Ken Paxton, the Republican attorney general of Texas, pleaded not guilty to charges of corruption and bribery on Tuesday as his impeachment trial began before the State Senate. This trial marks the first impeachment proceeding for a statewide officer in over a century. Paxton, a three-term incumbent and staunch ally of former President Donald J. Trump, is facing 16 articles of impeachment related to allegations that he abused his office for personal gain. The charges primarily stem from accusations made by his former top deputies, who became whistle-blowers, claiming that Paxton had benefited from the assistance of an Austin real estate investor in the form of home renovations and an extramarital affair.
Paxton's lead counsel, Tony Buzbee, vehemently denied the allegations, stating that they were "flat-out false." The trial has posed a significant challenge for Republican leaders and lawmakers in Texas, where the party holds overwhelming control. Even before the trial began, Republican lawmakers faced pressure from wealthy conservative donors, reflecting Paxton's influence as a result of his involvement in conservative legal battles on contentious issues like immigration, abortion, and transgender policies. Although Paxton has aligned himself closely with Trump, the impeachment proceedings against him are being led by fellow Republicans in Texas. In May, a majority of Republican members in the Texas House voted to impeach Paxton by a margin of 121 to 23.
On the opening day of the trial, Republican Senators voted to proceed with the trial, rejecting multiple attempts by Paxton's lawyers to have the case dismissed. While a core group of six senators consistently supported Paxton's lawyers' motions, a majority of Republicans did not view the trial as a "sham," as some of Paxton's supporters claimed. Among the silent spectators in the Senate chamber was Angela Paxton, Ken Paxton's wife, who is a state senator and was counted as present for the purposes of achieving the two-thirds majority needed for the trial.
The trial proceedings attracted a mix of supporters and critics of Paxton. Over a hundred people, mostly supporters of Paxton, filled the gallery wearing shirts identifying themselves as “RINO” hunters or supporters of the True Texas Project, a hard-core conservative group. However, many of the 497 seats in the Senate gallery remained empty, disappointing some supporters who had hoped for a larger turnout. Alicia Davis, a Republican candidate challenging Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, expressed her disappointment with the impeachment proceedings, considering them unwarranted and predicting that the trial would be "a mess."
A total of 20 articles of impeachment were approved by the Texas House, but the Senate postponed consideration of four articles related to Paxton's 2015 indictment for securities fraud. Paxton's lawyers were successful in preventing their client from being compelled to testify during the trial. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, acting as the judge in the impeachment trial, ruled that Paxton could not be forced to testify. Following a lunch break, Paxton was no longer present in the chamber, causing objections from Rusty Hardin, a lawyer for the House Board of Managers overseeing the impeachment.
The first witness for the prosecution, Jeff Mateer, a whistle-blower who served as a first assistant attorney general under Paxton, testified about the allegations against Paxton and the improprieties he and others witnessed. The trial is expected to last up to a month, with each side given 24 hours to present evidence and witnesses. A conviction on any of the articles by a two-thirds majority of the Senate, which consists of 19 Republicans and 12 Democrats, would result in Paxton's removal from office. The Senate could also vote to bar him from running for office again.
Paxton's impeachment has exposed the fractures within the Republican party in Texas. While a majority of House Republicans voted in favor of impeachment, indicating bipartisan support for removing Paxton from office, other Republicans argued against the proceedings, claiming they were politically motivated and would benefit Democrats. Representative Andrew Murr, who led the committee investigating Paxton, delivered the opening statement for the House impeachment managers, emphasizing the importance of integrity and honesty in public officials. The divisions within the Republican party were evident during the debate, with some lawmakers expressing concerns about setting a precedent for future impeachments.
The next phase of the impeachment process will be a trial in the State Senate, where Paxton will face judgment from his peers, including his wife, Angela Paxton. The trial is expected to take place after the end of the legislative session, and the lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, who will preside over the trial, has the authority to call a special session if necessary. The outcome of the trial remains uncertain, but the impeachment proceedings against Paxton underscore the ongoing divisions within the Republican party and raise questions about the future direction of the party in Texas.