What is going on with Ginni Thomas?
She looks and sounds like the Washington wife of yore, with the pearl earrings, the Reagan-red cocktail attire, the sunglasses tiara’d atop her blond bob. At the holidays, she lays wreaths at Arlington and sings carols around the piano with her be-sweatered husband, Clarence, who happens to be the longest-serving justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. Memorial Day means a backyard barbecue with star-spangled tablecloths and a sheet cake that reads “God Bless America!”
But meanwhile, on Facebook, she’s behaving like your slightly paranoid neighbor who stockpiles bullets and astronaut food.
This month, Ginni Thomas shared a Facebook post that bizarrely described California as a war zone, with illegal immigrants scaling walls and carjacking U.S. citizens. Last month, she shared a post alleging that Democrats committed voter fraud in four midterm races. (Which ones? How? She didn’t say.) Then there was the post in August (since deleted) proclaiming that teenage survivors of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting are “dangerous to the survival of our nation” because of their gun-control activism. And the post in February that harangued Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for supposedly wiretapping Donald Trump — a baseless accusation indulged in only by conspiracy theorists.
Does it matter that the spouse of a Supreme Court justice is sharing such nakedly partisan, erroneous propaganda? Or have we hit the point at which this kind of rhetoric has been so normalized that, well, why wouldn’t a prominent party activist be doing this?
It hardly seems to have hurt her status in Washington’s elite Republican circles, where Thomas is admired by some as a conservative leader, a station she worked decades to achieve.
“I regard her as one of the three or four most influential conservative activists in the country,” says writer and economist Stephen Moore, who advised Trump’s campaign and frequently sees Thomas at conservative confabs. “She has channels into the White House that gets her stuff on the president’s desk.”
Does she? The White House did not respond to a query, and Thomas declined to comment for this story. But she often describes herself using a word that conveys the nature of her power: “troublemaker.” Every so often, Thomas does something that sets her critics’ hair on fire. Recently, those things have included giving an “impact” award to Fox News host Sean Hannity and suggesting that a shadow government is trying to undermine the president’s agenda — parts of which, after all, are subject to review by the Supreme Court.
Conservatives must not “be complicit as the left moves its forces across our country,” she said last year at the “IMPACT Awards” luncheon she hosted at the Trump International Hotel in downtown Washington, honoring Hannity as well as media provocateur James O’Keefe and other conservative combatants, according to video of the event shared online. She declared that Americans are throwing away their rights for “false entitlement” and that the National Football League is “mainstreaming anti-Americanism” by letting players kneel during the national anthem. Thomas concluded her remarks by saying that the left wants “to extinguish our rights.”
Past the cheery smile and the squeaky-cute voice is not a “wife of” but a woman who has gathered her own power over the years. A woman whose grievances appear to be flowering in the Trump era. A woman who could summon dozens of fellow warriors to her second annual awards luncheon this month — at the same time as the funeral of George H.W. Bush, no less. The attendees at the Mandarin Oriental on Dec. 5 included young pro-Trump commentator Candace Owens and 87-year-old Edwin Meese III, Ronald Reagan’s attorney general.
“Ginni Thomas is a crucially important person in this conservative movement,” said Mark Levin, a talk-radio host who dabbles in conspiracy theory, at the luncheon. “Don’t you think?”
The attendees applauded heartily.
In one of her recent, gentler Facebook posts, Ginni Thomas shared a photo of herself and her mother, Marge Lamp, wearing matching gingham shirts at the 1980 Republican National Convention. Marge was a Nebraska delegate for Reagan. Ginni was 23 and already devoted to the cause. After the election, she moved to Washington to work for her hometown congressman. And she joined a group that she would later realize was a cult.
Lifespring, with roots in the 1970s consciousness-raising movement, was advertised as an intensive self-help seminar. Some devotees found it helped them achieve breakthroughs in their lives and careers, but its tactics included psychological exercises that were often humiliating or even physically harmful. Some students had psychotic breaks. Several sued. A few died.
Medical experts alleged that Lifespring stripped away a student’s rationality through forced confrontation. One psychiatrist told The Washington Post in 1987 that he treated a woman who “thought the world was going to end and she had to save it.”
Thomas witnessed one exercise in which students disrobed and engaged in communal ridicule and sexual interrogation. After months of trying, she broke away.
“I had intellectually and emotionally gotten myself so wrapped up with this group that I was moving away from my family and friends and the people I work with,” she told The Washington Post then. “My best friend came to visit me, and I was preaching at her, using that tough attitude they teach you.”
