Conservative Pundits Are Defending Clarence Thomas and His Megadonor

Right-wing pundits are defending Justice Clarence Thomas and his billionaire benefactor Harlan Crow, claiming that a failure to disclose two decades of luxury trips is no cause for concern. They’ve also all neglected to mention their financial ties to Crow.

Justice Clarence Thomas in Washington, DC, on October 7, 2022. (Olivier Douliery / AFP via Getty Images)

After ProPublica reported that Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas had failed to disclose two decades worth of luxury trips provided by billionaire conservative megadonor Harlan Crow, right-wing pundits and think tank staffers raced to defend Thomas and his benefactor — without mentioning what they all had in common: their own financial ties to Crow.

The episode is a reminder of how many conservative pundits and scholars owe their sinecures to the same billionaires who fund Republican election campaigns and efforts to influence the judiciary.

Hours after ProPublica dropped its report on Thomas, Ilya Shapiro, a senior fellow at the right-wing think tank Manhattan Institute, tweeted, “Unless Harlan Crow has some business before the Court, the @propublica report about Justice Thomas is a big breathless nothingburger.”

Unmentioned: the Manhattan Institute, where Shapiro leads an amicus brief filing program lobbying the Supreme Court to rule certain ways on issues like student debt cancellation and corporate taxation, boasts Crow’s wife Kathy on its board of trustees and has been called “wonderful” by Crow himself.

Many of these pundits came forward to vouch for Crow’s honor and moral character after ProPublica’s story prompted renewed scrutiny of Crow over his collection of Nazi memorabilia, which includes two paintings by Adolf Hitler himself and a signed copy of Mein Kampf.

In 2016, Supreme Court justices — including Thomas — unanimously voted to condone the practice of giving lavish gifts to public officials in exchange for access.

“There’s Not Even an Appearance of Impropriety”

Crow, heir to a Dallas real estate empire, is the CEO of Crow Holdings, a sprawling real estate investment and private equity firm that manages retirement savings for public employees. A relatively private man, Crow has long been a major donor to Republican political campaigns and outside groups.

He’s also been a donor to tax-exempt dark money groups and charitable organizations that do not have to report their donors. In 2011, Crow told the New York Times, “I disclose what I’m required by law to disclose, and I don’t disclose what I’m not required to disclose.”

While those donations are not for the most part traceable, it’s clear that Crow has been generous to conservative think tanks, legal groups, and media outlets.

ProPublica reported last week that for years Crow has offered Thomas free trips on his private jet and superyacht. Those trips should have been disclosed under federal ethics rules, according to seven experts consulted by the nonprofit news outlet.

Shapiro, who joined the Manhattan Institute last summer, took time away from a trip to Legoland last week to record an audio clip defending Crow’s gifts to Thomas, in addition to tweeting his support for the justice.

“It is not against the rules to receive all sorts of gifts — even lavish gifts, even yachts, and rides on private jets, and stays at luxury resorts,” he said. “Nor do the Supreme Court ethics rules even require reporting such gifts if they’re personal hospitality — gifts from friends, things like that.”

While Shapiro suggested that maybe the rules should be changed, he asserted that “there’s not even an appearance of impropriety, unless Harlan Crow has some business before the court, which no one has alleged — not even in ProPublica’s big, breathless, nothingburger report.”

It’s an interesting argument, given that Shapiro effectively lobbies the Supreme Court for the Manhattan Institute. Last summer, Kathy Crow was added to the board of trustees listed on the Manhattan Institute’s website. Harlan Crow, for his part, lavished praise on the organization during a debate at his Dallas business compound in 2021.

In his role at the Manhattan Institute, Shapiro regularly files amicus briefs attempting to persuade justices to rule certain ways on cases. Shapiro recently submitted a brief calling on the Supreme Court to issue a decision blocking President Joe Biden’s student loan cancellation plan.

Last month, Shapiro filed a brief calling on the Supreme Court to review a case upholding the constitutionality of a onetime repatriation tax imposed on foreign earnings accumulated by foreign subsidiaries of US companies, which was passed as part of former president Donald Trump’s 2017 tax law.

“Deeply Honorable, Decent, and Patriotic”

As controversy mounted over Crow’s undisclosed gifts to Thomas, public attention extended to the Texas businessman’s extensive collection of Nazi artifacts — which includes oil paintings by Hitler, a signed copy of Mein Kampf, a teapot engraved with Hitler’s initials, and linen napkins embroidered with swastikas.

Those items have drawn scrutiny before. In 2015, Democrats called on Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) to cancel a presidential campaign fundraiser scheduled at Crow’s house on the eve of Yom Kippur.

In 2019, after scholars who dined at Crow’s mansion were disturbed by his collection of Nazi artifacts, Crow offered a half-hearted apology to their host organization, according to a letter obtained by Mother Jones.

“I am sorry that anyone would be offended,” wrote Crow, adding: “I would very much hope it would be completely obvious that having anything that related to Nazis or slavery could not possibly be interpreted as support or glorification for those evils.”

Over the weekend, several conservative pundits came forward to defend Crow and his collectors items, without mentioning that they have benefited from his family’s financial support for their think tanks and media outlets.

Jonah Goldberg, cofounder and editor in chief of the conservative news site the Dispatchtweeted, “Harlan Crow is a deeply honorable, decent, and patriotic person.” He characterized Crow’s separate garden of dictator statutes — featuring Russia’s Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Lenin — as “an attempt [to] commemorate the horrors of the 20th century in the spirit of ‘never again.’”

Goldberg later tweeted, “My conscience is clear. Harlan Crow is a good man and the farthest thing from a Nazi.”

As the Dispatch separately noted in a news article covering Crow’s gifts to Thomas, “Harlan Crow is a minority investor in The Dispatch and a friend of the founders.”

Goldberg is also a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-wing think tank where Crow serves on the board of trustees.

Previously, Goldberg was a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, the nonprofit affiliated with the conservative National Review magazine. The National Review Institute has regularly hosted its debate series at Crow’s Old Parkland campus.

Crow was additionally a cochair of a 2021 National Review Institute dinner honoring Leonard Leo and Eugene Meyer of the Federalist Society, the conservative lawyers network. (Leo, also a friend of Thomas, was a key architect of conservatives’ 6-3 supermajority on the Supreme Court.)

David French, a former National Review Institute senior fellow and former senior editor at the Dispatch, defended Crow, too.

“I know Harlan also,” French tweeted. “I’ve participated in several debates at Old Parkland. The idea that he’s a Nazi sympathizer is utterly ludicrous. He abhors tyranny, from fascism to communism to everywhere in between.”

Crow’s character was also defended by Charles Murray, a longtime American Enterprise Institute scholar who’s best known for mainstreaming racist pseudoscience via his book The Bell Curve.

“Harlan Crow surely has enemies but, as far as I can tell, they consist exclusively of people who don’t know him,” Murray tweeted. “Everyone who does know him may disagree with him on some issue, but they universally recognize his decency, integrity, and kindness. Including people of the left.” Murray dedicated his most recent book, Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class, “to Harlan Crow.”