This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
It’s been said that no one expects the Spanish Inquisition. Virginia Thomas seemingly did. The transcript of her appearance before the House January 6 Committee, which was buried in an avalanche of committee documents released at the end of December, shows not only that Thomas was well prepared for the committee: She prevailed over it.
The committee had sought, in its late September interview with the spouse of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, to expose the errors of her doctrines and the crookedness of her path. But Thomas emerged from the roughly 4-hour meeting triumphant, her faith unshaken. No rack could break her. No fact could bend her.
Thomas is an arch-conservative activist who has spent a lifetime advancing right-wing political causes in concert with other arch-conservative activists. But she does not, she says, much discuss her political activities with her spouse, the arch-conservative jurist who has used his lifetime seat on the U.S. Supreme Court to advance those same right-wing political causes.
In her testimony, Thomas claimed household dominion over the “political lane,” with career stops at ideological outposts such as the Heritage Foundation, Hillsdale College and the Daily Caller, along with an active volunteer life in right-wing political networks, such as Frontliners and Groundswell. The latter, Thomas told the committee, is a “center-right” response to the “30-front war that the left has on constitutional governance.”
Thomas is at home in a netherworld that others might deride as “fringe.” Her friends are numerous — the word “friend” appears 40 times in the transcript — and include right-wing figures such as former Trump White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and Connie Hair, the longtime chief of staff to recently retired Representative Louis Gohmert of Texas. Gohmert is a pro-insurrection Republican known for the “ease with which he was willing to make unfounded and offensive pronouncements,” according to the Texas Tribune. Thomas told the committee that she talks to Hair frequently. “She comes to my Thanksgiving,” she said.
Justice Clarence Thomas, by contrast, is “uninterested” in politics, his wife said. He operates exclusively in the “legal lane.” Thus the couple navigates the ethical grid of Washington, where the Supreme Court is across the street from the Congress, which is down the street from the Justice Department, which is a short walk from the White House, as easily as a stroll across the Mayberry town square.
Virginia Thomas — who goes by “Ginni” — occupies a singular place in elite conservative politics. Yet what’s striking about her testimony is how generically MAGA it is. She laments election “fraud and irregularities” for which she can summon no evidence; reveals deep resentment of political and media elites who are not like-minded conservatives; resorts to unabashedly opportunistic lapses of memory; and provides warm reminiscences of a morning spent on the Ellipse on Jan. 6, 2021. A 65-year-old suburban volunteer, Thomas appeared before the committee, after lengthy negotiations, with nothing to hide. But somewhere along the way she had obtained the Signal app for encrypting communications just the same.
Over the course of her interview with the committee, Thomas described her political efforts in 2020 as “minimal and mainstream.” She was “very active with Trump rallies” in her home state of Virginia, she said.
After Trump lost the election, her political enthusiasms evolved. Thomas repeatedly beseeched Mark Meadows, via text message, to find a way to invalidate the 2020 election and prevent Trump’s democratically elected successor from assuming office. She texted Trump’s White House chief of staff about her swooning appreciation of Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, the axis of a Trump legal team described by Attorney General William Barr as a “clown car.” She sent robo-emails to Republican state legislators who were urged to carry out a plot, conjured in part by Thomas allies John Eastman and Cleta Mitchell, to send false electors to Washington to halt the democratic transfer of power.
“Make a plan, release the Kraken, and save us from the left taking America down,” Thomas implored Meadows on Nov. 19, 2020. If the spouse of Justice Thomas restricted herself to a particular lane in the days surrounding the 2020 election, it appears to have been a roadway heavily trafficked by the former president’s co-conspirators.
Thomas’s texts with Meadows are one of the topics she did not discuss with Justice Thomas. “I do know,” she told the committee, “he was completely unaware of the texts that I had with Mark Meadows until this committee leaked them to the press while my husband was in a hospital bed in March fighting an infection.” Justice Thomas provided the lone dissent in an 8-1 Supreme Court ruling against Trump, which gave the January 6 committee access to a trove of White House documents related to the insurrection.
The Washington Post published excerpts from 29 texts between Thomas and Meadows. They are mostly not the ambiguous sort.
“Help This Great President stand firm, Mark!!!” Thomas wrote to Meadows on Nov. 10, 2020, when Trump’s campaign to sabotage the peaceful transfer of power was well under way. “The majority knows Biden and the Left is attempting the greatest Heist of our History.”
Thomas’s projection may read as dark comedy, but, like her testimony, it illuminates a deep MAGA mindset. Victimhood, denial, whataboutism, resentment, lies — many of the signposts of Trumpism are vividly displayed.