She became an anti-cult activist in 1985 and an attorney at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, where she rankled women’s rights groups by opposing legislation on maternity leave and comparable worth. Her goal was a seat in Congress, she told Good Housekeeping in 1986 when it showcased her as one of “28 Young Women of Promise.” That same year, she went on a lunch date with one of Jet magazine’s most eligible D.C. bachelors: Clarence Thomas, then chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Ginni was “an old-fashioned idealist whom Washington’s cynics had not yet managed to spoil,” her husband wrote later, in his memoir. She “wanted good to prevail over evil.”
They married in her native Omaha the following year. Four years later, Bush nominated Clarence to the Supreme Court.
“The one person he really listens to is Virginia,” a longtime friend told The Post in 1991. “He depends on her for advice.” When his former colleague Anita Hill accused him of sexual harassment, turning his Senate confirmation process into a battle, the Thomases became each other’s greatest ally. She described the experience as akin to going “through a furnace”; he wrote that the “fiery trial” fused them into “one being.” After his close confirmation vote, she recast herself as a fighter for conservatism. She did tours of duty on Capitol Hill, in the think-tank world, in academia, in the grass roots.
In the ’90s, she foraged for Clinton scandals while working for House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.). In May 1996, Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) blew up when he spotted her at a hearing on the White House travel office, according to a Wall Street Journal report. What was “Mrs. Clarence Thomas in that bright blue dress” doing there, he reportedly asked a staffer, adding, “I really smell a political witch hunt.”
Even colleagues wondered whether her partisan tradecraft was rooted in revenge, according to the Journal, which asked her in 1997 whether she still envisioned a run for Congress. “I’m kind of stuck here,” Thomas replied, acknowledging that her husband’s ascent had complicated her own.
During the recount chaos of 2000, she helped the Heritage Foundation identify potential Bush staffers while her husband was deciding the outcome of the presidential race. “We have our separate professional lives,” she told the New York Times then, asserting that her work was bipartisan.
Thomas had felt professionally hamstrung by her husband’s job, says one longtime friend. That changed after Sept. 11, 2001, when her friend Barbara Olson perished on the plane that was crashed into the Pentagon. A conservative legal analyst with a talent for TV debate, Olson boldly carried on her punditry despite being married to a high-profile man in government: Theodore B. Olson, George W. Bush’s solicitor general.
“We all were desperately wounded, but Ginni came back and said to me, ‘Who’s our Barbara Olson? We need a Barbara Olson,’ ” says the friend, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she works in government. “Ginni said, ‘I feel like I have to do this. I have to get more involved.’ ”
Public confidence in the Supreme Court has dwindled and polarized over the past two decades, according to Gallup. This has made Ginni Thomas both more influential and more vulnerable to scrutiny.
After Democrats took control of the White House and Congress in 2009, she launched a nonprofit. “Liberty Central will be bigger than the tea party,” Thomas told Fox News. The group, underwritten by $1.5 million in anonymous donations, maintained a website to organize “citizen patriots” against Obama’s “hard-left” agenda, including the Affordable Care Act (which her husband would eventually declare unconstitutional in a dissent from the majority that upheld it). Watchdog group Common Cause complained to the IRS that the group skirted too close to political activity to sustain its nonprofit status. The complaint was never resolved, but Liberty Central dissolved within a few years — though not before Thomas paid herself a one-year salary of $120,000.
She shifted to Liberty Consulting, a one-woman shop offering herself as a “political entrepreneur” who could advise donors on how to direct their funds. Politics was flush with new money after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, in which her husband voted to allow unlimited corporate and union spending in elections. Critics wondered whether Thomas’s work — and her appeal to clients and collaborators — could be separated from the fact of her marriage.
Thomas herself claims to have been annoyed by the association.
“It’s like, ‘What do you want?’ ” she said at her awards luncheon last year, playacting her suspicion of beseechers. “You want my husband, don’t you?”
During the Obama years, Thomas traveled the country connecting with the tea party movement and seeking allies in Congress. She made videos for the Daily Caller in which she wondered whether “cultural Marxists have already won in our country.” In 2016, Thomas, a devout Christian, endorsed Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas for president; after he dropped out, she began to see opportunity in Trump. The morning of his win, she was at the National Press Club with other conservatives, claiming the mantle of whatever the movement had become overnight.
“With Donald Trump,” said Thomas, “we can do so much more.”
