Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty
the national interest

Clarence Thomas Just Happens to Have Many Generous Billionaire Close Friends

He can’t help it if he’s lucky.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty

ProPublica has a new report detailing Clarence Thomas’s luxury-travel habits. Thomas is paid like a government employee but lives like a king, accepting gifts worth millions. Thomas has enjoyed “at least 38 destination vacations, including a previously unreported voyage on a yacht around the Bahamas; 26 private jet flights, plus an additional eight by helicopter; a dozen VIP passes to professional and college sporting events, typically perched in the skybox; two stays at luxury resorts in Florida and Jamaica; and one standing invitation to an uber-exclusive golf club overlooking the Atlantic coast.” All free of charge, naturally.

The most interesting aspect of the new report is the hash it makes of the old defenses Thomas’s conservative defenders offered up. Previous reports unearthed Thomas’s relationship with billionaire conservative donor Harlan Crow. The Supreme Court Justice portrayed Crow’s patronage of Thomas as a pure personal friendship with a man who just happened to be extremely wealthy. “Harlan and Kathy Crow are among our dearest friends, and we have been friends for over twenty-five years,” claimed Thomas, “As friends do, we have joined them on a number of family trips during the more than quarter century we have known them.”

And so, when extremely close friends get together, it’s often going to take place at the billionaire’s home. Here, for instance, is a typical account of this completely authentic personal friendship, via the Wall Street Journal editorial page podcast:

Kyle Peterson: At the bottom of this, it’s a story about a justice who is friends with a billionaire. And if the billionaire says, Hey, why don’t you come hang out on my ranch this weekend?” and Justice Thomas says, ‘Yes,’ is that corruption?,’ asked the Wall Street Journal editorial page podcast rhetorically.

Kim A. Strassel: Absolutely not. I mean, this is such a non-bombshell. Basically, we’re talking about longtime friends here who are spending time with each other, one of them enjoying the hospitality of others. I have to assume, by the way, that that hospitality is reciprocal, and at times, that the Thomas’s have also extended courtesies to Harlan Crow and his family.

Thomas just happens to have a very close friend who is extremely rich. It’s just unavoidable that some of their time together will be in lavish milieus. What do you expect Harlan Crow to do, have dinner at Burger King?

Except it turns out that Thomas doesn’t have just one billionaire friend. ProPublica and the New York Times have found there are at least four of them. (I say “at least” because Thomas refuses to disclose any of this — the information has been dug up in the face of his obstinate refusal to come clean). Thomas has struck deep personal friendships with David Sokol, H. Wayne Huizenga, and Paul “Tony” Novelly. Coincidentally, they are all billionaires as well, and each of them enjoys treating Thomas to lavish vacations.

The Times also recently reported that Thomas obtained a $267,230 recreational vehicle through a personal loan from yet another extremely wealthy close personal friend. Neither Thomas nor the friend would answer questions from the Times about whether the loan had been repaid. (If Thomas had repaid the loan, they would have a strong incentive to make this information known.) The fact Thomas has not one extremely wealthy buddy, but five (and counting) seems like an extraordinary coincidence.

One aspect of Crow’s patronage of Thomas was buying his childhood home and giving free rent to his mother and covering private-school tuition for Thomas’s adopted son. Conservatives portrayed this as pure generosity and mocked the media for depicting these gifts as a subsidy to Thomas. “BREAKING: Harlan Crow and Clarence Thomas Once Conspired to Aid a Penniless Widow,” wrote National Review editor-in-chief Rich Lowry.

One can almost imagine Lowry wiping a single tear from his cheek as he contemplates Harlan Crow with his heart of gold, looking to help widows and orphans. Perhaps Thomas’s other billionaire friends had the same charitable impulse but, having run out of widows and orphans to aid, had no recourse but to ply Clarence Thomas with millions of dollars worth of luxury travel.

Or perhaps what’s going on here is a corrupt political project. Thomas is accessing a network of conservative patrons whose friendship and largesse will insulate him from the social pressure that has pushed other Republican-appointed justices toward the ideological center.

Thomas’s defenders are barely making any effort to contest the specifics of the allegations against him and are relying entirely on partisan rhetoric, treating all reporting about his luxury habits as a smear. This thread from unofficial Thomas spokesman Mark Paoletta begins, “Leftwing billionaire-funded attack dog @ProPublica is going to run another smear job on Justice Thomas & travel w/ one of friends who had no business before court. ProPublica is obsessed w/ Thomas b/c its funders want to destroy Court b/c of abortion/affirmative action rulings,” and proceeds to repeat buzzwords like “smear” and “hit piece” over and over.

The Thomas defense now rests almost entirely on attacking all reporting on the luxury gifts he refuses to disclose as an attack on the Court’s legitimacy when it is Thomas’s contempt for ethical norms that is tarnishing the Court’s legitimacy.

Clarence Thomas Happens to Have Many Billionaire Friends