Following furor over GOP-donor luxury trips, Joe Biden reckons with another Clarence Thomas scandal

 WASHINGTON – Anita Hill’s riveting testimony alleging sexual harassment by Clarence Thomas was still fresh on Joe Biden’s mind when he gaveled the Senate Judiciary Committee back to order.

“Tough day – tough night for you,” Biden told the Supreme Court nominee. “Do you have anything you’d like to say?”

Over the next few minutes on that evening of Oct. 11, 1991, Thomas would denounce Hill’s allegations as “sleaze,” “gossip” and “lies” and characterize the committee’s confirmation hearing helmed by Biden as “a circus” and “a national disgrace.”

“As far as I’m concerned,” Thomas concluded of the televised hearing, “it’s a high-tech lynching for uppity Blacks.”

Thomas’ confirmation hearing would set the stage for the decades-long, complicated relationship between the two men – one who would eventually become president, the other who would go on to win confirmation to the Supreme Court but would face multiple ethics controversies, including his wife’s involvement in a campaign to overturn the 2020 election that sent Biden to the White House.

More questions about Thomas’ actions arose Thursday amid a published report that he accepted lavish trips from a billionaire Republican donor for more than 20 years without disclosing them, a possible violation of federal law. The revelations prompted calls for an overhaul of court ethics laws and requirements.

The White House would not comment on the report. “There are other bodies of government that should be dealing with this – I’m just not going to comment from here,” White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said.

Biden, who was a Democratic senator from Delaware at the time, has faced decades of criticism over the Thomas confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Biden was chairman of the all-male, all-white committee and was responsible for running the hearing, which today is seen as an inflection point in the nation’s reckoning over sexual harassment in the workplace.

Then-Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas gestures while talking with Joe Biden, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, during a break in Thomas confirmation hearing in 1991.

What happened between Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas: A summary

Hill was a young law professor who had worked with Thomas at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where he was her supervisor. In testimony that mesmerized the nation, she calmly accused Thomas of sexual harassment, including sexual overtures and episodes of crass behavior and vulgar language – allegations that Thomas vehemently denied.

Hill’s supporters criticized Biden for allowing Republican senators on the committee to portray her as mentally unstable, bombard her with intimate questions about her sex life and even suggest she was suffering from a disorder that led her to believe Thomas was in love with her.

Thomas’ supporters blamed Biden for allowing the hearing to spin wildly out of control and become a televised spectacle.

Biden voted against confirming Thomas to the Supreme Court. Over the years, he would publicly express his regrets multiple times over the way Hill was treated by the committee and stress that he believed her from the beginning. Hill was victimized again by the process, Biden said during a 2018 interview with NBC’s “Today” show, adding that he wished he could’ve done more to prevent the deeply personal questions she was asked.

In 2019, as he was gearing up for the presidential campaign that would send him to the White House, Biden called Hill and expressed his regret “for what she endured and his admiration for everything she has done to change the culture around sexual harassment in this country," his campaign said.

Hill, however, wasn’t appeased. She told the New York Times she doesn’t believe Biden understands the harm caused to her during the hearing. "I cannot be satisfied by simply saying I’m sorry for what happened to you,” she said. “I will be satisfied when I know there is real change and real accountability and real purpose."

Thomas also has been unwilling to forgive. In a 2020 documentary, he suggested racism was a factor in the hearing.

"I felt as though in my life I had been looking at the wrong people as the people who would be problematic toward me,” he said. “We were told that, 'Oh, it's going to be the bigot in the pickup truck; it's going to be the Klansmen; it's going to be the rural sheriff.'

"But it turned out that, through all of that, ultimately the biggest impediment was the modern day liberal," he said, complaining that “they have the power to caricature you."

Who is Clarence Thomas? Thomas' principles showcase how he approaches big matters of constitutional law

Head and shoulder shots of Anita Hill, University of Oklahoma Law Professor, who testified, that she was sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas. 1991 photo.

Ginni Thomas' efforts to thwart 2020 election

Three decades after the Supreme Court confirmation hearing, Biden’s and Thomas’ paths would cross again in the chaotic aftermath of the 2020 elections.

