, along with many others in the Cruz movement,” she wrote. “We were devastated at how he treated Ted” (Trump had lobbed insults and insinuations at Cruz’s wife and father), adding that it “does not bode well for a President worthy to lead this nation.”

But like many others on the right who opposed Trump’s candidacy, she would become a believer. Thomas and her colleagues at the Council for National Policy had for years pushed for the appointment of “constitutionalist” judges in her husband’s image, with some even advocating the impeachment of judges who did not meet that definition. Few things were more important to the conservative base than reshaping the closely divided Supreme Court, and Trump did not disappoint. First he replaced Scalia with another conservative, Neil Gorsuch. Then, in July 2018, Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh, a judge on the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, to succeed Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the court’s swing vote, who was retiring. The court’s balance of power was poised to shift. It was the moment both Thomases had awaited.

The Kavanaugh nomination, however, was soon imperiled amid unexpected sexual assault and harassment allegations reminiscent of Thomas’s own confirmation hearings. With the nomination in the balance, Ginni Thomas addressed the Council for National Policy’s membership, mentioning her husband no less than four times. Before introducing an off-the-record session at a council conference in October 2018, Jerry Johnson, a member of the executive committee, reminded attendees to turn their cellphones off and “do not record.” (A video of the event later surfaced.)

Ginni Thomas invoked the shooting of Representative Steve Scalise at a charity baseball practice and the Kavanaugh nomination fight to make a larger claim that conservatives were under attack. “May we all have guns and concealed carry to handle what’s coming,” she said. “And what they’ve done to Brett Kavanaugh,” she continued, “I’m feeling the pain, Clarence is feeling the pain of going through false charges against a good man, and what they’re doing is unbelievable. I thought it couldn’t get worse than Clarence’s, but it did.”

Her anger building, she told the audience that there were signs all around them of existential threats. “You see rainbow flags throughout businesses, sending powerful, subtle messages to all the customers that ‘We’re the kind, decent, compassionate, tolerant people, until the Republican evil conservatives show up, and those are all automatically hateful people,’” she said. “I see things in my veterinarian: ‘Spread Kindness,’ ‘Build Community,’ ‘Hate Is Not Welcome Here,’” she continued. “Look how defensive we are, because they have these cultural foundations.” Returning to the battle at hand, the Kavanaugh fight, she said, “Even if he gets in — I believe he’ll get in, I’m hoping he gets in, but they’re not going to leave him alone.” It was clear it was personal: “They’re trying to impeach him. They’re coming for my husband. They’re coming for President Trump!”

The invitation went out in the weeks following Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Would Justice Thomas care to join the president for what one former Trump aide described as a “working lunch”? Kavanaugh’s elevation had created an opening on the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, considered a prime steppingstone to the Supreme Court. The top contender for the post, Neomi Rao, then serving as the administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, had been a Thomas clerk.

Trump had long been intrigued by Justice Thomas. During the transition, in a meeting to discuss the court with Leonard Leo, he expressed an interest in learning more about the justice. “At one point during the conversation, he said to me, ‘You know, when I was out on the campaign trail, you know, when I mentioned Clarence Thomas, his name, sometimes the guy would get more applause than I did,’” Leo recalled. “ ‘What was that all about?’ And I said, ‘Well, you know, he’s a hero to a lot of people.’”

A courting of Thomas followed, prompted as well by rumors that he might retire. His roster of former clerks became a go-to list for Trump judicial picks. (“You did appoint a lot of my kids,” the justice would later thank McGahn, Trump’s first White House counsel, in his Heritage speech.) Early on, there was also a photo-op with Thomas and his clerks, who went to the White House. And later, there was an invitation for the justice, along with his wife, to join the president and first lady for dinner.

The lunch following the Kavanaugh battle, however, was supposed to be a private affair between the justice and the president. But when Thomas arrived, Trump aides said, they were surprised to see that he had brought an uninvited guest — his wife. Trump world was learning, as others have, that the two are a package deal.

The accounts of the Thomases’ meetings and conversations with the White House are based on interviews with nine former Trump aides and advisers, most of whom requested anonymity in order to speak frankly about how the courtship of Thomas created an opening for his wife. (One said he didn’t want “the Ginni prayer warriors coming after me.”) Several said they were never clear as to whether she was there as an activist or a paid consultant. They recounted how she aggressively pushed far-right candidates for various administration jobs and positioned herself as a voice of Trump’s grass-roots base. “Here’s what the peeps think,” she would say, according to one of the aides. “We have to listen to the peeps.”

