That’s Entertainment: The Paxton Impeachment Trial So Far

Lieutenant Gov. Dan Patrick presides over suspended AG Ken Paxton’s trial (photo by John Anderson)

From 2005-2020, now-retired Austin Chronicle News Editor Michael King wrote about city and state politics from a progressive perspective in his weekly column, “Point Austin.” We’re pleased to bring back his column whenever he’s inspired to tackle the state we’re in.

Welcome to the latest in national reality show entertainment: Impeachment.

We’ve enjoyed two Congressional impeachments of ex-president Donald Trump, reverberating nicely through a prime-time investigation by the U.S. House, and soon there’s the prospect of a retaliatory impeachment of current President Joe Biden. While we wait for that other shoe to drop, a regional channel – the Texas Senate website – is streaming the impeachment of Ken Paxton, the (currently suspended) Attorney General of the State of Texas.

The Paxton web series has been reasonably entertaining, at least to those attuned to the curious workings of Texas state government. In brief, Paxton is credibly accused of attempting to use the powers of his office to benefit a friend – Austin real estate investor Nate Paul – and retaliating against AG staff attorneys when they first resisted that subornation and then subsequently informed the FBI that they believed their boss might be committing crimes. When Paxton fired those staff members – aka the “whistleblowers” – several sued and won a settlement of $3.3 million.

Paxton managed to evade accountability for all this until he asked the Legislature to underwrite his settlement costs – triggering outrage among House Republicans, who with minority Democrats voted for impeachment 121-23 – including a large majority of GOP reps. Paxton’s prospects in the Senate seem rather better; it will require a two-thirds vote of 31 senators (the jury) on any of the 16 impeachment articles to convict him, meaning in practice a combination of the 12 Democratic senators joined by at least 9 (of 19) Republicans. Based on initial votes simply to consider the articles, there are six hard GOP holdouts opposing any action against Paxton, with the other 13 still in play.

Sen. Angela Paxton, his wife, will not vote but raises the two-thirds bar by one vote. (Notably, none of the 16 articles mention Paxton’s unconstitutional, treasonous but unsuccessful attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election; most of the GOP legislators – not to mention his former staffers – believe that was just peachy.)

Preliminary evidence and a week’s worth of testimony have amply demonstrated that Paxton repeatedly pressed his senior staff to take actions to defend Nate Paul from various legal and financial predicaments, up to and including providing Paul access to confidential law enforcement documents concerning investigations of his businesses (Paul has since been indicted on eight felony counts of financial fraud). When the AG staff balked, Paxton hired an outside lawyer who took direction from Paul pursuing conspiracy theories investigating his perceived law enforcement and business enemies.

Paxton’s defense attorneys have responded with elaborate variations of the Bart Simpson Defense – “I didn’t do it. Nobody saw me do it. You can’t prove anything.” – along with a Trumpian catch-all: Paxton was the boss, and by definition the boss can do no wrong. The suspended AG himself is displaying his contempt for the proceedings by disappearing after a pro-forma appearance to plead not guilty to all 16 charges. Citing the analogy of a criminal trial, Lieutenant Gov. Dan Patrick (presiding) excused Paxton from testifying; reasonable enough, although most folks are likely unfamiliar with criminal proceedings which the accused is not even required to attend.

Patrick, who has kept his own inclinations off the record, has been mostly a passive “judge,” although he has routinely sustained defense objections that do little more than cause delay; the agreed-upon time limits (27 hours per side) are likely to mean very few of the dozens of potential witnesses will actually testify. The most important unacknowledged wild card is the influence of major campaign donors shared by Paxton and Patrick (and certainly by some senators), some of those donors (for prime example, right-wing billionaires Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks) are effectively underwriting Paxton’s defense.

(Media reports routinely also describe Paul as a Paxton “campaign donor,” but Paxton’s lawyers accurately point out that Paul’s piddling $25,000 amounts to petty cash for the suspended AG – during the trial, the phalanx of attorneys alone are likely grossing that much daily. If Paul indeed bought Paxton’s protection for 25 Gs, he definitely got a bargain.)

