Burner phones and Ginni Thomas’ paranoid ways | CLARENCE PAGE

Former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

Character, according to an old saying, is defined by what you do when you think nobody’s looking. So, one might say, are a lot of criminal indictments.

That’s particularly true in Washington, where investigations of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack by a pro-Trump mob on the U.S. Capitol show how many secrets can be revealed when somebody keeps looking, especially if they have subpoena power.

Take, for example, the recent surge in Washington chatter about “burner phones.”

Fans of “The Wire,” HBO’s excellent police drama from the early 2000s, know “burners” to be the cheap cellphones that drug dealers, among others, can quickly throw away when they think the cops are on their trail. Burners have turned up recently in connection with a very different sort of mystery, as first reported by CBS News and The Washington Post: an unexplained seven-hour gap in the White House phone logs for Jan. 6, 2021.

Ah, yes, that also happens to be the hours when the U.S. Capitol was being attacked by the pro-Trump mob.

We know from numerous reports and firsthand accounts that the then-president held calls at that time with Vice President Mike Pence, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville. But alas, the phone log shows no phone calls from him in those critical hours. Did he borrow an aide’s mobile device? Or was he, perhaps, using a burner?

I, for one, found that possibility to be more likely than the former president’s statement to the Post. He said he had never heard of the term “burner phone” and had no idea what it was.

That assertion was flatly contradicted by John Bolton, the president’s former national security adviser, who told CBS News that he had spoken in the past on burner phones as a way to avoid having one’s calls scrutinized.

But for now, the burner-phone caper may be the most consequential electronic mystery since the 18½-minute tape gap of the Watergate scandal.

Less mysterious but no less weird is the almost 30 text messages, also reported by CBS and the Post, that were exchanged between Mark Meadows, Donald Trump’s final chief of staff, and Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, a conservative lawyer who also happens to be the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Ginni Thomas is a well-known activist for conservative causes who, among other far-right crusades, has openly opposed the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack and called for Republicans who serve on it to be expelled from the House Republican conference.

Now, thanks to the newly released texts, we also know her as a promoter of QAnon-adjacent conspiracy theories — with a passion.

She urged Meadows to push for invalidation of the results of the 2020 presidential election, which she denounced as an “obvious fraud.”

She also sent messages from right-wing websites to underscore her own anger over the election outcome, including this rambling passage of paranoid partisanship: “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.”

She texted Meadows again the next day. “Do not concede,” she wrote. “It takes time for the army who is gathering for his back.”

Meadows’ texts appeared to join the Manichaean casting of the election in apocalyptic terms. In one of his texts to Ginni Thomas, Meadows called the election a “fight of good versus evil” and added: “Evil always looks like the victor until the King of Kings triumphs. Do not grow weary in well doing. The fight continues.”

“Thank you!! Needed that!” Thomas replied. “This plus a conversation with my best friend just now. … I will try to keep holding on. America is worth it!”

Ginni Thomas’ political activism has been challenged, but her offense to America’s democratic values pales in my view compared with her husband’s refusal, so far, to recuse himself from cases involving the Jan. 6 attacks.

Because Clarence Thomas’ beliefs sit on the high court’s far-right end, his marriage might not make much difference to his views. But the American public deserves to have more reassurance than that.

Contact Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.