Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American
May 4, 2023
Today began with another story about yet more ties between Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas and Republican billionaire Harlan Crow. Joshua Kaplan, Justin Elliott, and Alex Mierjeski of ProPublica reported that Crow paid the private school tuition for Thomas’s grandnephew, to the tune of more than $6,000 a month, ultimately adding up to an amount that may have been more than $150,000. Thomas did not report the payments.
Then news broke that a jury in Washington, D.C., found four members of the far-right extremist group the Proud Boys—Enrique Tarrio, Ethan Nordean, Joseph Biggs and Zachary Rehl—guilty of seditious conspiracy for their participation in the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol. A fifth defendant, Dominic Pezzola, was found not guilty of seditious conspiracy but, like the others, was found guilty of other serious charges including obstructing Congress’s certification of the 2020 presidential election results and conspiring to prevent Congress and federal officers from discharging their duties.
In a statement, Attorney General Merrick Garland noted that the Department of Justice has secured more than 600 convictions for criminal conduct surrounding the events of January 6, including fourteen “leaders of both the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers for seditious conspiracy—specifically conspiring to oppose by force the lawful transfer of presidential power. Our work will continue,” he said.
It is unlikely that Garland’s statement about ongoing work was casual.
Defense attorneys for the Proud Boys emphasized that their clients believed then-president Trump—who, after all, had told them in September 2020 to “stand back and stand by”—had called them to Washington to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. Although there were no explicit orders to attack the Capitol, members of the Proud Boys testified that they believed there was an implicit agreement to prevent Biden from becoming president.
Tarrio, convicted today, was not at the Capitol during the attack, but a jury convicted him of seditious conspiracy nonetheless, suggesting that leaders who incited the violence can be found guilty, even if they weren’t present.
Today attorneys for E. Jean Carroll, who is suing the former president in a civil trial for battery and defamation connected with his alleged rape of her, rested their case. So did Trump’s lawyers, but District Judge Lewis Kaplan gave Trump the weekend to rethink testifying. “He has a right to testify which has been waived but if he has second thoughts, I’ll at least consider it and maybe we’ll see what happens,” Kaplan said.
Other investigations of the former president continue. The New York Times today broke the story that prosecutors in the office of Special Counsel Jack Smith investigating the storage of classified documents are talking to a confidential witness who worked for Trump at Mar-a-Lago. There are questions about whether Trump deliberately moved boxes containing documents in order to hide them from the Justice Department.
Meanwhile, the debt ceiling crisis has not gone away. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines today told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on global threats that a U.S. default on our debts would enable both Russia and China to say “such an event [demonstrates] the chaos within the United States, that we’re not capable of functioning as a democracy, and the governance issues associated with it.” She explained: “It would be…almost a certainty that they would look to take advantage of the opportunity.”
Moody’s Analytics has weighed in on the economic effects of House speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (R-CA) plan, noting that with a clean debt limit increase, real gross domestic product is expected to grow 2.25% this year. Under McCarthy’s plan, that growth will be 1.6%. “The significant government spending cuts in the [plan] are substantial headwinds to near-term economic growth,” it wrote. “Adding to the economic headwinds created by the legislation is the considerable uncertainty created by having to address the debt limit again a year from now.”
Weirdly, Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) at a Senate Budget Committee hearing today blamed Democrats for not raising the debt ceiling themselves last year without help from the Republicans. Kate Riga of Talking Points Memo broke down this argument. If the Democrats had raised the debt ceiling through reconciliation, without Republican votes, Republicans would have insisted that it was the Democrats, not them, who had burdened the country with debt when, in fact, the Republicans added almost $8 trillion to the debt under Trump.
Romney’s complaint amounts to berating the responsible Democrats for not protecting the country against the Republicans, who are willing to burn down the country. As Riga put it: “Darn you Democrats for not taking care of the debt ceiling then, because you knew we’d refuse to raise the limit unless you conceded to our demands, and look what a sticky spot we’re in now.”
Meanwhile, the editorial board of the Fresno Bee, from McCarthy’s district, today called out the speaker for approving the huge increases of the Trump years and, now that a Democrat is in the White House, insisting on drastic cuts. The board reiterated that the debt ceiling and the budget are separate issues. “McCarthy is pandering to the hard-right members who only backed him for House speaker on the 15th vote in exchange for concessions on the issues like the debt,” it said. “Speaker McCarthy, don’t take America to the brink of default. Stop the posturing, raise the debt ceiling, then have the honest budget debate the nation needs.”
Finally, the day ended where it began, with another scandal involving Justice Clarence Thomas.
This evening, Emma Brown, Shawn Boburg, and Jonathan O’Connell of the Washington Post broke the story that right-wing judicial activist Leonard Leo, who as a leader of the Federalist Society that backs originalist judges has been key to transforming the federal judiciary, a decade ago arranged for payments of tens of thousands of dollars to Thomas’s wife Ginni. Leo and Thomas are close friends.
In January 2012, Leo told Kellyanne Conway, who was then a Republican pollster, to bill the Judicial Education Project, a nonprofit organization with which he was associated, and then pass the money on to Ginni Thomas. He told Conway to “give” Thomas “another $25K,” and emphasized that she should include “No mention of Ginni, of course,” in the paperwork. She did so. Later that year, the Judicial Education Project filed a brief before the court in the landmark Shelby County v. Holder case, in which the court, by a vote of 5–4, gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Thomas voted on the side of the Judicial Education Project.
And this is the profound national crisis at the heart of the stories emerging about Thomas. His votes were decisive not only in Shelby County v. Holder, but also in the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, also decided by a vote of 5–4, which opened the floodgates for dark money in political campaigns. Those decisions dramatically undermined our democracy. It now seems imperative to grapple with the fact it appears a key vote on the court that decided those cases was compromised.