Paxton’s attorneys have been trying to paint his accusers as “RINOs” or members of the GOP “establishment” (with minor feints at blaming the Democrats, but in Texas that dog just won’t hunt), or as secretly supporters of “the feds,” or (horrors) George P. Bush, Paxton’s 2014 primary opponent. The accuser/witnesses, in turn (most former deputy AGs) have stoutly defended their conservative bona fides by pointing out they’re amply on record officially and unofficially as despising anyone gay or transgender, have reflexively obstructed women’s reproductive rights, and stoutly oppose any state action on environmental protection or public health.

They also really don’t like Dr. Anthony Fauci; one thing that pushed the group to rebellion was Paxton’s attempt to help Paul avoid foreclosure on his properties by abruptly imposing pandemic-related lockdowns on public meetings. Since the Office of Attorney General had until then been earnestly dedicated to facilitating the spread of COVID throughout Texas, the staffers were understandably mortified.

Indeed, what had initially brought the staffers to the OAG was their enthusiasm for Paxton’s “conservative” reputation; they seem not to have comprehended the silent but quite common understanding among GOP leadership (most fully endorsed by Trump) that all that law-and-order, clean-living, straight-arrow bushwa only applies to other people. In 2018, when Paxton, with wife Sen. Angela beside him, confessed to infidelity and promised to sin no more, his staff actually believed him.

There has thus been much speculation that Paxton was beholden to Paul primarily for helping him conceal the continuation of his love affair, including hiring the woman (who had been living in San Antonio) into his Austin office to facilitate the arrangement. Former First Deputy AG Jeff Mateer testified he began to suspect that Paul was literally blackmailing Paxton to do as Paul demanded.

That’s possible, although speculation about Paxton’s heterosexual affair seems somewhat beside the point. Whatever his motivation, Paxton’s submissive bromance with Nate Paul seems above and beyond what any rational public official (or indeed, any civilian Lothario) would consent to do for any wingman, even under erotic duress. Paul would say “Jump!,” and Paxton would dutifully levitate. Eventually, these devoted Paxton loyalists finally concluded, in Mateer’s words, that “Mr. Paxton was engaged in conduct that was immoral, unethical, and I had the good faith belief that it was illegal.”

As his own justification, however, staffers testified that Paxton told them he felt a kinship with Paul because he has also been persecuted by law enforcement and the justice system – apparently a reference to the paltry eight years of delay in his prosecution on two counts of felony security fraud. Give a guy a break, already!

Meanwhile Paxton’s still-besotted evangelical defenders, citing their God, have been arguing that if his wife has forgiven him, who are we to judge? But to paraphrase dear departed Jimmy Buffett, it ain’t the woman to blame – it’s Paxton’s own damn fault. Whatever his reasons, he attempted to use the powers of his office to benefit a friend who had no legal claim on those powers, and who indeed attempted to use his hook into Paxton to investigate and harass his perceived enemies, apparently with criminal intent. If that ain’t impeachable, nothing is.

The most cynical argument Paxton’s lawyers have proposed is that “4.3 million Texans” voted for him, and therefore he’s presumably acquitted by election. One would like to think even the most deluded Republican voter doesn’t believe his votes buy advance get-out-of-jail-free coupons for elected officials, but these are curious political times.

The final witness of the first week, former director of law enforcement to the AG’s Office, David Maxwell, recounted bluntly informing Paxton that Paul was a conman running a Ponzi scheme, and that the OAG should have nothing to do with him. Maxwell was berated and eventually fired for his honesty. Paxton’s lawyers spent Friday badgering and slandering Maxwell for not leaping to perform Paul’s lunatic requests to investigate the investigators. So the Texas Senate has granted Paul’s most fervent wish – he’s become Paxton’s co-defendant, beleaguered on all sides by a nefarious conspiracy involving former AG staffers, the FBI, the DPS, the Texas Rangers, the banks he defrauded, investors he’s stiffed … in short, the entire “Deep State” and all its anti-MAGA minions.

The senator-jurors haven’t spoken, and will deliberate in secret, so it’s impossible to predict the outcome, but the simple arithmetic seems to be in Paxton’s favor. With six GOP senators having already shown their confirmed pro-Paxton hands, by my count he needs only five more to decide they’d rather not endure Paxton’s hard-right army (led by Trump and Paxton’s billionaire underwriters) calling for their heads in their next primaries. Rather than attend his trial, Paxton’s spent the week raising even more campaign cash (although a sizable hunk will go to his lawyers), promising supporters he expects to be back at his AG desk within the month.

As that legendary scoundrel Bob Bullock liked to say, God Bless Texas.

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