Biden beat the Republican incumbent, Donald Trump, who refused to accept defeat and set out to overturn the election results. One of the players in that effort: Thomas’ wife, conservative activist Virginia Thomas

In the aftermath of the election, Virginia Thomas – known as Ginni – sent several text messages to Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, and urged him to stand firm with Trump as he falsely claimed widespread fraud in the election. She also emailed lawmakers in Arizona and Wisconsin and urged them to overturn Biden’s election.

Her actions raised questions because the Trump campaign was pursuing a number of election legal challenges that could have potentially ended before the Supreme Court. Emails provided to congressional investigators showed that Trump’s legal team regarded an appeal to Justice Thomas as their only chance to get a favorable ruling and overturn the election.

Ginni Thomas downplayed her involvement in the campaign to overturn the election in testimony before the congressional committee that investigated the Jan. 6, 2021, mob attack on the Capitol.

“You know, it was an emotional time,” she said in explaining the text messages to Meadows. “I’m sorry these texts exist.”

Ginni Thomas insisted that while she was interested in pursuing claims of voter fraud, she had largely stepped aside during the aftermath of the election because she was the wife of a Supreme Court justice. She insisted she operated separately from her husband and called it “laughable” that anyone would think she could influence his jurisprudence.

“The man is independent and stubborn,” she said.

Fact check:Trump lost the 2020 presidential election

Then-Supreme Court Justice Nominee Clarence Thomas and his wife Virginia listen during his nomination hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington in this file photo from 1991.

Biden warns of 'extreme and dangerous path' following Roe v. Wade ruling

Biden took aim at Thomas last summer after the justice wrote that the Supreme Court should revisit and overturn decisions legalizing the right to contraception and same-sex marriage. Thomas made the remarks in a concurring opinion to the decision that overturned Roe v. Wade and eliminated the constitutional right to an abortion.

Speaking at the White House just hours after the court’s decision was announced, Biden warned that the ruling would jeopardize “rights that we’ve come to take for granted, that are ingrained in the fabric of this country.”

"Justice Thomas said as much today,” he said, warning that the court was taking the country on an "extreme and dangerous path."

Thomas’ opinion prompted Congress to pass legislation writing protections for same-sex and interracial couples into federal law. Biden again jabbed at Thomas when he signed the legislation into law during a ceremony on the White House South Lawn last December. Thomas, he said, thinks lawmakers should reconsider Americans’ right to access contraception and marry whomever they love – “and that’s not the only challenge ahead,” he said.

Thomas under fire over luxury trips funded by GOP donor

The revelations Thursday that Thomas has taken a series of lavish trips funded by billionaire and GOP megadonor Harlan Crow over the past two decades raised new questions about his actions and charges of impropriety.

The disclosures, first reported by ProPublica, are the latest ethics controversy to dog Thomas, who also has faced tough questions about his incomplete financial disclosure forms and appearances at other political gatherings of wealthy conservative donors and influencers.

Thomas has accepted lavish gifts from the billionaire Dallas businessman nearly every year, which had included vacations on Crow’s superyacht and trips on the billionaire’s Bombardier Global 5000 jet as well as a week each summer at Crow’s private resort in the Adirondacks, ProPublica reported, citing flight records, internal documents and interviews with Crow’s employees.

The investigation comes as the nation's high court fends off requests for a code of ethics, which would likely address similar instances.

Thomas didn’t respond to ProPublica’s request for comment, but Crow in a statement said he and his wife’s “hospitality” to Thomas and his wife “is no different from the hospitality we have extended to our many other dear friends.”

“This secrecy is toxic and wrong. The court should not protect it any longer,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a close ally of Biden’s and longtime member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Whitehouse, D-R.I., a longtime advocate for more transparency and accountability on the court, said the disclosures once again raise serious questions about all of the connections between conservative groups with access to Thomas and whether they are improperly influencing the court.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen. D-Md., also weighed in as chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, which has jurisdiction over the Court’s appropriations.

“Americans’ confidence in our highest court is tanking because of this kind of conduct. We need answers. And the court needs a code of ethics,” said Van Hollen, another close colleague of Biden’s who has worked with him on many judicial reform measures.

“It is unacceptable,” Van Hollen added, “that the Supreme Court has exempted itself from the accountability that applies to all other members of our federal courts, and I believe Congress should act to remedy this problem.”

Contributing: Sarah Elbeshbishi and The Associated Press

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