By Connor Carlin
After several months of subpoenas, testimony and evidence-gathering, the House Committee on the Jan. 6th Capitol Insurrection has cast an ever-expanding net over the governmental and non-governmental figures who played a part in planning, encouraging or participating in the attack.
The investigation is still far from over, but the committee has already produced a number of revelations about former President Donald Trump’s actions in the lead-up and aftermath of the insurrection, as well as the level of involvement of members of his inner circle in promoting conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election. Of these figures, the most potentially consequential has been Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, longtime conservative activist and wife of the senior-most member of the US Supreme Court, Justice Clarence Thomas.
While the first six months of the investigation was mostly spent on probing for evidence from people and organizations other than Trump, he re-emerged as a focus of the committee in November 2021 after he requested that the Supreme Court block the release of White House records related to Jan. 6. Citing executive privilege, a well worn power of the President to shield personal documents and materials, Trump eventually lost this fight when the Supreme Court refused his request in January 2022, placing hundreds of records into the hands of the committee within hours of the ruling.
These documents would resurface in late March when there was shown to be a seven-hour and 37-minute gap in records of calls made by Trump on the day of the insurrection. According to the Washington Post who obtained the records, the gap in the call logs includes a period during the riot, and at times when Trump was otherwise documented as making phone calls to Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah), House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and others.
This gap has fueled speculation that Trump used a burner phone or at least switched personal devices during the day. Furthermore, CNN reported that White House personnel had started providing fewer details, including about the President’s calls and visits, to the person serving as the official presidential diarist, whose job is to record the events of the President’s day, in the days leading to the attack. Comparisons have been drawn to the infamous 18.5 minute gap in the Oval Office recordings of President Richard Nixon, who deliberately removed a portion of his White House taped conversations in which he discussed covering up the break-in of Watergate hotel. The Committee is still in the process of piecing together the missing call time, which some on the panel believe could constitute a coverup.
In other news related to Trump’s records, the Committee revealed in a March 2 federal court filing that Trump was aware that his assertions that the 2020 presidential election was stolen were false. Despite this, Trump and figures like Eastman and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows continued to push election conspiracies. They also plotted ways to overturn the results, particularly by pressuring Vice President Mike Pence to reject the Electoral College votes, according to a trove of Eastman’s emails recently obtained by the Committee. These new details appear to be the first preparations of the Committee for a potential criminal referral to the Justice Department.
The other major revelation from the Committee in recent weeks comes from a series of text messages between Mark Meadows and Ginni Thomas. The text messages, 29 in all, ranged from November 2020 through mid-January 2021, and show Thomas urging Meadows — then Trump’s Chief of Staff — to pursue efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Thomas first popped up in connection to Jan. 6 the day of the incident, when she made a Facebook post praising the rioters, saying “LOVE MAGA PEOPLE!!!” before clarifying that the post was made before violence broke out. Since the Meadows texts, however, Thomas’s larger role in the event has been brought under closer scrutiny. The texts reveal Thomas embracing now-debunked election conspiracies, including those pushed by QAnon, and advising the Trump team on their legal challenges to election returns across six swing states.
Thomas worked outside of her conversations with Meadows, according to a New York Times investigation, to invalidate the election results as a board member of CNP Action, a conservative group that worked to pressure Republican lawmakers to challenge the results. Thomas has now even admitted to having attended the Jan. 6 Stop the Steal rally, but claimed that she had no part in organizing it and left before the march to the Capitol, the former of which is contradicted by her texts with Meadows, who was deeply involved in organizing the rally.
Ginni Thomas’s involvement in the investigation has presented the Committee with new challenges. For years, Thomas’s political activism has been a point of controversy given her husband’s powerful position on the Supreme Court, leading to calls that Justice Thomas should recuse himself from cases in which his wife has an interest, calls which he has refused. Those calls have reached new heights now with the Committee’s latest revelations.
Justice Thomas is in a position where cases involving the insurrection can be brought before him to deliberate on and in some cases already have been. In the January case granting access to Trump’s White House records, Justice Thomas was the lone dissent vote, without giving reason for his dissent. In December 2020, when Trump’s legal team and allies made a hail mary legal request to invalidate four battleground states’ election results, the court, save Justice Thomas, rejected the request.
Justice Samuel Alito issued a short statement siding with Thomas, saying the court may have acted too fast in dismissing the case. In Feb. 2021, Justice Thomas issued a dissent in a case where the majority dismissed a legal challenge from the Pennsylvania Republican Party of certain mail-in ballots in the state. Legal analysts, such as Stephen Gillers, a law professor at New York University, have said that, while Ginni Thomas’s past activism could have managed to stay separate from her husband’s work, she has now crossed the line, and that Justice Thomas must recuse himself from any and all cases related to the 2020 election, the Capitol insurrection or the Jan. 6 Commission.
For the Committee, which has already requested an interview with Ginni Thomas, going against her and her husband is a risky proposition. The Thomases are deeply connected to a powerful network of conservative support ranging as far as Representatives on the Committee. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), Vice Chair of the Committee and one of only two Republicans on the panel, pushed back on issuing a subpoena for Thomas, not wanting to tarnish her husband’s reputation.
Cheney, along with her other Republican colleague on the panel, Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), are facing tough reelection campaigns as members of a party which has already censured them for participating in the Committee, and presumably are wary of pursuing the Thomases too aggressively and incurring even more fury from the GOP. Over the years, among their supporters, criticism of Ginni’s activism has been interpreted as an attempt to attack Justice Thomas, and should the Committee aggressively proceed, it could potentially increase calls for investigations of Democrats should Republicans take back the House in 2022.
As the Committee gets closer to issuing a report or referring criminal charges to the Justice Department, the pressure is amping up on Attorney General Merrick Garland. The AG has been slow to act on the evidence the committee has been turning up. He has also exhibited a lack of enforcement on subpoenas issued by the committee; several people requested for an interview have been held in contempt for not appearing. Garland, who vowed to put a wall back up between the DOJ and partisan politics, is quickly being presented with the fact that, for the foreseeable future, that wall will have to wait to see if the committee’s findings are to carry any weight.