An editor asked me on Tuesday whether there was any political angle possible to the Austin bombings. While some broad social issues existed—such as whether the bombings could be called terrorism or were racially motivated because the first victims were black—the purely political angle did not appear to exist in bold letters. Governor Greg Abbott had offered a reward, which was within his discretion, and some mayors had stepped forward at news conferences to reassure their communities that everything possible was being done to stop the bomber. So nothing had yet occurred that justified the spotlight.
Then Texas’s exploiter in chief—Attorney General Ken Paxton—stepped forward to step in it again as a politician willing to turn any tragedy to his personal advantage by grabbing some television time, especially on Fox News. Paxton not only got it wrong on national television, but he used incorrect information to spread fear to people in Austin.
As a refresher, please recall the profile of Paxton that I wrote for the December 2016 issue of Texas Monthly: “The Televangelism of Ken Paxton.” Although Paxton had no official connection to the investigation of the sniper attack on Dallas police that left five officers dead and nine wounded, he rushed to the crime scene in the predawn hours of that July morning to take advantage of the line of local and network television cameras waiting for anyone who looked even vaguely official to step forward with information.
So that morning in Dallas, Paxton had no official role—the city’s police and prosecutors were handling the case, and if they needed help, they could call upon the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Dallas County sheriff’s office, and even the FBI. But Paxton had driven downtown for a specific purpose. He was there for the exposure.
With the crime scene as a backdrop, Paxton gave one television interview after another. What the reporters and anchors wanted in the confusing whirlwind of that early morning was information, but each interview revealed that Paxton was hopelessly out of the loop. On CBS This Morning at 7:09, Paxton had to answer questions with phrases like “I don’t know,” “I’m not sure of that,” and “I have not gotten an update.” Even by late morning, Paxton had to tell one reporter, “Actually, I don’t know a lot of details yet.”
As the serial bombings in Austin became national news, should anyone be surprised that Paxton showed up on various Fox News programs on Tuesday as the pretend authority on the Austin bombings?
A little after 3 p.m., Paxton told Fox viewers that it was “common sense” that a bomb detonated at a Shertz Federal Express facility was connected to the other bombings. Then he subtly revealed that he knew no more than anyone in Austin who was paying attention to the news. When the anchor asked Paxton whether the bomber was trying to increase the level of fear, Paxton responded: “You’re absolutely right. Obviously, as you know, an ongoing investigation, law enforcement can’t share everything they know. So there’s definitely things that law enforcement knows about what’s going on with bombs and potentially who this is that they’re not going to be able to share at this time. But, yes, I do think this guy, whoever it is, is trying to increase fear.” The takeaway? Law enforcement was not sharing information with the attorney general of Texas.
An hour later, another Fox anchor asked Paxton what kind of penalty the bomber might face. (At the time he had not killed himself by detonating a bomb as a SWAT team closed in on him.) Paxton said that both state and federal prosecutors could potentially seek the death penalty. “So who knows,” Paxton said. The anchor noted that in most terroristic bombings, someone takes credit. Paxton jumped on it, and stepped in it, again. “It’s really strange that somebody’s not taking credit. With a lot of terrorist acts, you see people take credit. In this case, obviously not. I have no idea why there’s nobody taking credit.”
Then, last evening, a device went off at a Goodwill facility. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives tweeted at 8:06 p.m. that the device was not a package bomb like the others and did not appear to be related to the previous bombings.
BREAKING: ATF responded to a reported incident in the 9800 block of Brodie Lane, Austin. It was not a package bomb. An incendiary device was located, one injured. At this time, it does not appear to be related to the #packagebombmurders. pic.twitter.com/bEuskJm0Ii
— ATF HQ (@ATFHQ) March 21, 2018
Paxton was quick to contradict the federal investigators. “I know there’s been a lot of talk about this being a copycat, this one tonight at the Goodwill. The people on the ground that I’m talking to, some of my law enforcement officials, are telling me that’s not accurate. They really believe this is the same bomber, and that he’s continuing to…” Paxton did not complete his thought, because the anchor interrupted him.
Video: Texas Attorney General pushes back on the idea that the Goodwill incident is unrelated.
"The people on the ground that I'm talking to…they really believe this is the same bomber" pic.twitter.com/ZQiHrVHUoV
— Brandon Wall (@Walldo) March 21, 2018
Then Paxton appeared on Sean Hannity’s Fox program: “They say there is nothing to indicate this isn’t the same person doing it. Now, obviously we’re concerned about copycats. That can happen in anything like this. It’s all somewhat speculation, but everything they’ve looked at tells them it is exactly the same bomber.” That was enough to prompt Fox newsman Geraldo Rivera to declare that the bomber was like the Joker from the Batman movies, someone who just wants to create chaos. “This son of a bitch is a terrorist. He’s trying to paralyze the capital of Texas.”
By 9:49 p.m., Paxton told KVUE that the devices were not connected and that he merely had repeated bad information. “I was on the show, one of my law enforcement guys called, because I was just sitting in the chair and they were coming to me periodically, and he was giving me information. He said, ‘I have no reason to believe this isn’t the same person.’ So that’s what I gave to Sean Hannity. When I got off the show, I called the Austin PD chief and talked to him. He gave me a different version, saying they were pretty sure it was unrelated, that it was an incendiary device that somebody threw in the Goodwill, so the early report was different from what the chief gave me, so I just give the information I get as I go along.”
Paxton faces a reelection challenge this fall from Democrat Justin Nelson. For a Democrat to defeat a Republican like Paxton in a statewide race is difficult, but it may become easier if voters become disenchanted with an attorney general who exploits tragedy for his own political gain.