One quality, however, appears paramount. Throughout her testimony, Thomas conveys the abiding arrogance that girds so much fear and flailing on the right. When facts defy MAGA mythology, to hell with facts. The Justice’s wife clearly shares the insurrectionists’ animating logic: If American democracy won’t continue to enshrine white Christian conservative preeminence, then it is American democracy, not the preeminence, which must be brought to heel.
Consider the date — Nov. 10 — of Thomas’s “Heist” message. Fox News had called the state of Arizona for Joe Biden on Nov. 3, effectively announcing the Trump campaign’s doom. By Nov. 7, the broadcast networks and the Associated Press had all declared Joe Biden the president-elect. On Nov. 10, the date of Thomas’s text, the New York Times ran a lead story reporting the results of interviews with top election officials in all 50 states. Every state, red and blue, told the Times there had been no significant irregularities or fraud in the vote.
There was also, notably, the junkyard dog that didn’t bark. William Barr had flagrantly misled the public, for Trump’s benefit, about the findings of the Mueller report, and he had run interference for Trump on corruption investigations. Prior to the 2020 election, Barr had spread additional falsehoods about voting by mail, echoing Trump. But as the post-election morass deepened, and Trump desperately sought endorsements of his ever loopier claims, Barr was conspicuously silent.
On Nov. 12, the executive committee of the Trump administration’s Election Infrastructure Government Coordinating Council confirmed what Barr surely knew. The 2020 election was “the most secure in American history.”
Thus, by Nov. 7, you had to be an extraordinary optimist to believe that Trump had a chance. By Nov. 10, you had to be a fantasist. By Nov. 12, the task required a good deal more — including perhaps a passing interest in the termination of republican government. Yet on Nov. 13 here comes Thomas, texting Meadows that “Sidney Powell & improved coordination now will help the cavalry come and Fraud exposed and America saved.”
Even Trump, who typically prioritizes quantity over quality in the matter of lies, found Powell’s sci-fi yarns and sloppy escapades detrimental to his plans. On Nov. 22, the Trump campaign officially cut Powell loose. But unlike Trump, Thomas is a woman of faith. She kept cheering Powell’s improvisational circus until late November, when Meadows finally convinced Thomas to surrender her hope in the Kraken. Thomas was loath to let go. “I viewed her as a trusted person to get at facts,” she told the committee of Powell. She did not say if she had ever changed that view.
An article in Politico last March weighed whether Virginia Thomas is “one of the most powerful forces in the MAGA movement,” as the fascist-friendly podcaster and Trump ally Steve Bannon called her, or a conspiracy theorizing gadfly drafting off her husband’s lifetime tenure on the nation’s highest court.
Those are hardly mutually exclusive descriptions. Thomas seems to veer between them herself, alternately describing herself to the Jan. 6 committee as “an ordinary citizen activist” and as “a leader in the movement” who is active in “a number of conservative weekly gatherings.”
Both versions inform a portrait of a MAGA everywoman, a super-elite and well-connected fixture of the conservative movement who is nonetheless as steeped in rage, and as swaddled in falsehoods, as the most alienated and FOX-addled denizen of MAGA nation.
In her testimony, Thomas, a law-school graduate, appears to slide between personas — elite insider or clueless bumpkin — depending on how much English she wishes to apply to a shot. But in either guise she remains consistently, adamantly and seemingly genuinely hostile to the truth at the heart of the inquiry. An exchange between Representative Liz Cheney and Thomas captures the religious intensity of Thomas’s animus.
Ms. Cheney: And if you had been aware that the Attorney General Barr, for example, or Pat Cipollone, that if you’d been aware that they had investigated these claims of fraud and told [Trump] that there was no evidence to support those claims, would that have changed your view?
Mrs. Thomas: Honestly, I don’t think it would have, because millions of people still found that there were irregularities with the COVID changes to mail-in balloting. And there were so many other things that, you know, I don’t think there’s a lot of — there’s a lot of people uncomfortable with the 2020 election despite what this committee is pushing. Okay? I just think there’s still concern. And I wouldn’t have believed that some of those people you named were able to identify and track down fraud and irregularity that I was hearing from the grassroots in certain states.
Ms. Cheney: And so are you aware that the President and his allies brought legal challenges, which was completely their right to do, but that they lost 61 out of 62 of those legal challenges?
Mrs. Thomas: I still believed that there was fraud and irregularity, as millions of Americans do, Representative Cheney.
Cheney can explain to Thomas that the white phantom that Thomas saw traipsing across the lawn is in fact a sheet hanging from the clothes line. She can show Thomas the sheet. She can let Thomas run her fingers over the cotton threads. It doesn’t matter. Thomas needs the ghost. And, by God, she’ll have it.
