- Justin Elliottreporter for ProPublica.
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas failed to report frequent luxury trips paid for by a billionaire Republican megadonor named Harlan Crow, leading to renewed calls for the conservative jurist’s impeachment. According to ProPublica, Thomas has for decades accepted flights on Crow’s private jet, trips on his yacht and frequent stays at his exclusive lakeside resort, in apparent violation of a law requiring justices and other federal officials to disclose most gifts. “Justice Thomas has this extraordinary and apparently unprecedented relationship with this outside billionaire who is basically subsidizing his life,” says ProPublica reporter Justin Elliott. Thomas has previously come under scrutiny for conflicts of interest after he refused to recuse himself from cases about Republican efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election, even as his wife, Ginni, was pressuring officials to ensure Donald Trump’s victory.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is facing renewed calls for his impeachment, after a ProPublica investigation revealed he failed to report frequent luxury trips paid for by a billionaire Republican megadonor named Harlan Crow, who serves on the board of the right-wing American Enterprise Institute. The investigation reveals that for about 20 years Thomas secretly accepted luxury vacations from Crow, in apparent violation of a law requiring justices and other federal officials to disclose most gifts. One vacation involved nine days of island hopping in Indonesia aboard a 162-foot superyacht. Clarence Thomas and his wife Ginni Thomas flew to Indonesia on Crow’s private jet. Thomas also frequently vacationed at Crow’s 105-acre resort in the Adirondacks of New York. Hanging on the walls of the resort is a painting of Clarence Thomas sitting with four other men, including Harlan Crow, as well as Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society. Thomas never reported any of the free trips as gifts.
On Thursday, New York Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, quote, “This is beyond party or partisanship. This degree of corruption is shocking — almost cartoonish. Thomas must be impeached,” she said.
We’re joined by Justin Elliott, who co-authored the ProPublica investigation, headlined “Clarence Thomas and the Billionaire.”
Lay out what you found, Justin.
JUSTIN ELLIOTT: Yeah. Well, what we found is that Justice Thomas has this extraordinary and apparently unprecedented relationship with this outside billionaire, who, you know, is basically subsidizing his life. I mean, we’re talking about trips on a private jet that charters for $10,000 to $15,000 per hour; cruises around the world on this superyacht that you described; regular vacations with this billionaire and his friends, who, in some cases, are people that have either ideological or potentially financial interests before the court.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, explain what the rules are for Supreme Court justices.
JUSTIN ELLIOTT: You know, one of the striking things here as we got into this is that — is just how few rules there are, especially compared to other people in the government. You know, I have friends who work in the federal bureaucracy who say they can’t even, you know, have somebody buy them lunch. Supreme Court justices have very few rules. In terms of accepting gifts, one of the few things the law requires them to do is to simply disclose gifts, most gifts. This was a law that was passed back in the 1970s after Watergate. And Clarence Thomas, by not reporting these private jet trips and some of the other travel, you know, appears to be just in repeat violation of that law, according to the ethics lawyers we spoke to.
AMY GOODMAN: So, I wanted to read from your investigation. “Thomas’ frequent vacations at Topridge have brought him into contact with corporate executives and political activists. During … one trip in … 2017, [his] fellow guests included executives at Verizon … PricewaterhouseCoopers, major Republican donors and one of the leaders of the American Enterprise Institute, a pro-business conservative think tank,” according to the records you reviewed. The painting of Thomas at Topridge — and so I want to show this for our TV audience — shows him in conversation, as we said earlier, with Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society. And explain who the other people are and what Topridge is.
JUSTIN ELLIOTT: Yeah. Topridge is this incredible, essentially, private resort in upstate New York in the Adirondacks. It was actually built by Marjorie Merriweather Post, who is the same heiress who built what is now Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago about a century ago, to give you a sense of the kind of lavishness of the property. And this property is now owned by this Dallas real estate billionaire, Harlan Crow, and he regularly hosts Thomas there. And we’re not talking about just sort of a lake house. It’s a whole campus of buildings. There’s a staff of chefs and waiters and that sort of thing.
