Wednesday, September 27, 2023
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With impeachment rout, embattled Texas AG performs latest trick

If nothing else, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a third-term Republican hardliner, has shown an uncanny ability to get himself out of trouble. Will his good fortunes last?

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — Call him Kendini. 

Throughout his nearly ten-year reign as Texas’ top cop, hard-right Ken Paxton has wriggled his way out of an almost comical number of legal and ethical controversies.

On Saturday, in the eyes of his critics, he did it again — dodging 16 articles of impeachment in the Texas legislature that looked to be his toughest challenge yet. After all, an overwhelming and bipartisan number of lawmakers in the state House had voted 121-23 in May for the articles.

The Texas Senate wasn’t so convinced. After nearly 12 hours of deliberation, they shot down all 16 articles against the third-term Texas attorney general — including articles for abuse of office, constitutional bribery, making false statements in official records, conspiracy and abuse of the public trust. Not a single article received a majority vote, let alone a two-thirds majority necessary to remove him from office. 

To impeach Paxton, impeachment managers from the Texas House simply had to hit that two-thirds threshold on a single article. They were never able to do it. Paxton was not in attendance at the impeachment verdict on Saturday — but by the end of the hearing, he was back in office.

The impeachment itself was a somber affair. Almost immediately after Paxton was acquitted, however, Texas lawmakers dropped their veneer of seriousness and leaned back into hyperpartisanship.

Lawmakers expressed outrage that Paxton did not get to continue drawing a public salary during the process. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, himself a hardline Republican who ostensibly served as an impartial judge over the Senate trial, called for a “full audit” of the impeachment before launching into a stump speech singing the praises of the Lone Star State. 

He admonished the Texas House for bringing the articles of impeachment in what he called a “rushed” manner. He took particular aim at Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, also a Republican.

“The speaker and his team ran through the first impeachment of a statewide official in Texas over 100 years, while paying no attention to the precedent that the House set at every other impeachment before,” Patrick said, admonishing the lower chamber. He said he would ask lawmakers to amend the constitution to prevent another “flawed” impeachment process from happening.

As news of the acquittal flowed from the state Capitol, other Texas powerbrokers rushed to offer their two cents.

Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott acknowledged the Senate’s decision in a brief statement, saying that Paxton received a fair trial. “Attorney General Paxton has done an outstanding job representing Texas, especially pushing back against the Biden Administration,” Abbott wrote on X (formerly Twitter).

Striking a celebratory tone, Paxton’s defense team spoke to reporters outside the Senate chamber. As Paxton lawyer Dan Cogdell held what appeared to be a celebratory cigar, lawyer Tony Buzbee described trying the case as a “Herculean task.”

“We are proud of the case we put on,” Buzbee said before taking yet another opportunity to cast the now-acquitted AG as victim. “We should not have had to prove our innocence, but that is what we did.”

Defeated but defiant, representative-members of the House Impeachment team Andrew Murr (R-Junction) and Ann Johnson (D-Houston) held their own news conference in the state Capitol shortly after the verdict. There, they told reporters that they were disappointed with the outcome but thankful for the opportunity to show “Ken Paxton’s corruption.”

“This trial painted an accurate and clear picture of an out-of-control attorney general who refused to listen to the desperate warnings of his conservative lawyers,” Murr said. Responding to questions of why they lost the case despite what they called clear evidence, both Murr and Johnson said of the trial: “It was political.”


The results were both surprising and utterly predictable. Paxton, after all, has spent basically his entire time as attorney general maneuvering through minefields just like this one.

Like Trump, with whom he shares both politics and a personal affinity, Paxton has become a master of misdirection and playing the victim. Every attempt to rein in his alleged criming has been a “witch hunt” and/or a shadowy liberal plot against him.

In the leadup to the Senate trial, some Paxton allies even floated the absurd idea that Democrats somehow engineered the impeachment against him — despite the fact that Democrats have not held statewide power in decades and are rarely if ever able to pass even basic agenda items. 

“Do Democrats Run the Texas House?” one YouTube video from a far-right Texas disinformation outlet asked. The answer, of course, is no. That outlet, Empower Texans, was founded by Tim Dunn, a far-right Texas oil-and-gas billionaire and Paxton ally.

Houston-area attorneys Tony Buzbee (left) and Dan Cogdell (right) spoke to the media just moments after their client, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, was acquitted on all 16 articles of impeachment filed against him. Sept. 16, 2023. (Kirk McDaniel/ Courthouse News)

If nothing else, Paxton’s Senate impeachment trial put Texas’ unique political culture on full display.

Even the prim and proper trial was full of folksy Texanisms (“that is dumber than a bucket of hair”; “he was madder than a hornet’s nest”). State representative Andrew Murr, the West Texas Republican who led the impeachment charges against Paxton, famously said of the allegations: “It curls my mustache.”

The trial also brought out some of Texas’s most flamboyant legal characters. Leading Paxton’s defense, Houston lawyer Tony Buzbee was already famous for, among other things, facing off with an HOA in one of Houston’s ritziest neighborhoods over whether he could park his World War II-era tank in the street.