Various committee inquisitors prodded Thomas to face facts, confront reality, join them in the church of reason. Thomas made little effort to hide her contempt. Did she happen to take note of such-and-such fact on such-and-such date, a fact that exposes her beliefs as so much childish nonsense? Nope. Didn’t see it. Didn’t hear it. Didn’t know. Didn’t ask. Never will.
Representative Jamie Raskin, a constitutional lawyer and high priest in the rival sect, was among those trying to coax Thomas, ever so gently, onto reality’s cold, alien ground.
Mr. Raskin: Mrs. Thomas, what was the most significant case of voter fraud that you were concerned with after the election took place?
Mrs. Thomas: Thank you for that question, Congressman Raskin. I can’t say that I was familiar at that time with any specific evidence.
Pressed later on the legitimacy of Biden’s presidency, Thomas opts for a line that is half cowardice, half cleverness, but all contempt. “I worried that there was fraud and irregularities that distorted the election but it wasn’t uncovered in a timely manner,” she said, “so we have President Biden.”
At one point, a committee investigator (names of committee staff are blacked out in the transcript) asked Thomas about the false allegation that ballots had been found in a suitcase in Georgia. Thomas indicates familiarity with the bogus claim. But the investigator’s follow-up question is vaporized from the commanding heights of MAGA.
Investigator: There were allegations that there was a suitcase stuffed with fraudulent false ballots.
Mrs. Thomas: Right.
Investigator: And there were subsequent law enforcement efforts, both at the State and Federal level, to investigate whether that actually happened. And so my question was, did you follow or, kind of, consider those investigations after — in the allegations of fraud like that?
Mrs. Thomas: I did not.
On January 6, 2021, Thomas awoke early to walk her dogs and post some messages to Facebook. Then she took the Metro into Washington, D.C.
“I was encouraged that people were coming together for the purpose of trying to challenge the election fraud and irregularities that were surfacing,” she told the committee.
On the Ellipse, along with things surfaced and seen were many things unseen. The morning crowd included Nazis, Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, members of the fascist street gang the Proud Boys and various white supremacists along with nonviolent and pre-violent elements of the enraged MAGA base. From the 28,000 people who passed through magnetometers, the Secret Service confiscated 269 knives or blades and 242 cannisters of pepper spray, along with tasers, “blunt instruments,” brass knuckles and more. The most heavily armed attendees, however, including those possessing firearms, hung back, out of the probing reach of the machines.
Thomas didn’t pass through the magnetometers. She said she waded through the outer crowd, chatting with other attendees. She made no mention of having seen fascist street thugs or White nationalists. She did volunteer to the committee that “a lot of Chinese-Americans were there.” In retrospect, she said, it had occurred to her that an unusual number of civilians were dressed in combat gear.
Asked if she departed the Ellipse before Trump began his speech, one with no precedent in American history, Thomas was at first vague. “I think I may have,” she replied. She subsequently said she had departed for home before Trump spoke. She was not asked about her earlier uncertainty, or why it had vanished.
What was she thinking about that day? Thomas had hoped that a “robust discussion” in Congress on Jan. 6 would somehow lead to a different political outcome, though she declined several opportunities to explain by what mechanisms she believed that outcome might arise. A text that Thomas sent to Meadows four days after Trump’s white riot might offer a clue: “Most of us are disgusted with the VP,” she wrote on Jan. 10, in an apparent reference to Vice President Mike Pence’s refusal to subvert the election.
Near the end of her meeting with the committee, Thomas was asked if she wanted to add anything to the record. It turned out that she did.
“At the end,” Thomas told the committee, “I guess I’d only say one more thing, and that is: Violence on both sides is abhorrent, and the more you guys focus on just one side, it can do significant damage to our country, I believe.” She complained that “left-wing activists” hadn’t been subjected to “same kind of focus that you guys are focusing on the violence in the Capitol on January 6th.”
Thomas was never asked about the morality of leaping to embrace every conceivable lie, no matter how cretinous or destructive, while spurning the truth at every juncture. She was never asked about the 81 million Americans whose democratic aspirations and civic legitimacy she had sought to annihilate. She was never asked to locate her beliefs in the chain reaction that led to death and destruction at the Capitol. She was not asked what she thought would happen to the world, at home or abroad, if the nuclear-armed American superpower descended into the banana republicanism of Donald Trump, Louis Gohmert and Virginia Thomas.
Thomas didn’t mourn those killed or brutalized in the attack. Instead, she expressed dismay at “corruption, the erosion of confidence in equal justice.” Her final word was a cry of moral offense, recoiling at the unjust treatment of patriots while the left was free to pursue its 30-front war on all good things.
When it was over, Thomas departed, unbroken by inquisition, unfettered by obligation, her lies intact, at the ready, open carried.
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