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The House Jan. 6 panel wants to interview the wife of Justice Clarence Thomas

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer has profiled Ginni Thomas for the magazine, and she joins us now to talk more about this. Hey, Jane.

JANE MAYER: Hi. Thanks. Good morning.

MARTIN: Thank you for being here. So the House committee didn't try to interview Ginni Thomas before because some members said she didn't play a big role ahead of the January 6 riot. Now they do want to talk to her. Is it these specific emails between her and Eastman that have changed their minds?

MAYER: I think it's the - that they now realize that she was directly having communication with John Eastman, who was the legal architect of the coup attempt. It just places her closer to the center of the action. I mean, there are an awful lot of questions still unanswered about Ginni Thomas's role in all of this. And I suppose probably the most important one is really whether her husband, Justice Clarence Thomas, was aware of her activity and supportive of it, because then you sort of begin to get into the possibility that the third branch of the government, the court, was in some way tainted by all of this.

MARTIN: So let's talk about that. I mean, John Eastman - as you note, he is at the time a Trump lawyer. He is working behind the scenes to overturn the presidential vote count. He's getting emails from Ginni Thomas. He's responding to them. He once clerked for Justice Clarence Thomas, right?

MAYER: He did. And they are old friends. John Eastman and both Clarence and Ginni Thomas are old friends. And they all have connections to the Claremont Institute, which is sort of a right-wing think tank where John Eastman has been connected to it for years. And Clarence Thomas first spoke at it in 1999. They are in the same social circle and share many sort of very kind of extreme right legal theories.

MARTIN: And so she was corresponding to someone she'd had a long relationship with. Explain her history with right-wing activism, because this is - she's been at this for a long time. And they have maintained, she and her husband, that they operate in separate lanes.

MAYER: Yeah, it's been a controversy almost from the start because the way that Clarence and Ginni Thomas handle her activism is quite different from the way the other justices do. I mean, basically the tradition on the Supreme Court is that they want to appear above politics, independent of politics, neutral, basically, and impartial. And so the other justices' spouses, whether it was - you know, Ruth Bader Ginsburg's husband gave up his law practice. John Roberts's wife gave up her activism in anti-abortion activism. There's a feeling, basically, that you need to be sort of above suspicion.

And the Thomases have handled it differently. Ginni Thomas has been an activist from the start and kept it up and really increased her activity during the Tea Party movement and has been giving out awards to some of the most radical activists. She's very - she pushed very hard to get inside the Trump White House and place her friends in there and push out people that she didn't think were supportive of Trump enough. And she went to the January 6 rally herself and talked about it on Facebook and said, you know, we need to pray with and support MAGA.

MARTIN: So here is the wife of a sitting Supreme Court justice with a lot of political power of her own. She was urging White House chief of staff Mark Meadows to fight to overturn the election results, emailing with John Eastman. I mean, her husband since January 6 has heard and decided on at least two cases before the court related to January 6 - I mean, one of them just this year. Is that not the definition of a conflict of interest?

MAYER: Well, I mean, it's certainly - I've interviewed a number of legal experts who were always careful about criticizing the Supreme Court, but nonetheless have come down like a ton of bricks on this. And I saw Adam Schiff, who's a Democratic member of the investigative committee in Congress last night, say that it just - the - his quote was, it screams conflict of interest.

MARTIN: So what happens? I mean, can he be forced to recuse himself?

MAYER: Well, he can't be forced. The only way to have power over a Supreme Court justice is to impeach them. I mean, that is the only remedy for a wayward Supreme Court justice. And I don't know anyone who thinks politically that's likely to happen, but I think there would be a storm of criticism of Clarence Thomas if he continues to hear cases in which his wife seems to be deeply involved.

MARTIN: We'll wait for Ginni Thomas's testimony to the House investigating committee. Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, thank you so much for your time and reporting.

MAYER: Great to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.