AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The Texas Legislature already made one historic move with its impeachment of Republican state Attorney General Ken Paxton. Another one is coming.
The GOP-led House of Representatives on Saturday approved 20 articles of impeachment on sweeping allegations of wrongdoing that have trailed the state’s top lawyer for years, including abuse of office and bribery. The vote immediately suspended Paxton from office.
But the intraparty brawl in the nation’s largest conservative state, one that even drew political punches Saturday from former President Donald Trump, is far from over. The Republican-controlled Senate will hold a trial of Paxton next, and he and his allies hope conservatives there will save him.
One member of that chamber is his wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, and she could cast a vote on her husband’s political future, which is now in jeopardy in part because of bribery allegations linked to his extramarital affair.
Impeachment in Texas is similar to the process on the federal level: After the House action, the Senate holds its trial.
The Senate announced Monday the trial will start no later than Aug. 28.
The House needed just a simple majority of its 149 members to impeach Paxton, and the final 121-23 vote was a landslide. But the threshold for conviction in the Senate trial is higher, requiring a two-thirds majority of its 31 members.
If that happens, Ken Paxton would be permanently barred from holding office in Texas. Anything less means Paxton is acquitted and can resume his third term as attorney general.
Paxton bitterly criticized the chamber’s investigation as “corrupt,” secret and conducted so quickly that he and his lawyers were not allowed to mount a defense. He also called Republican House Speaker Dade a “liberal.”
The Senate is led by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Like Paxton, he is a Republican who has closely allied himself with Trump, and he has driven Texas’ right-wing political and policy push for the last decade. Patrick has yet to comment on the impeachment or the House’s allegations.
The Senate will set its own trial rules, including whether to take witness testimony and what reports and documents to consider. It could also consider whether to excuse Angela Paxton from voting due to conflict of interest, although Patrick suggested before the House impeachment vote that all 31 senators will be allowed to vote in the Senate trial.
Angela Paxton declined Monday comment on the impeachment or the upcoming trial.
The impeachment charges include bribery related to one of Paxton’s donors, Austin real estate developer Nate Paul, allegedly employing the woman with whom he had the affair in exchange for legal help.
Another Republican senator with a potential conflict is Sen. Bryan Hughes. The House impeachment articles accuse Paxton of using Hughes as a “straw requestor” for a legal opinion used to protect Paul from foreclosure on several properties.
State law requires all senators to be present for an impeachment trial.
REPUBLICAN ON REPUBLICAN
Paxton’s impeachment has been led from the start by his fellow Republicans, in contrast to America’s most prominent recent examples of impeachment.
Trump’s impeachments in 2020 and 2021 were driven by Democrats who had majority control of the U.S. House. In both cases, the charges they approved failed in the Senate, where Republicans had enough votes to block conviction.
In Texas, Republicans have large majorities in both chambers, and the state’s GOP leaders hold all levers of influence.
Paxton called for Republicans to rally to his defense during Saturday’s vote in a peaceful protest at the Capitol. That echoed Trump’s call for protests of his electoral defeat on Jan. 6, 2021, when a mob violently stormed the U.S. Capitol in Washington. Paxton spoke at the rally in Washington that day before the insurrection.
Trump joined the fray in Texas on Saturday, posting on social media a warning to House members that “I will fight you” if they voted to impeach. A few hundred Paxton supporters came to watch from the gallery.
House Republicans didn’t seem to care. Sixty of them, 71% of the chamber’s GOP caucus, voted to impeach.
Republican Party Chairman Matt Rinaldi, a Paxton ally, said the party would have to rely on the “principled leadership of the Texas Senate to restore sanity and reason.”
The move to the Senate could give Paxton’s grass-roots supporters and national figures like Trump time to apply more pressure.
YEARS IN THE MAKING
The impeachment reaches back to 2015, when Paxton was indicted on securities fraud charges for which he still has not stood trial. The lawmakers charged Paxton with making false statements to state securities regulators.
But most of the articles of impeachment stem from his connections to Paul and a remarkable revolt by Paxton’s top deputies in 2020.
That fall, eight senior aides reported their boss to the FBI, accusing him of bribery and abusing his office to help Paul. Four of them later brought a whistleblower lawsuit. The report prompted a federal criminal investigation that in February was taken over by the U.S. Justice Department’s Washington-based Public Integrity Section.
The impeachment charges cover myriad accusations related to Paxton’s dealings with Paul. The allegations include attempts to interfere in foreclosure lawsuits and improperly issuing legal opinions to benefit Paul, as well as firing, harassing and interfering with staff who reported what was going on. The bribery charges stem from the affair, as well as Paul allegedly paying for expensive renovations to Paxton’s Austin home.
The fracas took a toll on the Texas attorney general’s office, long one of the primary legal challengers to Democratic administrations in the White House.
In the years since Paxton’s staff went to the FBI, the state attorney general’s office has become unmoored by the disarray. Seasoned lawyers have quit over practices they say aim to slant legal work, reward loyalists and drum out dissent.
In February, Paxton agreed to settle the whistleblower lawsuit brought by the former aides. The $3.3 million payout must be approved by the Legislature, and Phelan has said he doesn’t think taxpayers should foot the bill.
Shortly after the settlement was reached, the House investigation began.
Paxton was already likely to be noted in history books for his unprecedented request that the U.S. Supreme Court overturn Biden’s defeat of Trump in 2020. He now is one of just three sitting officials to have been impeached in Texas.
Gov. James “Pa” Ferguson was removed in 1917 for misapplication of public funds, embezzlement and the diversion of a special fund. State Judge O.P. Carrillo was forced from office in 1975 for personal use of public money and equipment and filing false financial statements.
Bleiberg reported from Dallas.