When news broke last week that Virginia Thomas, known as Ginni, had texted White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, imploring him to overturn the 2020 election results to keep Donald Trump in power, it sent shockwaves through Washington, D.C.
But not quite as much so for veterans of the Trump administration.
Thomas, a conservative activist and the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, was a familiar name among staffers in the Trump West Wing. Part gadfly, part name dropper, and a major D.C. fixture, she was known by Trump officials for sharing the names of people she wanted hired and fired by the president. Among them were friends of the couple, members of her right-wing network of activists and operatives at Groundswell, and people Thomas believed would be unfailingly loyal to Trump. She occasionally visited with Trump at the White House, officials said, and would offer words of flattery. More than anything, she was eager to help connect people in the White House with her vast conservative network, according to multiple former White House aides.
“I put her in the category of ‘her husband is a big deal and she can’t be doing too much damage,’” said one former senior White House official, who recalled seeing Thomas with Trump. When with Trump, she was known to discuss news of the day, offer him a pep talk, the former official said, and “basically kiss his ass and tell him he was doing a great job and was the greatest president.”
The question of just how influential Thomas actually is has taken on heightened significance in the wake of revelations about her messages to Meadows. But finding an answer isn’t easy.
Depending on who you ask in Washington, Thomas is either a political powerhouse or a harmless busybody with too much time on her hands and access to too big a Rolodex. And depending on who you talk to in Trumpworld, she was the type of overeager, well-connected D.C type that every administration must deal with, or a serious player who helped maintain the political coalition that elevated Trump.
Steve Bannon, a conservative activist and former Trump adviser who helped form the Groundswell group, called Thomas “one of the most powerful forces in the MAGA movement — a force of nature.”
What most can agree on is that Thomas has now stepped in it, bigly, and that her actions and far-flung conspiracy theories around the 2020 election could pose real challenges for her future and her husband’s work.
Text messages Thomas sent to Meadows include claims that appear to be drawn from the QAnon conspiracy rabbit holes. “Biden crime family & ballot fraud co-conspirators (elected officials, bureaucrats, social media censorship mongers, fake stream media reporters, etc) are being arrested & detained for ballot fraud right now & over coming days, & will be living in barges off GITMO to face military tribunals for sedition,” read one, invoking the long-held view among QAnon adherents that Trump’s political opponents will be dragged off to the U.S. naval base in Cuba.
“Do not concede,” Thomas texted the next day to Meadows. “It takes time for the army who is gathering for his back.”
The text messages were gathered by House investigators as part of their inquiry into the Jan. 6 attack on Capitol Hill. In them, Thomas went on to advocate for lawyer Sidney Powell, who peddled debunked ideas about rigged voting machines and called for Meadows to “release the Kraken and save us from the left taking America down.”
Over the past few days, conservatives have rallied to the Thomases’ defense, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell suggesting the reporting on the texts was an attempt to “bully” Thomas’ husband. But even the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board called Thomas’ text messages “embarrassing” and said they show she “indulged some of the nuttier election-fraud theories.” And while the paper argued there is no need for Justice Thomas to recuse himself from future cases, a slew of Democrats have demanded he step aside from matters related to the Trump administration and 2020 election if not resign altogether.
For Trump officials, it’s all raised questions as to why they were spending the post-election period indulging wild conspiracies about election fraud and how seriously they took individuals like Ginni Thomas.
Then again, Thomas has long had many audiences with conservatives in power. She has worked for establishment D.C. outfits such as the Heritage Foundation, where she helped gather resumes for the George W. Bush administration’s transition, and later formed Liberty Central and Groundswell, two groups that have been credited with helping usher in a wave of Tea Party activists and lawmakers like Meadows to Washington. She is described by former colleagues as someone who takes action for causes she believes in, and she hasn’t been shy about making her politics known and public.
“Ginni is a longtime conservative activist who links up people in the conservative world to help amplify her message and anyone who knows Ginni Thomas knows that she is very passionate about the causes she believes in and that’s a good thing,” said Mark Paoletta, a former Trump White House official who is a longtime friend of the Thomases.
In an unusual role for a spouse of a Supreme Court justice, Thomas has worked as a special correspondent for the right-leaning website The Daily Caller, was an adviser to the conservative group Turning Point USA, and regularly updated her followers on Facebook on her work and causes, at times sharing politically charged posts. According to Federal Election Commission data, Thomas has also donated more than $13,000 to Republican candidates over the years, including the campaign arm for Trump and the House Freedom Fund.
She supported Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign in 2016 but quickly switched to Trump’s side when it became clear he’d be the nominee. But Thomas never held a formal role in the Trump White House. Top officials there insist she had little sway there. When asked, for instance, if Thomas was as influential in the West Wing as reports have suggested, former counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway texted, “she was not.”
But there is evidence of her trying.
One former Trump White House official recalled a meeting with Trump and Thomas at the beginning of 2019, during which Thomas gave Trump a list of “two dozen” people who should have jobs in the administration but were not getting through the Presidential Personnel Office. The meeting, which was previously reported by The New York Times, followed a meal that the Thomases had with Trump and the then-first lady Melania Trump in November 2018, according to a person close to the Thomases.
Thomas did not respond to a request for comment for this story. Her work pushing for various hiring and firing at the White House, which was first detailed in a report by Axios in early 2020, included suggestions such as former Sheriff David Clarke for a senior Department of Homeland Security role and conservative personality and former Secret Service agent Dan Bongino for another spot at DHS.
“She was definitely trying to play a role and have influence,” a former Trump White House official said. “But on the other hand I don’t think there were a lot of folks on her list who ended up getting hired.”
Part of what may have limited Thomas’ influence within Trump’s circles was the fluid nature of the Trump White House itself. The president came to Washington, D.C., with the backing of few institutional players and a penchant for trusting only family members and a tight-knit crew of aides. Washington lifers like Thomas could come in and out with little chance to leave a firm imprint. People familiar with the operations said Thomas was a semi-regular figure among a coterie of prominent conservatives in Washington who would call up administration officials to offer guidance, criticisms or suggestions to top aides or Trump himself.
Another former White House official described her as “around” but “generally a busybody.”
“She has to get involved in everything, she just has time on her hands [and] is a go-getterish and involved grandma,” the second former official said.
Beyond the behind-the-scenes maneuverings, Thomas also attended public White House events as the wife of a Supreme Court justice. She accompanied Thomas to a formal state dinner with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in 2019, and also appeared at White House events for Justices Amy Coney Barrett and Neil Gorsuch.
It was at the end of Trump’s time in the White House — when the Barrett nomination was announced and Election Day soon passed — that the doors for Thomas seemed to open more fully. The president was cycling through aides and advisers, eager to find those who would support his conspiracies that some grand election fraud scheme had denied him a second term. The White House counsel’s office and lawyers at the Department of Justice were abandoning him. Campaign aides were looking to flee. Only the most committed of election deniers were sticking by him, joined by a group of fringe lawyers and activists eager to advance the lies.
Whether Thomas ever talked to Trump during this time period is unclear. Trump’s spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
But a third former White House official, who held a senior role in the Trump presidency, said her influence appeared to grow.
“The maniac types had more power at the end,” the person said.