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On Wednesday morning, Ken Paxton stood in front of a roaring crowd, reminding a sea of President Donald Trump’s supporters that the president “is a fighter” and his backers must be, too.
“We’re here. We will not quit fighting,” he said, slamming Republican officials in Georgia who have stood by President-elect Joe Biden’s victory there. “We are Texans, we are Americans, and we’re not quitting.”
But by the evening — after members of the crowd he had invited to Washington, D.C., stirred up with false claims about election fraud, resorted to violence, smashing windows and scaling walls to breach the nation’s Capitol in a mob that forced members of Congress to flee and left at least one woman dead — he had claimed they were not his ilk at all.
“These are not Trump supporters,” he falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook, citing incorrect reports that the pro-Trump mob that invaded the Capitol had been infiltrated by liberal antifa activists, members of a loose anti-facist movement that opposes actions seen as “authoritarian, homophobic, racist or xenophobic.”
The untenable pivot provides an insight into a remarkable day in American history: Paxton, like other Republicans in Texas and across the nation, whipped up thousands of Trump supporters into a deluded frenzy, claiming falsely that the election had been stolen from them. When that frenzy reached its violent conclusion, he blamed someone else.
In an interview early Thursday with Fox News, Paxton disavowed the violent actors and said they should be prosecuted. But he also seemed resigned to the anger that fueled Wednesday’s events.
“There is a lot of frustration in this country from people who do think the election wasn't done appropriately…. It is going to create dissension in our country,” said Paxton, a co-chair of the Lawyers for Trump coalition. “And that’s just where we’re at.”
When asked by The Texas Tribune what evidence Paxton had that antifa protesters had attacked the U.S. Capitol while posing as Trump supporters, a spokesman for Paxton said he was merely sharing a tweet from a journalist. The person whose claims he promoted was Paul Sperry, a former reporter for the right-wing website WorldNetDaily, who “has a long record of promoting anti-Muslim conspiracy theories," according to research from Georgetown University.
Spokesman Ian Prior said in a text message that Paxton condemns violence but encourages citizens “to ‘keep fighting’ for their rights at the ballot box, in the courts and through their First Amendment right to peacefully protest.”
There is no evidence that the rioters who breached the U.S. Capitol were members of antifa; in fact, photo evidence shows known right-wing agitators. And Trump himself acknowledged the rioters were there to support him, telling them, “we love you, you are very special.”
Paxton’s critics said his rhetoric and his leadership on the election fraud issue have contributed to real harm — as have other Texas Republicans including U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who objected to certifying vote counts in several states.
“We know that Ted Cruz and Ken Paxton both know that Joe Biden won this election, yet they are deciding to score points with their violent base in a cynical attempt to garner extremist, right-wing support,” said Abhi Rahman, a spokesman for the Texas Democratic Party.
On Thursday, Grand Prairie state Rep. Chris Turner, chair of the Texas House Democratic Caucus, called for an investigation into Paxton’s role in Wednesday’s riot, leaving the door open to curbing the power of his office, restricting its budget, even censure and impeachment.
“From filing a fraudulent lawsuit that fueled unhinged conspiracy theories about a free and fair election, to egging on the crowd of insurrectionists in Washington, D.C., Paxton has played a major role in creating the national crisis that culminated with the first breach of our nation’s capital since the War of 1812,” Turner said. “Even today, Paxton has used social media to spread lies about yesterday’s acts of violence and insurrection.”
In December, Paxton’s support for Trump took the form of a widely panned, and ultimately rejected, lawsuit before the U.S. Supreme Court seeking to toss the election results in four battleground states that had handed the White House to Joe Biden. The lawsuit leaned on discredited claims of election fraud in the battleground states.
Paxton finds himself in a precarious political position, even before Wednesday’s disastrous events. Since October, he has been embroiled in a scandal after eight of his top aides in the attorney general’s office told authorities they believed he was breaking the law by doing a series of favors for a political donor.
Texas Republicans — many of whom stayed quiet for the past five years as Paxton battled felony securities fraud charges — came forward to express their disapproval. Some fellow conservatives, including his former top aide U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, have called for his resignation. An FBI investigation into Paxton’s conduct is reportedly moving ahead full-throttle, and in the meantime, the fresh criminal allegations are poised to impose tens of millions of dollars in costs to his constituents: Texas taxpayers.
Paxton has been in hot water before, and often escaped it only to climb higher politically, galvanizing support from the Republican party’s right flank. He alienated some with a long shot run for Texas House speaker, then got elected to the state Senate. He has characterized long-running felony securities fraud charges as a political witch hunt, much as Trump did in Washington.
Still, Paxton may have fewer defenders now than ever before.
At a low point in his rollercoaster political career, Paxton is betting on the Trump base to bring him back up the hill, lending the legitimacy of office to debunked claims that have motivated violence.
Paxton has long been a close Trump ally, greeting the president when Air Force One touches down in Texas, lining up with the administration in legal proceedings and vocally backing the president’s most controversial policies, including a ban on travel from several Muslim-majority countries. And he often talks about Trump in public appearances, an easy applause line for Paxton’s own political base, which includes the right flank of the Republican party.
One favorite is the story of Trump calling while Paxton was in the shower. At an event in September, Paxton described a conversation he’d had with Trump, saying, “he asked me about my legal stuff, I asked about his legal stuff.”
“We kind of bonded,” Paxton joked. “It was kind of weird.”
Now, his backing of the president has expanded into increasingly dangerous territory — to the point that some have publicly speculated that Paxton may be angling for a pardon.
The Supreme Court election challenge looked “like a fella begging for a pardon filed a PR stunt rather than a lawsuit — as all of its assertions have already been rejected by federal courts and Texas’ own solicitor general isn’t signing on,” U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said last month.
Prior dismissed that as “an absurdly laughable conspiracy theory.”
In an interview Thursday morning on Fox, Paxton was asked whether he’d been in touch with Trump since the riot on Wednesday.
He had not spoken to the president, he said. But he hoped to before Trump leaves office.
Disclosure: Facebook has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.