There were some famous characters on the other side, too, including Texas courtroom legend Dick DeGuerin. 

DeGuerin had represented bankers in the Enron scandal, disgraced Texas Republican politician Tom DeLay and David Koresh, the self-described messiah at the center of the Waco Siege. He's widely considered one of the best lawyers in Texas, and yet even he couldn’t find a chink in Paxton’s armor. Add him to the long list of those who have gone against Paxton and failed.

It’s a pattern that started only shortly after the Republican state attorney general took office. In June 2015, just months after being sworn in, a grand jury indicted Paxton on multiple charges of securities fraud. Allegedly, Paxton had been pitching associates on a new technology company without revealing that he had a financial stake in the firm. 

That case has never gone to trial — meaning that for nearly 10 years, it’s been an open question whether the top law-enforcement official in Texas is a criminal. In a deep-dive investigation in 2018, Texas Observer, a muckraking state magazine, argued Paxton’s allies were using procedural tricks to keep the case in limbo. Paxton, on the other hand, called the case a “witch hunt,” echoing language that would later be made popular by former President Donald Trump.

That securities-fraud indictment was just the beginning. Since then, Paxton has been feasting from a veritable buffet of controversies, including: questions over his ties to the January 6 attacks and efforts to overturn the 2020 election; an FBI investigation into his allegedly cozy ties with real-estate developer Nate Paul; and numerous lawsuits, including one over the firing of whistleblowers (several of his top former aides had complained to the FBI about his relationship with Paul). The controversies have often blended together like this, making it difficult to even discuss Paxton’s many alleged crimes.

But while Paxton has so far artfully dodged these many scandals, it was the firing of whistleblowers — and the impeachment that stemmed from it — that proved to be his toughest challenge yet.


That saga started in earnest in February, when Paxton tried to settle the whistleblower lawsuit. To do so, he asked the state for $3.3 million in public funds.

Balking at the sum, lawmakers this year launched a secret inquiry into the matter as part of the 2023 legislative session. That inquiry culminated in 20 articles of impeachment against the attorney general, leading to his impeachment by the Texas House by a wide and bipartisan margin in May. (Those 20 articles were reduced to 16 for the Texas Senate trial, as four of the charges had to do with prior alleged misdeeds rather than the ongoing Nate Paul/mistress/bribery/whistleblower scandal.)

Paxton is not out of hot water just yet. Questions continue to swirl over his role in trying to subvert the 2020 elections, the long-dormant securities-fraud case and the FBI investigation into him.

A federal grand jury in San Antonio also appears to be looking into the embattled AG. One real possibility is that Paxton ends up somewhere like Trump, facing serious federal charges while remaining politically popular and powerful. Maybe, like Trump, he’ll even seek re-election during future criminal proceedings.

Texas state Attorney General Ken Paxton, left, stands with his attorney Tony Buzbee, right, before his impeachment trial in the Senate Chamber at the Texas Capitol, Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2023, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

But as with Trump, some Texas Republican Senators seem unable or unwilling to quit him. He’s just too popular with their base, in spite of the many scandals — or perhaps because of them. 

Perhaps the right way to view this saga is not as a legal drama, but a political one.

For hardened and cynical observers of Texas politics, it seemed almost unthinkable that the Republican-dominated Texas legislature would ever cross one of their own — let alone a culture-war fighter like Ken Paxton.

Sure, the wide and bipartisan vote in the Texas House gave a veneer of seriousness to the proceedings. But as House members were reminded during their vote in May, they were operating like a grand jury. They only had to decide whether a Senate impeachment trial should proceed; they didn’t have to do the hard work of actually booting him from office.

Besides, months have passed since that House vote. That was time that allowed for Republican senators to consider the political implications of kicking out Paxton, and plenty of time for the pro-Paxton disinformation machine to spring into action.

The similarities between Trump and Paxton cannot be overstated. Like Trump, Paxton has managed to position himself as one of the few true believers standing up for real and silent Americans.

He’s always David facing off against Goliath, no matter how much power he may have. Therefore, any attempt to bring him down is not based on sincere concerns about his many alleged misdeeds but is just another plot by the global elite/deep state/whatever.

Like Trump, Paxton has managed to do this through an uncanny ability to tap into fears and grievances of Republican primary voters. He’s been a consistent fighter for the MAGA base, including through efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Those who cross Trump have had to pay for their disloyalty at the ballot box. Paxton’s enemies may well face the same in 2024.

For that reason, some of the most prominent right-wing voices to come out against Paxton have been those with little skin left in the game. Take Louie Gohmert, a former U.S. representative from East Texas and a hardline Republican in his own right.

In an op-ed this month for the conservative news site The Daily Caller, Gohmert stressed that “Ken Paxton is not a victim.” He highlighted Paxton’s many controversies and said he was “dividing Texas conservatives.” It’s too early to tell how this op-ed will affect Gohmert’s political futures, but the episode highlights another Paxton-Trump similarity: While Paxton has an eerie ability to save his own skin, he does so by creating new liabilities for his fellow Republicans.

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Categories / Government, Law, Politics

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