And, you know, it’s very difficult to find out who is on these trips with Justice Thomas. We were able to get the names of guests on one or two occasions. And even though Harlan Crow told us in a statement that he and his friends are not trying to influence Justice Thomas, you know, the people, for example, in the painting you describe, are —
AMY GOODMAN: And what is the sculpture behind them?
JUSTIN ELLIOTT: Yeah, it’s a sculpture of a Native American man sort of with his hands outstretched. We’re not really sure why it’s there or what it’s supposed to mean. I actually spoke to the painter who created the piece. And, you know, he said that in real life, that sculpture is actually two or three times bigger, and he shrunk it in the painting because — for scale. But we don’t really know why it’s there or why they made the choice to pose in front of it. But, you know, all of the men in the painting, besides Harlan Crow, are conservative lawyers, people who are active in one way or another in the conservative legal movement. You know —
AMY GOODMAN: Of course, Leonard Leo, key to the choosing of conservative justices, especially under Trump.
JUSTIN ELLIOTT: Yeah, Leonard Leo has been very involved in creating the current Supreme Court supermajority, and Harlan Crow has donated to Leonard Leo’s groups. And this is a guy who now has a war chest of, I think, over a billion dollars. And, you know, again, when you look at that painting, it raises a lot of questions about Harlan Crow’s statement that this is all about sort of friendship and just socializing.
AMY GOODMAN: So, tell us more about who Harlan Crow, the billionaire GOP superdonor, is. Can you tell us more about Harlan Crow? Can you hear me? Can you hear me, Justin? All right, while he’s fixing his IFB, Justin Elliott writes in the piece that Clarence Thomas has presented himself as a, quote, “everyman with modest tastes.” We’re going to turn to a clip right now of Justice Thomas speaking in the documentary, Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words.
JUSTICE CLARENCE THOMAS: You know, I don’t have any problem with going to Europe. But I prefer the United States, and I prefer seeing the regular parts of the United States. I prefer going across the rural areas. I prefer the RV parks. I prefer the Walmart parking lots to the beaches and things like that. There’s something normal to me about it. I come from regular stock, and I prefer that. I prefer being around that.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Clarence Thomas. Your response to that, Justin Elliott? And if you can tell us more about the man he spends a lot of time with, even if he extols Walmart parking lots? And that is Harlan Crow.
JUSTIN ELLIOTT: Yeah, a couple thoughts. I mean, one is, the irony is, the documentary you just showed, which was made by friends of Justice Thomas, was actually financed in part with hundreds of thousands of dollars from none other than Harlan Crow. And yeah, there’s been a deliberate effort over the years by Clarence Thomas and his supporters to present him as a kind of everyman, a regular guy who likes driving around in his RV. And, you know, he does — he absolutely does drive around in his RV around the country. But, you know, they’ve never mentioned that he also is flying around on private jets and going around on yachts, hanging out at resorts — essentially, private, sort of boutique luxury hotels hosted by this billionaire. That has somehow never come up in all these interviews he’s given about his RV. So, it’s starkly different than the reality.
With respect to Harlan Crow, I mean, he’s — you know, he was actually born into money. He was an heir to a major Dallas real estate fortune. He was the son who took over the family business. So he has wide-ranging business interests, particularly in real estate. But I think more relevant for this story, he’s also been involved for over 20 years now in conservative legal politics, giving to groups like the Federalist Society and others. As you mentioned earlier, he’s a longtime board member of the American Enterprise Institute, the think tank, which of course is active on a lot of issues, but including conservative legal advocacy and advocating for various things related to the Supreme Court. So, he’s very deep in the kind of political world, and specifically the world of conservative legal politics.
AMY GOODMAN: And says that the greatest threat is Marxism? Is that right, Justin?
JUSTIN ELLIOTT: Yeah, and he didn’t agree to an interview with us, but he gave an interview recently in which he said his greatest fear is Marxism.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there. As you write in ProPublica, soon after Crow met Thomas three decades ago, he began lavishing the justice with gifts, including a $19,000 Bible that belonged to Frederick Douglass. Justin Elliott, we’ll link to your ProPublica report, “Clarence Thomas and the Billionaire.”
A very happy birthday to Matt Ealy. I’m Amy Goodman. Tune in to democracynow.org. Thanks so much for joining us.