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Clarence Thomas’ GOP allies still can’t think of a cogent defense

Nearly a full month into Clarence Thomas’ latest ethics controversy, Republicans are still desperately trying and failing to think of a persuasive defense.


Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has heard about the ethics controversies surrounding Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, but the Kentucky Republican is apparently underwhelmed by the revelations. The GOP leader spoke on the Senate floor yesterday and characterized the story as “silly,” adding:

“This time, the left and some of their media allies want the American people to gasp in horror that one Supreme Court justice vacations with his friends.”

To be sure, if all we knew about the recent revelations is that a Supreme Court justice vacationed with some friends, that wouldn’t be much of a story. But as McConnell really ought to understand, what we’ve actually learned is more serious.

Thomas was already a provocative figure facing other ethics questions — involving, among other things, his incomplete financial disclosure forms and his wife’s activism/lobbying on matters before the court — but a recent ProPublica report pushed the concerns to a new level, documenting the extent to which the far-right jurist has spent the last couple of decades accepting gifts and luxury trips from a Republican megadonor, Harlan Crow, which Thomas failed to disclose.

ProPublica ran a second report soon after, noting that Crow also bought property from Thomas, which the justice also failed to disclose.

Nancy Gertner, a retired federal judge, told ProPublica, “It’s incomprehensible to me that someone would do this.” Virginia Canter, a former government ethics lawyer who served in administrations of both parties, added that Thomas “seems to have completely disregarded his higher ethical obligations.”

Note, neither used the word “silly.”

But McConnell, apparently desperate to defend a partisan and ideological ally, was nevertheless content to recharacterize the mess as a simple matter of a justice vacationing with friends, which is a bit like characterizing the Hindenburg disaster as a simple matter of a blimp having a difficult landing.

Making matters worse, the problem isn’t limited to the Senate minority leader. Republican Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana pretended during a committee hearing yesterday that the ethics controversy is the result of Thomas “having a rich friend.” Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas apparently thinks the mess has something to do with racism.

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, meanwhile, has said the revelations are part of a “smear“ campaign, while Sen. Mike Lee of Utah has labeled the news as “defamation,” despite the fact that neither GOP lawmaker has pointed to any inaccuracies in any of the recent reporting.

In other words, nearly a full month after Thomas’ latest controversy came to the fore, the justice’s Republican allies have rallied behind him, but they haven’t been able to think of anything even remotely persuasive.

Ideally, the justice’s GOP benefactors would drop the pretense and acknowledge what is plainly true: They just don’t care whether Thomas flouts ethical limits or not.