Within weeks of his inauguration, she issued a call to arms against the left’s resistance efforts, according to an email obtained by the Daily Beast. She continued to attend a regular meeting of conservatives called Groundswell, which had formed in 2013 to strategize message wars against the left. Attendees in its first years, Mother Jones reported, had included future top Trump advisers Stephen K. Bannon and John Bolton. One member says that Thomas excuses herself from the room whenever matters of the court arise.
But her most visible work is on Facebook, which she considers a prime conduit for influencing the conservative base. Her specialty is meme warfare — sharing loving tributes to Trump, derogatory takedowns of progressives and broadsides against congressional Republicans. A week after a neo-Nazi killed a woman by driving a car into a crowd in Charlottesville, Thomas derided House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for not speaking out against violence on the left.
“LiberalFascists have their useful idiots,” she wrote, and we are left to wonder, as always: What is going on with Ginni Thomas?
These memes come off the assembly line of jingoistic conservative Facebook groups with names such as the Citizens Mandate and the Great American Movement, which have 160,000 followers between them. The groups seem as automated and leaderless as many of the murky forces in social media these days, but the latter appears to be linked on Twitter to a fellow Groundswell member, and the former was apparently born of a 2014 pledge to “Stop the Fundamental Transformation of America” — which was signed by anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly, evangelical James Dobson and 50 other conservatives, including a few that Thomas has honored with “impact” awards.
“I can’t believe that the wife of a Supreme Court justice would be spreading such dangerous lies,” wrote a Facebook commenter named Elizabeth in October, after Thomas equated Democrats with rioting and mob rule.
A handful of Thomas’s fellow warriors, when asked about her Facebook activity, say they haven’t observed it or haven’t caught anything objectionable, though at least one says she can overreach at times.
“She’s hardcore to a fault,” says an alumnus of the Heritage Foundation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly. “Sometimes it clouds her political judgment.”
There is no official policy or protocol preventing Ginni Thomas from going full MAGA. It's her First Amendment right to fulminate that America is becoming a godless, socialist nightmare and to practice the dark art of political messaging on social media.
But it doesn’t reflect well on the institution of the court, says Deborah L. Rhode, a law professor and scholar of legal ethics at Stanford University.
“Think about what this would look like if she was doing this on behalf of Democratic candidates or Hillary Clinton,” Rhode says. “I think this is a moment — especially in the wake of the [Brett M.] Kavanaugh hearings, which heightened people’s concerns about partisan bias — where members of the Supreme Court and their families need to think about ways that their public conduct can affect popular trust.”
Her husband’s former clerks see a much gentler version of Thomas. She is a maternal figure to their tightknit network, a binding source of love, strength and patriotism through the generations, according to Helgi Walker, a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP.
“I think she is a role model for independent women who love their husbands,” says Walker, who clerked for Clarence Thomas in 1995, adding: “There is a really big difference between law and politics. And Justice Thomas and Mrs. Thomas exemplify those two very different areas and understand and appreciate the difference between them.”
In Washington, though, lines can be blurred. Former Thomas clerks include the current deputy solicitor general, two lawyers in the White House counsel’s office, and the head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, as Slate has pointed out. United in Purpose, the Christian organization that hosts Ginni Thomas’s awards luncheon, is partly funded by a dark-money group that gave $23.5 million in 2016 to the Judicial Crisis Network, which — under the leadership of another former Thomas clerk — spent millions to block Merrick Garland from the Supreme Court and support Neil M. Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. Ginni Thomas counts as a mentor Leonard Leo, the Federalist Society leader who has guided conservative court nominations for decades; last year, she gave him one of her awards.
“These are troubling times, and you are at the forefront of that fight,” Sean Hannity said at the lunch, where speakers inveighed against Islam, socialism, “race-based groups,” “men in women’s locker rooms” and African American activists and residents of Ferguson, Mo. There was much praise for Ginni Thomas, though. As Dan Bongino, a Trump cheerleader and Fox News regular, said while receiving his award, “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.” She may not have become a congresswoman but, in the eyes of some people, she is so much more.
And what about her husband? He’s been as taciturn on the bench as she’s been outspoken in the conservative movement. One of Ginni’s last videos for the Daily Caller, earlier this year, was an interview with Clarence. It was funny and charming and personal, no talk of politics or policy, apparently conducted at their home in Virginia. They seem like best friends, still bound by true love and old wounds.
At one point in the video, after talking about their love of motorhoming and Nebraska football, Ginni asks Clarence about the best part of being a justice.
His answer: Her.
“It’d be impossible without you,” Clarence Thomas says. “I have to be honest. It would be, um — it’s sort of like, ‘How do you run with one leg?’ You can’t. It makes it whole, when I have my wife.”