Shortly after the lunch meeting with her husband, she got a meeting of her own with the president, at her request, arriving in the Roosevelt Room on Jan. 25, 2019, with a delegation that included members of Groundswell in tow. “It was the craziest meeting I’ve ever been to,” said a Trump aide who attended. “She started by leading the prayer.” When others began speaking, the aide remembers talk of “the transsexual agenda” and parents “chopping off their children’s breasts.” He said the president “tried to rein it in — it was hard to hear though,” because throughout the meeting attendees were audibly praying.

It was an event with no precedent, and some of the details of what transpired soon leaked: the wife of a sitting Supreme Court justice lobbying a president when several cases involving transgender rights were making their way through the federal courts. (The following year, Justice Thomas would join a dissent that asserted that the Civil Rights Act did not cover people on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.) The meeting grew chaotic. Ginni Thomas and other attendees complained to the president that their favored hard-line job candidates were being blocked and that his own personnel office should be purged, depicting some of his aides as closet liberals and Never Trumpers.

Before the meeting, Trump’s aides assembled the research document outlining concerns with Ginni Thomas and some of her preferred job candidates, the contents of which they shared with the president.

The document, obtained by The Times, detailed how Crystal Clanton, a friend of Ginni Thomas’s whose name had been advanced, had been forced out from Turning Point USA, a conservative student group on whose advisory board Ginni Thomas once served, after The New Yorker reported that she wrote in a text: “I HATE BLACK PEOPLE. Like [expletive] them all. … I hate blacks. End of story.” (Ginni Thomas subsequently hired Clanton, and Justice Thomas, who has called the allegations against Clanton unfounded, helped her get a federal clerkship and wrote in a letter of support that he would consider her for a Supreme Court clerkship.) Other names advanced by Ginni Thomas included Bongino, whom she recommended for a counterterrorism position, and David A. Clarke, a Black former Milwaukee County sheriff whose oversight of a local jail was the subject of multiple investigations and lawsuits, whom she supported for a top post at the Department of Homeland Security.

The report reminded the president that Ginni Thomas had once called him “a nonconservative candidate” whose populism was “untethered and dangerous” and whose tactics did “not bode well for a President worthy to lead this nation.” It even included a photo of her at the 2016 Republican National Convention, where she supported the effort to strip Trump of his delegates, holding her delegate badge, which was decorated with a yellow ribbon emblazoned with the words “trouble maker.”

“In the White House, she was out of bounds many times,” one of Trump’s senior aides said. “It was always: ‘We need more MAGA people in government. We’re trying to get these résumés through, and we’re being blocked.’ I appreciated her energy, but a lot of these people couldn’t pass background checks.” Many of the people she pushed, another former Trump aide said, “had legitimate background issues, security-clearance issues or had done a lot of business overseas.”

The president continued to allow Ginni Thomas access, telling aides that if she were in the White House visiting with other officials, she was welcome to drop by to see him. And she did on several occasions, while also passing notes on her priorities through intermediaries, multiple aides said. With her husband, she also attended a state dinner for the Australian prime minister, and she went to the White House when her husband administered the Constitutional Oath to Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s third appointment to the Supreme Court, as guests including Laura Ingraham, the Fox News host and former Thomas clerk, celebrated.


With her place in the presidential orbit secure, Thomas became even more outspoken. In posts on Facebook, she shared a George Soros conspiracy-theory meme and criticized the teenage survivors of the school massacre in Parkland, Fla., for supporting gun control. She complained when a town near her Virginia home put up a banner in support of Black Lives Matter, saying the group was filled with extremists “seeking to foment a cultural revolution,” and traded barbs on her public Facebook page. “Hey, are you aware you married a black man?” one commenter wrote, to which she replied: “news tip, whitey, all blacks don’t think alike!”

