Democrats are absolutely bungling this Clarence Thomas thing

The Supreme Court justice’s wife pushed for a coup against the United States government, and Democrats are too polite to do anything about it.

Getty Images/MANDEL NGAN/AFP; Epoxydude; Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call; Drew Angerer
Have You Tried Asking Politely?

At this point, it’s fairly incontrovertible that longtime right-wing operator Ginni Thomas, wife of arch-conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, used her position in the uppermost echelons of political power to not only gain access to former President Donald Trump, but to also actively help plan the Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally that preceded the Capitol insurrection. Whether her ability to influence policy within the Trump camp amounted to power player, or mere wannabe, her proximity to both the executive and judicial branches of government has placed her and her husband at the heart of a long-simmering controversy over Thomas’s role on the bench and his ability to be fair, impartial, and neutral in his judicial work.

Things took a seismic leap forward last month, with a joint Washington Post/ABC News report detailing an extraordinary series of conspiracy theory-addled text messages sent by Ginni Thomas to former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows (and potentially others in Trump’s immediate orbit), encouraging the Trump administration’s efforts to subvert the 2020 election results.

“Biden crime family & ballot fraud co-conspirators (elected officials, bureaucrats, social media censorship mongers, fake stream media reporters, etc) are being arrested & detained for ballot fraud right now & over coming days, & will be living in barges off GITMO to face military tribunals for sedition,” Thomas claimed in one message, echoing a prominent QAnon narrative. In another, she sent Meadows a link to a YouTube video from longtime conspiracy purveyor Steve Pieczenik titled “TRUMP STING W CIA Director Steve Pieczenik, The Biggest Election Story in History, QFS-BLOCKCHAIN.”

In the wake of this damning evidence of Ginni Thomas’s seditious efforts, there have been renewed calls for Clarence Thomas to face some sort of accountability for an enterprise he at least must have been aware of, if not actively abetted himself. “I frankly think it’s time for Justice Thomas to resign,” Georgia Rep. Hank Thompson told Politico. New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also called for Thomas to resign, and said that if he refuses he should face impeachment, while Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar said simply, “Clarence Thomas needs to be impeached.”

And yet, despite this steady build-up, Democratic leadership has been conspicuously wishy-washy on the subject.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, for instance, has said that Thomas “should recuse himself” from SCOTUS cases dealing anything related to Jan. 6, since “the information we know right now raises serious questions about how close Justice Thomas and his wife were to the planning and execution of the insurrection.”

The response from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hasn’t been much stronger. After initially telling her caucus members that “it’s up to an individual justice to decide to recuse himself if his wife is participating in a coup,” Pelosi turned up the heat from “lukewarm” all the way to “slightly above room temperature” during her weekly press conference, where she reiterated the need for a Supreme Court code of ethics.

“People say from time to time well, it’s a personal decision of a judge as to whether he should recuse himself,” Pelosi said. “Well, if your wife is an admitted and proud contributor to a coup of our country, maybe you should weigh that in your ethical standards.” Whether sarcasm or simply an overly dry attempt to ding the so-called party of personal responsibility, Pelosi’s glib refusal to simply direct her majority caucus to actually act is a disappointing swing and a miss.

A host of Democratic congressmen and women, as well as a number of senators, have called on Thomas to “immediately issue a written explanation for his failure to recuse himself” from existing insurrection cases, as well as “recuse himself from any future Supreme Court cases” on the subject. But a written explanation and pleas to consider thinking about voluntarily recusing himself from just some cases hardly seems like an appropriate response to someone who couldn’t possibly have been ignorant of his wife’s intense efforts to subvert the election. (The notion, as floated by some of Thomas’s defenders, that his wife’s work to overturn the same government he serves should have no bearing on his role as a Supreme Court Justice is so laughably weak it doesn’t deserve a serious rebuttal.)

Nevertheless, this is entirely characteristic of establishment Democrats, whose faith in policy guardrails and incrementalism has allowed conservatives to run roughshod over them for years in their cold pursuit of power. As was the case in both Trump impeachment proceedings, the Democrats’ compulsive need to bend over backwards in order to say they’ve done things by the book completely ignores the fact that they’re dealing with an opposition party that’s abandoned the book entirely. By the time Democrats have actually come to the (entirely obvious) conclusion that of course both Thomases were involved in Ginni’s seditious work (duh) they’ll either have lost one or both chambers of Congress, or enough time will have passed for Republicans to simply move on, having sided lockstep with the Thomases and added the issue to their growing persecution complex aimed at whipping up right-wing votes.

Which isn’t to say that there shouldn’t be fact finding and investigating and carefully documented, impeccably researched work done to highlight the details of the Thomases’ actions. But Democrats haven’t even committed to doing that. Instead, they’re still pretending like the correct thing to do is make polite requests and poetic appeals to ethical standards, and hoping they won’t have to do the dirty work of actually calling Thomas’s bluff. They’ve gotten their order of operations all wrong: In showing that they’re much more willing to give a carrot than even pick up a stick, the Democrats are squandering what little leverage they might have to oust someone who’s been given a lifetime appointment to a seat of immense power.

And for what? To protect their good names? Some antiquated notion of political civility? What people want is action, not stern words that amount to nothing.

At this time, we have a Supreme Court justice who was almost certainly intimately involved in an effort to overturn the normal function of government and who is being allowed to maintain his authority to irrevocably alter the national landscape. All the while, Democrats are wringing their hands, clutching their pearls, and yelling at the sky wondering “whatever should be done?!” But if Jan. 6, 2021, was truly the attack on the country and democracy that Democratic leadership is so fond of saying it was, then the answer should be obvious.