Texas braces for impeachment battle

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s (R) impeachment trial in the Lone Star State begins Tuesday, when Republicans in the state Legislature’s upper chamber will play the pivotal role in considering whether he misused his office. It’s a potentially explosive moment for the ruling conservative coalition and the first impeachment trial in the state's modern history. Paxton faces...

Texas braces for impeachment battle

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s (R) impeachment trial in the Lone Star State begins Tuesday, when Republicans in the state Legislature’s upper chamber will play the pivotal role in considering whether he misused his office.

It’s a potentially explosive moment for the ruling conservative coalition and the first impeachment trial in the state's modern history. Paxton faces 20 counts of corruption. 

Paxton's impeachment by Texas's GOP-majority House in May has exacerbated a brewing power struggle in that coalition — pitting the state's once-dominant business conservative wing, many of whom favor the attorney general's conviction, against an ascendant movement of self-described Christian nationalists, who are fighting to throw out the impeachment charges entirely.

To survive politically, Paxton will have to be acquitted on every count by one-third of the Senate — meaning that, even if all 12 Democrats vote to convict him, he will be acquitted unless nine Republicans join them. Paxton’s wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton (R), will be present but not allowed to vote. 

If enough Republicans vote to convict, even on one charge, Ken Paxton will be barred from office. 

“Anyone that votes against Ken Paxton in this impeachment is risking their entire political career and we will make sure that is the case,” right-wing activist Jonathan Stickland, who runs the pro-Paxton Defend Texas Liberty PAC, told Steve Bannon in an interview last week. 

Other conservatives in the state, however, have decried attempts by this faction to get the case thrown out before the trial could even begin.

“Republicans once believed in the rule of law," former GOP Gov. Rick Perry wrote in a blistering editorial in The Wall Street Journal. "That’s why it’s shocking to see some Republicans — through a coordinated effort of texts, emails and social-media posts — working to delegitimize the impeachment proceedings against Attorney General Ken Paxton.”

According to an exclusive obtained by The Dallas Morning News, Paxton headlines the list of witnesses in his impeachment trial, along with his alleged affair partner, Laura Olsen, and Austin real estate mogul Natin “Nate” Paul.

House investigators alleged that one way that Paul bribed Paxton was by securing a job for Olsen — and evidence they have submitted suggests Paxton’s affair with her was a continued headache for staff that helped lead them to report him to federal law enforcement.

State senators will be asked to vote on allegations both sweeping and sordid: that Paxton turned the state prosecutor’s office into a political weapon for Paul’s benefit.

Paul is also under federal indictment — a distinction he shares with Paxton — accused of lying to investors to secure a loan.

And Paxton has been impeached because of what Paul allegedly did next: convince the attorney general to use the state prosecutor’s office to interfere with the federal investigation — and attack Paul’s enemies.

According to House investigators, evidence shows “the extensive steps Paxton used to morph the Office of the Attorney General into Paul’s concierge law firm and, along the way, cover up his abuse of the office.”

Last week, the state Senate revealed 4,000 pages of transcripts that show in minute detail how Paxton’s alleged efforts led his senior deputies — all conservative Republicans themselves — to turn against him.

“This office’s continued use of the criminal process … to benefit the personal interests of Nate Paul, is unconscionable,” five senior deputies wrote Paxton in a scathing email in October 2020, explaining why they reported the attorney general to federal investigators.

By the end of 2020, all five were gone, as were other senior leaders in the attorney general’s office who had challenged Paxton.

In a settlement agreement this year, Paxton agreed to pay $3.3 million to four of the deputies who charged the attorney general fired them in retaliation for reporting him to federal investigators.

But the deal had a catch: The state Legislature had to approve the funds.

The Legislature declined to do so. Instead, the request triggered a secret investigation into the attorney general, whose personality and stream of scandals have long irritated even his ideological allies in the GOP.

“It is alarming and very serious that we are having this discussion into why millions of taxpayer dollars have been asked to remedy” Paxton’s alleged misdeeds, Texas Rep. Andrew Murr (R) told a state House committee in May that unveiled the charges.

The state House voted to impeach Paxton later that month.

Paxton has won the loyalty of the state's far-right wing through nearly a decade of lawsuits attacking state and federal initiatives, particularly around civil rights, climate legislation and the integrity of the 2020 presidential election.

Last year, he even claimed to Bannon to have thrown Texas to Trump, thanks to a lawsuit that successfully banned Harris County, the home of Houston and a key Democratic stronghold, from sending out more than 2 million mail-in ballots.

Had he not succeeded, Paxton said, Texas would “have been one of those battleground states — and Donald Trump would have lost the election.”

The Texas Bar Association last year filed a professional misconduct claim against the attorney general for his “dishonest” and “frivolous” campaign to help throw the election to Trump, according to The Texas Tribune.

According to July reporting by the Tribune, Paxton has been rewarded for his efforts with millions of dollars in donations from the state's far-right wing, and particularly from three deep-pocketed oil billionaires who have served as his longtime supporters: Tim Dunn and the brothers Farris and Dan Wilks, all of whom identify as Christian nationalists.

As the Senate trial looms, the populist right — which holds a commanding influence among GOP members of the state's upper chamber — has been lobbying, cajoling and threatening senators who might consider conviction.

In an early battle preceding the trial, this faction — which has cast the Republicans who impeached Paxton as being in league with Texas Democrats  — argued that there shouldn’t be a trial at all and is urging GOP senators to vote Tuesday to throw the impeachment out.

The basis they put forward for doing so is an old Texas statute that protects officials from being impeached for offenses committed before they took office — which the Paxton defense team is arguing should protect the attorney general, who they claim was reelected in November, long after voters would have had the opportunity to read about his long list of scandals in state publications.

Polling by the University of Texas’s Texas Politics Project, however, found that voters were by wide margins unaware of the details of Paxton's scandals during those elections, particularly because the bombshell allegations leveled against him by the state House in May were months afterward.

In polling that preceded the trial, nearly half of all Texans — 47 percent — said Paxton should be removed from office, twice as many who thought he should not. However, more than a third of respondents said they didn’t know.

Among Republicans, 24 percent said Paxton should be convicted, 32 percent said he should be acquitted and a plurality of 43 percent said they didn’t know, suggesting much of that electorate remains up for grabs. Getting the trial thrown out would be a tougher lift for Paxton than simply avoiding conviction — absent Democratic support, it would require 16 of the 18 Senate Republicans to vote to abandon the trial, or seven more than he needs to support him in the impeachment vote.

Like Perry, another leading arch-conservative group is pushing back against efforts to forgo a trial.

Texans for Lawsuit Reform (TLR), which backed the state’s Republican takeover in the 1990s but opposed Paxton in the 2022 Republican primaries, put out a statement decrying “an ongoing effort underway to intimidate the Senators into abandoning their constitutional obligations and acquitting Paxton before the trial even begins and the evidence has been presented.”

“These efforts are disrespectful of the constitutional impeachment process and insulting to the integrity of the Texas Senate,” the statement continued. 

“TLR expects the Senate will conduct a fair, open and thorough trial and that each Senator will make her or his decision solely on the evidence presented.”

Perry, meanwhile, praised the credentials of the conservative Republican whistleblowers who reported Paxton to federal and House investigators. But while he said Paxton’s decision to ignore his staff’s warnings about the businessman at the center of the case against the attorney general was “a red flag" and "shows bad judgment in a leader," he argued that "bad judgment alone isn’t impeachable — unless it involves breaking the law or abuse of office. That is what we all want to discover through this trial.”

“Texans can show the rest of the country that the rule of law applies to both political parties," he said.