By 2019, her influence in Republican circles was growing. She took on a leadership role at the Council for National Policy, joining the board of C.N.P. Action, which had become a key cog in the Trump messaging machine. (The council declined to comment.) The board holds breakout sessions on “pressing issues,” then publishes “action steps” for members. That year, she and her friend Cleta Mitchell, a council member and Republican elections lawyer, conducted a joint session at which Mitchell discussed harnessing charitable dollars for political purposes and Thomas spoke on the culture war. Thomas told her listeners that societal forces were arrayed against them, while flashing a slide depicting the left as black snakes coiled around cultural institutions. “Our house is on fire,” she declared, “and we are stomping ants in the driveway.”

During Trump’s presidency, documents obtained by The Times show, the council and its affiliates routinely took on issues that were likely to go before the Supreme Court. Ginni Thomas personally co-moderated a panel called “The Pro-Life Movement on Offense” that laid out strategies to energize “low turnout pro-life voters” and “persuadable Democrats and Hispanics” by talking to them “about late-term abortion, taxpayer funding of abortion, and the Supreme Court,” one of the slides in the presentation read. Amid the pandemic and legal challenges to lockdown restrictions, the organization urged members to “pray for our churches to rise up.” The scope of potential conflicts has little precedent beyond narrower episodes on lower federal courts, as when the wife of Judge Stephen Reinhardt was an A.C.L.U. executive but he did not always recuse himself from cases in which the A.C.L.U. had an interest. But unlike the Supreme Court, litigants there had the right to appeal.

As the 2020 election neared, C.N.P. Action meetings and documents targeted Democratic strategies that make it easier to vote, including the practice of civic groups’ gathering ballot applications, derided by many on the right as “ballot harvesting.” Months later, the Supreme Court upheld an Arizona ban on the practice, with Thomas in the 6-to-3 majority. C.N.P. Action also pressed for mandatory voter-identification laws and even floated the idea of using former Navy SEALs to monitor polls.

Thomas was also busy with displays of devotion: She boasted in an online biography that she “set agendas with President Trump’s White House for quarterly conservative leader briefings” and started a group of Trump supporters called the Northern Virginia Deplorables. But it was after Trump’s November loss that she would prove her loyalty beyond doubt, when she and her group urged on efforts to overturn the election.

In the weeks after Trump’s loss, court challenges began to pile up from his team, his allies, and even Republican lawmakers. They echoed the call put out by C.N.P. Action to challenge swing-state outcomes, with one Republican congressman, Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania, filing a lawsuit against his own state to try to stop the certification of its votes. On Dec. 8, the Supreme Court refused a request to hear that case before the certification date in a one-sentence statement. It remains unknown whether the justices were unanimous in their decision.

By then, the network around the Thomases was lighting up. On Dec. 10, a former Thomas clerk and close friend of the couple’s, John C. Eastman, went on “War Room,” a podcast and radio show hosted by Bannon. Eastman argued that the country was already at the point of a constitutional crisis — and he urged the Supreme Court to intervene. Bannon eagerly agreed. Behind the scenes, Eastman was advising Trump and his campaign on a new proposal to change the outcome of the election: Vice President Mike Pence, he asserted, could refuse to accept swing-state votes and send them back to the state legislatures when he presided over the certification of the election in a joint session of Congress on Jan. 6.

As the Trump court challenges to the election multiplied, C.N.P. Action took up the charge once more, training its sights on the Jan. 6 certification. In December, it circulated a newsletter that included a report titled “Five States and the Election Irregularities and Issues,” targeting five swing states where Trump and his allies were already pressing litigation. But time was running out for the courts to “declare the elections null and void,” the report warned. The newsletter advised: “There is historical, legal precedent for Congress to count a slate of electors different from that certified by the Governor of the state.” One co-author of the “Five States” report was Cleta Mitchell, who by that time was among the lawyers advising Trump.

Soon a number of longtime friends and associates of the Thomases were involved in efforts to overturn the election results, or helping plan the Jan. 6 rallies. Besides Eastman and Bannon, there was Mitchell, who took part in Trump’s Jan. 2 call in which he exhorted Georgia’s secretary of state to “find” the votes he needed to claim a victory. Turning Point USA, on whose advisory board Ginni Thomas had served, was a sponsor of the Jan. 6 event and provided buses for attendees. (An early rumor suggesting that she paid for the buses was debunked.)

