Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
The first impeachment of a Texas public official in nearly 50 years drew Paxton loyalists and state government enthusiasts to the Capitol to watch the trial of the attorney general unfold on Tuesday.
Ken Paxton’s impeachment trial: What to know
Paxton faces several allegations
Suspended Attorney General Ken Paxton is accused of bribery, disregarding his official duty, making false statements and abusing the public trust. Paxton allegedly misused the powers of the attorney general’s office to help his friend and donor Nate Paul, an Austin real estate investor. Impeachment managers submitted nearly 4,000 pages of evidence ahead of Paxton’s trial in the Senate. Paxton pleaded not guilty.
Defense calls accusations political
Paxton’s lawyers vow to disprove the accusations and say they will present evidence showing they are based on assumptions, not facts. They and several other Paxton supporters portray the proceedings as a political witch hunt carried out by “Republicans in name only.”
Texas Senate acting as impeachment jury
Texas senators are considering 16 of 20 impeachment articles. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is acting as judge. Witnesses are testifying under oath, senator-jurors will deliberate privately and votes will be conducted without public debate. The attorney general’s wife, Sen. Angela Paxton, will sit as part of the court, but will not vote or deliberate.
The political donor at the center of the case
Impeachment prosecutors allege that Paxton directed his office to conduct sham investigations into the rivals of Nate Paul, a real estate investor and political donor who was under federal investigation. Paxton is accused of improperly providing his friend with sensitive information about the FBI investigation into his businesses and improperly involving the attorney general’s office in a lawsuit between Paul and an Austin nonprofit.
Affair could play key role in impeachment
Impeachment prosecutors argue that Ken Paxton went to great lengths to conceal an alleged extramarital affair from his wife and deeply religious voters who have supported him. Nate Paul allegedly hired Paxton’s girlfriend in exchange for the attorney general using his public office to help the real estate investor’s faltering businesses.
The trial features several high-profile Texans
Ken Paxton’s impeachment trial involves a massive cast of elected officials, high-profile lawyers, whistleblowers from within his office, an indicted real estate investor and the attorney general’s former personal assistant.
Compared to Ken Paxton’s impeachment in the House in May, the first day of the Senate trial drew a smaller crowd — a majority of which included supporters of the now suspended attorney general to show solidarity at the Capitol.
Paxton’s defense has cast the House impeachment as an effort to overturn the will of Texas voters, but Tuesday’s less-than-packed gallery did not reflect an outpouring of support from everyday conservatives. Instead, it was some of Paxton’s most ardent and high-profile followers who watched the opening statements of the impeachment trial in the public viewing area.
The first day of Paxton’s trial was marked by the Senate’s decision — with 12 Republican Senators voting with Democrats — to move forward with the process initiated more than three months ago.
Tomoko Jones, an Austin resident, returned to the Capitol on Tuesday after watching the House impeach Paxton. She was surprised so many Republican House representatives voted to impeach the conservative attorney general. She was equally surprised to learn that the Senate voted to move ahead with the impeachment trial.
“I don’t understand why Republicans are against him,” Jones said outside the Senate gallery just before the afternoon session.
Jones argued the impeachment process stripped her right to elect leaders. “I want to choose our politicians by our vote,” she said.
Jones’ support of Paxton reflects the majority of her fellow Republican voters. A University of Texas Politics Project poll released last Friday found that only 28% of Republican respondents agreed that the charges against Paxton were warranted.
Yet there were plenty of open seats in the Senate gallery on Tuesday compared to other legislative battles this past regular session that drew much larger crowds to support and protest various pieces of legislation. The state’s ban on transition-related medical treatments for transgender youth filled the galleries to capacity over several days.
Paxton appeared on the Senate floor during the morning session, when Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick spared him from testifying in person during the trial. Paxton pleaded not guilty.
Patrick, who is serving as trial judge although he does not have judicial experience, appeared uneasy with answering rapid-fire procedural questions about the convoluted impeachment process. Patrick tapped Lana Myers, a former state appeals court judge in North Texas, to help with the impeachment trial.
While a gag order prevented Paxton and his defense from publicly discussing the trial, the suspended attorney general rallied his supporters over the holiday weekend to remove Republican rivals in the House who voted to impeach him, including Speaker Dade Phelan.
“Let’s clean house,” he said at a rare public appearance in Plano on Saturday.
The morning of the trial, Paxton’s wife, Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, waved and blew kisses to supporters who called out her name from the gallery. She chatted with fellow senators, seemingly unperturbed by the prospect of embarrassing testimony about her husband’s affair in the coming weeks. As a senator, Paxton will sit for the trial but won’t be allowed to vote or attend private deliberations
As opening statements began, Houston activists Steven Hotze and Jared Woodfill watched intently from the gallery. The pair are involved with a political action committee that is defending Paxton, and alleges that he is being attacked for his conservative Christian values.
Donald Trump Jr. also chimed in to lend support for the embattled Paxton. He wrote on social media that Paxton would survive the impeachment process and continue to “combat the Swamp.”
Visitors sporting Paxton stickers and red T-shirts in the Senate gallery were joined by tourists from across the state to watch the historic event.
Ruth Fengler drove from Princeton, located in Paxton’s home county, Collin County, to Austin for a wedding. When she learned the public could attend Paxton’s trial, the self-described legislative enthusiast took advantage of her weekend trip to attend.
Fengler said she isn’t as interested in Paxton’s guilt or innocence as she is eager to watch the impeachment process enshrined in the Texas Constitution play out.
“You can’t just throw out what’s in the constitution because people voted for him,” Fengler said in the Capitol rotunda after the opening statements from the prosecution and defense.
She said the prosecution’s approach seemed to be “getting at the truth” of Paxton’s misdeeds. She described the defense's opening statement as “flamboyant” and “inflammatory.”
Sporting a Trump tote bag, Marcia Watson said she came to the Capitol from just north of Austin in support of a proper impeachment process. Watson serves as the executive director of the Williamson County chapter of Citizens Defending Freedom, a nonprofit that works to elect conservative, Christian local leaders.
“I’m not here to say he’s guilty or innocent, but I’m here supporting him because I don’t think he’s getting a fair shake,” Watson said.
Watson noted the gallery wasn’t as packed as it was three months ago when the House voted to impeach the attorney general. She mused that buses full of Paxton supporters might have broken down on the way to Austin.
The full program is now LIVE for the 2023 Texas Tribune Festival, happening Sept. 21-23 in Austin. Explore the program featuring more than 100 unforgettable conversations coming to TribFest. Panel topics include the biggest 2024 races and what’s ahead, how big cities in Texas and around the country are changing, the integrity of upcoming elections and so much more. See the full program.