N.Y. Times offers grotesque whitewash of Rep. James Comer, GOP's new attack dog

Lengthy profile of Oversight Committee chair James Comer is loaded with folksy details — but misses the real story

By Rae Hodge

Staff Reporter

Published March 23, 2023 12:28PM (EDT)

House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer (R-KY) questions witnesses during the first public hearing of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill on March 08, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer (R-KY) questions witnesses during the first public hearing of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill on March 08, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Maybe we'll never know for sure whether Jamie Comer — whom the rest of the world knows as Rep. James Comer, Republican of Kentucky, now chair of the House Oversight Committee — really beat up former girlfriend Marilyn Thomas, called her parents in the middle of the night threatening to kill her, and then took her to have an abortion back in 1991. 

But we know for sure that in 2015, Thomas took an enormous professional and personal risk to come forward with those allegations during a dead-heat Kentucky GOP gubernatorial primary. Comer ultimately lost that primary, due to his own political incompetence, with his failed smear campaign against a woman who never wanted to speak out against him in the first place. 

During the waning weeks of that 2015 race, Comer broke into a computer server from the law firm of his opponent's spouse and stole emails that had been exchanged between Thomas and a local blogger about the alleged abuse. As others have noted, the allegations would otherwise likely have stayed contained to the realm of local politics if Comer hadn't attempted to intimidate Thomas — while accusing his GOP opponent of "gutter politics" — by leaking the emails to reporter Sam Youngman at the Lexington Herald-Leader.

All of this blew up in his face, of course. To Comer's seeming surprise, the public was less appalled by his political opponent's receipt of unsolicited oppo research about him — and more appalled by credible allegations that Comer had violently abused a traumatized young woman. When Thomas refused to take the smear job lying down and released her own statement, Comer was cooked. 

Now, thanks to a star-struck profile of Comer by New York Times reporters Jonathan Swan and Luke Broadwater — which hand-waves away the allegations and skips over most of those facts — we know that Comer has finally admitted to the server break-in and email theft. 

"I've had two servers in my lifetime," Comer told the Times when asked about those emails. "Hunter Biden's is one, and you can — I'm not going to say who the other one was, but you can use your imagination. It ended up in my lap. I'll put it like that."

Just as Kentucky Roll Call's late Lowell Reese knew in 2015 that Comer leaked the emails, state Republican Party officials knew Thomas' story years before Comer spread it wide. 

Thomas was a known figure in Kentucky political circles; her character was vouched for by a then-sitting Republican state senator and Comer family ally, as well as by the chief of staff for a former Republican governor. Thomas' two former roommates also said they had witnessed some of the abuse, prompting one to threaten to call the cops when Comer allegedly flew off the handle in the women's shared apartment. And Thomas' 83-year-old mother, a former nun, corroborated Thomas' story about the late-night phone threats. 

None of those details appear in the Times' folksy account, largely a series of vignettes about Kentucky political hucksterism. 

A more colorful portrait might have included the fact that after Comer denied the allegations and provided conflicting statements, Thomas challenged him to a lie detector test — which Comer declined to take. A more accurate rendering might also have noted that Comer threatened to sue not only the blogger briefly alluded to in the article (on whom he sicced a campaign ally and prosecutor), but also the Pulitzer-winning Louisville Courier-Journal — a threat he soon dropped.

Although Swan and Broadwater of the Times report that they spoke to "more than 30 people close to [Comer] throughout his life," a cursory glance across local reporting would have revealed the congressman's public history of throwing verbal hissy fits full of vulgar, but ultimately impotent, rage.

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It's not exactly surprising to see a pair of parachute journalists get rolled by the wink-slap charm of a few motley Cumberland characters. But this wasn't an Appalachian travel-and-dining feature. This was a profile of the GOP's newly-minted congressional attack dog, which glossed over the long history of local corruption from which Comer sprang and the credible accusations against him — despite "six hours of interviews."

One of those interviews was with County Judge-Executive Mitchell Page, who discusses the history of "local politicians visiting cemeteries to convert names on tombstones into voters." The Times notes that three cases of vote-buying have happened in Monroe County during Comer's lifetime, but does not observe that the best-known of those involved Comer's friend and former roommate Billy Proffitt, who pled guilty to a vote-buying scheme in 2011, and went on to defend Comer against the abuse allegations in 2015.

This wasn't a case of parachute journalists getting rolled for a travel-and-dining feature. The Times completely missed the long history of local corruption from which Jamie Comer sprang.

As Comer's longtime friend and mentor, Page could certainly offer readers a keener sense of Comer's political education. After all, Page was sentenced to 18 months in prison in 1996 when he joined Comer's other "lifelong friend", former Monroe County Clerk Larry Pitcock, in committing county-wide tax fraud and tampering with public records. Both received gubernatorial pardons. That came after Pitcock had already been busted by the state auditor in 1993 for stealing public funds to spend on himself.

Comer returned home to Monroe County in 1993 to inherit the county GOP chairmanship from his late grandfather, legendary power player Harlin Vivian Comer. That same year, he started Comer and Polston Insurance, his business with then-Rep. Billy Dale Polston.

In at least three public appearances in 2010 and 2011, Comer made false claims about his first election, claiming he beat then-incumbent Polston in the 2000 Republican primary with 81% of the vote. In fact, Comer did not run against Polston, who was dying at the time. In common Kentucky tradition, Billy asked his wife Donnie Mayfield Polston to carry on in his stead. She did so, and that was who Comer faced in the Republican primary — a retired public school teacher making a largely ceremonial campaign on her dying husband's behalf.

According to a Herald-Leader report in 2000, Billy Dale Polston said that Comer's father assaulted him at a campaign event for Polston's wife. That's admittedly not as entertaining an anecdote as the one Comer shared with the Times about a local "Trump Country" cop letting Comer out of a speeding ticket in exchange for a bit of MAGA song and dance. 

To close this response to the Times whitewash job, let's hear from Marilyn Thomas, in the form of her 2015 letter to the Courier-Journal's Joe Gerth. 

I have kept Jamie's skeletons in a closet for him for more than two decades. I am a private person. I moved away from the people and place that I love dearly to keep it that way. I have missed a lot of important moments because of the distance. … In spite of the Comers repeatedly telling me that I was poor farm trash from a nothing town, I have always loved Western Kentucky and the people there. It hasn't been fair, but it has made my life easier to just go away.

By Rae Hodge

Rae Hodge is a science reporter for Salon. Her data-driven, investigative coverage spans more than a decade, including prior roles with CNET, the AP, NPR, the BBC and others. She can be found on Mastodon at 


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