Other sponsors included two more groups with which Ginni Thomas had long ties. One was the Tea Party Patriots, headed by Jenny Beth Martin, a fellow Council for National Policy activist. The other was Women for America First, which held the permit for the rally at the Ellipse and was run by Amy Kremer. The two women, and Ginni Thomas, had all been early Tea Party activists, though Kremer and Martin had been engaged for years in a bitter legal dispute. “That’s why it was interesting when I learned that they’d been working together on the January 6 coordination,” Dustin Stockton said, adding that he had been told by another organizer, Caroline Wren, on Jan. 5 that it was Ginni Thomas who worked to bring unity ahead of the rally. (Asked about Thomas’s mediating role, Kremer’s daughter Kylie Jane Kremer, the executive director of Women for America First, did not answer that question, instead painting Stockton as someone who makes “inaccurate and attention-seeking statements.” Martin similarly avoided the question, issuing a statement that condemned the violence at the Capitol. Wren disputed Stockton’s account but declined to elaborate.)

The spectacle of a Supreme Court justice’s spouse taking to Facebook to champion the attempt of a defeated president to stay in power, as Ginni Thomas did on the morning of Jan. 6, crossed a line for several people in the Thomases’ circle who talked to The Times. “That’s what she does — it has nothing to do with him,” said Armstrong Williams, Justice Thomas’s longtime friend. “Should she use better judgment? Yes. You can quote me on that.”

Ginni Thomas posted a disclaimer after the protests devolved into an insurrection — “[Note: written before violence in US Capitol]” — but she had also lamented Trump’s loss in a message to “Thomas Clerk World,” a private email group used by Ginni Thomas and former clerks and their spouses that is typically reserved for more anodyne pleasantries. Her use of the forum prompted a bitter debate among the former clerks that soon leaked. It started on Jan. 17, when Smith, the Notre Dame professor, shared an article from Christianity Today denouncing the Jan. 6 violence. Among those who weighed in was Eastman, who was a speaker at the rally. “Rest assured that those of us involved in this are working diligently to ascertain the truth,” he wrote.

Eastman then used the Thomas email group to invite “those of you interested in more information” to get in touch, prompting Smith to reply that he hoped everyone agreed “that the search for truth doesn’t in any way justify insurrection, trying to kidnap and assassinate elected officials, attacking police officers, or making common cause with racists and anti-Semites” because “such things are flatly contrary to authentic Christian faith.” (Details of Eastman’s role continue to emerge, including a message he sent to Pence’s top lawyer during the Capitol attack blaming the vice president for refusing to overturn the election; he repeatedly cited the Fifth Amendment in refusing to answer questions from the Jan. 6 committee.)

By Jan. 18, Ginni Thomas felt compelled to issue a semi-apology on the forum, which also leaked. “I have likely imposed on you my lifetime passions,” she wrote. “My passions and beliefs are likely shared with the bulk of you, but certainly not all. And sometimes the smallest matters can divide loved ones for too long. Let’s pledge to not let politics divide THIS family, and learn to speak more gently and knowingly across the divide,” adding, “I am certainly on the humble side of awareness here. ????????”

In the year that has passed, Ginni Thomas has deleted one of her two Facebook accounts and has taken a lower profile. But she remains active. Last year, she invited Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida to join a Groundswell call, describing her group as a “cone-of-silence coalition” in an email to his staff that was obtained by American Oversight, a nonpartisan watchdog group. She invoked her husband, telling DeSantis’s aides that the justice had been in contact with the governor “on various things of late.” (DeSantis, who did not respond to requests for comment, was in the midst of a number of high-profile federal court battles at the time.)

The battle over the election did not land before the court as Bush v. Gore did in 2000. But in February 2021, as Trump and his associates continued pressing for state lawmakers to audit — and reverse — the 2020 election, Justice Thomas sharply dissented when a 6-to-3 majority rejected the case brought by Pennsylvania Republicans that the court had refused to take up in December. Echoing the arguments advanced by C.N.P. Action, he wrote that legislatures have the constitutional authority to determine how federal elections are held, yet in 2020, “nonlegislative officials in various States took it upon themselves to set the rules instead.”

He called the refusal by his colleagues to hear the case “inexplicable,” arguing that “allegations of systemic maladministration, voter suppression, or fraud” go “to the heart of public confidence in election results. That is obviously problematic for allegations backed by substantial evidence. But the same is true where allegations are incorrect.” In other words, election disputes and claims of fraud carried as much weight — and should lead to court hearings, just as Trump and his supporters had wished — whether they were true or not. “By doing nothing,” Thomas continued, “we invite further confusion and erosion of voter confidence.” He did concede in a footnote that the 2020 presidential election had been “free from strong evidence of systemic fraud.”

Though the battle for the presidency is over, the Thomases are winning in the war for the courts — and, some would argue, the country. Some of the most important issues Ginni Thomas has worked for are now barreling toward a Supreme Court redefined by Trump, where her husband is ascendant. Landmark cases loom.

One major test will be elections, particularly after Biden’s Justice Department sued Georgia over a new voting law that the department said discriminates against people of color. The Supreme Court has already agreed to review race-conscious admissions programs at Harvard and the University of North Carolina, setting the stage for a dramatic reversal on affirmative action, as Justice Thomas has long sought. And Roe v. Wade appears likely to be hollowed out, if not overturned: The court, with Thomas as the lone dissenter, recently allowed abortion providers the right to challenge a Texas anti-abortion law, though a conservative majority, joined by Thomas, declined to block the law’s enforcement in the meantime. And oral arguments in another recent case suggest that there may be enough votes to uphold a Mississippi law banning abortion after 15 weeks. Justice Thomas seemingly used his questions to press for a full reversal of Roe v. Wade, demanding: “If I were to ask you what constitutional right protects the right to abortion, is it privacy? Is it autonomy? What would it be?”

Such performances have made him a hero to many on the right. Brigitte Gabriel, a Council for National Policy stalwart who once said that “every practicing Muslim is a radical Muslim” — and whose activism Ginni Thomas once praised in a glowing Daily Caller column — called Justice Thomas “the real chief justice” during December oral arguments and tweeted a doctored photo in which every justice had his face with the caption: “This would be a Supreme Court with Courage.”

“I love calling it the Thomas court,” said Helgi Walker, the former Thomas clerk. “He didn’t change. That’s why it’s been wonderful to watch this arc. The influence he exerts comes from the power of his ideas,” she continued. “That’s what his legacy is built on.”

In September, Justice Thomas stood before the audience at the University of Notre Dame. Asked what he thought was the biggest misconception the public has about the Supreme Court, he said: “I think that they think that we make policy. I think the media makes it sounds as though you are just always going right to your personal preference. So if they think you’re anti-abortion or something personally, they think that that’s the way you always will come out. They think you’re for this or for that. They think you become like a politician. And I think that’s a problem.”

He told his audience that when he talked to his clerks about the real meaning of their work, “why we do what we do,” he insisted that “it’s not about us. It’s not about winning and losing at the court. It is about the entire country and the idea of this country.”

Last summer, the Thomases took a road trip in their 40-foot Prevost bus, repeating visits to R.V. parks and Walmart parking lots that they have made to 42 states over more than two decades. The couple find such journeys restorative, a way to travel semi-anonymously in places where they feel more politically at home. (“It’s the best of America,” Ginni Thomas once said.) Justice Thomas lamented at Notre Dame that “a notable pessimism about the state of our country” had taken hold, with some Americans believing that “America is a racist and irredeemable nation” and seeking to “cancel our founders.”

There are still people who have faith in the country and what it stands for, but it was on the road and beyond the East Coast elites that the couple found those Americans, at least in Justice Thomas’s telling. “My bride and I, Virginia, we were R.V.ing in the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee. And we noticed something there,” he said. “The large number of flags of people who still believe in the ideal of this country, in an environment when there’s so much criticism, antagonism, and actually people with disdain for the very same. It was very interesting to be with regular people for three weeks.” Here, far from Washington, far from the news media, far from “the interest groups,” far from anyone who recognized him at all, was where he — where they — were at home.

“There are many more of us, I think,” he told his listeners, “who feel that America is not so broken as it is adrift at sea.”

Watch the video below:

 

Correction: Feb. 22, 2022
An earlier version of this article misstated Virginia Thomas’s birthday. She will be 65 on April 25, not on Feb. 23. The article also referred imprecisely to the C.N.P.’s “action steps” memo. The document was shared by Brent Allpress with the Center for Media and Democracy, which posted it in November 2020; it is not the case that its existence had never been reported.

Source: Danny Hakim and Jo Becker/Nytimes.com

Date Posted: Thursday, February 24th, 2022 , Total Page Views: 582

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