Senator John Cornyn seemed surprised when I asked him Monday afternoon if he had been keeping up with the Ken Paxton impeachment trial.
“Yes,” said the senior senator from Texas, after a pause. He’d been following the trial on his computer, perhaps out of self-interest. A recent poll bought and shared by a pro-Paxton group appeared to show the attorney general trouncing Cornyn in a hypothetical primary. (Natalie Yezbick, Cornyn’s communications director, later pointed out to me that particular poll looked only at state Senate District Thirty, not statewide.)
“That’s quite interesting speculation,” Cornyn replied. “I think the most immediate issue is what the trial is gonna turn out in the Senate, and my impression is that the Texas Senate has taken their responsibilities seriously and given both sides a chance to fully explore the facts and the evidence, and then we know it takes twenty-one senators to convict, so I think that’s the immediate issue.”
When I asked him about Paxton’s absence from the trial, Cornyn kept his powder dry.
“I’m trying to let the people who have the responsibility make the news, and not me,” he laughed.
I asked what he thought about the internet’s favorite meme coming out of the trial: the debate over Paxton attorney Tony Buzbee’s complexion.
“I saw that,” Cornyn chuckled.
And do you think Buzbee is too tan?
“He’s got a very . . . well, he looks very tan,” Cornyn said, pausing midsentence, as we exited the U.S. Capitol building together after Monday evening’s final Senate vote.
I put a line through the senior senator’s name in my reporter’s notebook. Next up: Ted Cruz, whom I spotted from across the Senate parking lot sitting shotgun in a black Mercedes, a flashy four-door coupe, with three young people, presumably the senator’s aides. Monday is fly-in day for the upper chamber of Congress. Cruz was probably coming from the airport, though I didn’t bother to ask when he finally stepped out of the Benz with a long overhead stretch before buttoning his freshly pressed dress shirt. An aide handed Cruz his suit jacket and tie, and the senator put them on, using one of his car’s lightly tinted windows as a mirror.
That’s when I made my move, asking whether he’d been watching the impeachment trial.
“I have not,” Cruz replied, coldly. I pressed him on whether or not he had an opinion on the proceedings.
“I put out a statement at the outset,” he said, walking past me, up the white marble steps, and into the Senate. I was bummed, but determined. Maybe Cruz would say more on the way out. On the sidewalk to my right, Republican senator Markwayne Mullin—an Oklahoma freshman who doesn’t really listen to music, preferring audiobooks of Louis L’Amour novels—was deep in conversation with a heavily armed Capitol policeman. Was it worth interrupting them to ask Mullin about Paxton? Nah, Mullin hadn’t come to Congress from a statehouse.
Republican senator Rick Scott, on the other hand, had been governor of Florida. Perhaps he knew Paxton. “I’ve met him,” admitted Scott, who seemed surprised by the question. “I don’t really know him and haven’t really followed exactly what the issues are,” he continued, a sentiment echoed by Marco Rubio, the Sunshine State’s senior senator and onetime Republican presidential hopeful. “I mean, I read something that there was a trial going on in the Senate, but I haven’t followed it, at all,” said Rubio of Paxton’s impeachment.
Texas’s junior senator was playing coy about watching the trial, but it seems to spark genuinely little interest outside the state.
Senator Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, laughed out loud when I asked if he’d been following Paxton’s impeachment. “No,” Johnson chuckled. Ditto Senator Pete Ricketts, the former Nebraska governor, who declined to comment on Paxton’s impeachment, also with a chuckle.
Eight minutes after he walked into the Senate, Cruz emerged again with a body man. I called to him from the sidewalk to ask him again.
“Haven’t watched it,” Cruz replied. Before I could ask him about Buzbee’s tan, a disheveled baby boomer in an oversized T-shirt tucked into faded jeans several sizes too big, cut in, praising the Texas senator and lamenting identity politics. “The notion that a secure border is racist—” said the boomer. “Bill Clinton talked about illegal aliens. Barbara Jordan practically invented the term.” The man then pivoted to the topic of supposed censorship on college campuses. “When Gerry Ford came and visited my college in the early seventies, I wanted him there so I could ask a question that’d maybe get him to think.”
Cruz nodded knowingly, recalling aloud “a guy I went to college with at Princeton” who recently reminded Cruz about the time Louis Farrakhan came to campus. “He wouldn’t have dreamed of trying to bar him,” said Cruz of his Princeton friend’s attitude toward Farrakhan’s visit. “It’s just crazy times, but you’re really a bright spot,” the man told Cruz. “Well, I appreciate that very much,” smiled the senator. “I aspire to be a happy warrior, to smile and have fun and say what I believe,” he added, finally turning to me.
I took the opening and asked whether he thought Paxton should be present for his trial.
“Listen, I think this impeachment is a mistake,” said Cruz. “There are legal challenges Ken faces. There are multiple court proceedings I think the court system can work out. But virtually all of those allegations were presented to the voters in the last election and the voters chose overwhelmingly to reelect Ken Paxton. I think the elected members of the state legislature should respect the will of the voters. They had this information in front of them and they made a determination, and that, to me, carries a great deal of weight.”
On Buzbee: “I have met him, but I don’t know him well,” said Cruz, sliding back into the shotgun seat of the Mercedes.
I raised the same question I’d asked Cornyn regarding Buzbee’s Instagram post: Is Buzbee maybe too tan?
“I have no idea,” Cruz shot back, now clearly annoyed. I crossed the senator’s name out in my reporter’s notebook.
Next up: House Texans.
The lower chamber of Congress returned Tuesday after 47 days of recess, the final week of which overlapped with the beginning of Paxton’s impeachment trial. “It shows you how much of a coward he is,” said Congresswoman Jasmine Crockett of Paxton’s absence from the Texas Senate chamber during his impeachment.
The Dallas Democrat who worked as a public defender before creating her own practice said she was happy Paxton’s wife, Senator Angela Paxton, wouldn’t be voting in the trial. “In real life, spouses aren’t allowed to be jurors on a case, so it doesn’t make sense for her to be allowed to decide—even though I thought she may vote the right way when she heard about the mistress,” speculated Crockett, referring to Laura Olson, with whom Ken Paxton allegedly had an affair.
“Imagine if we impeached everybody here in Austin that had had an affair. We’d be impeaching for the next hundred years,” said Buzbee on Monday, presumably in Paxton’s defense. Angela Paxton, on the other hand, was reportedly devastated by her husband’s affair, according to testimony from the attorney general’s former chief of staff. One aide worried it got the AG blackmailed by businessman Nate Paul. Things got messy. Waxahachie congressman Jake Ellzey said he would rather stay out of it. “I have no comment on any of that stuff. That’s better left to the state legislatures who are involved in it, which, as you know, I’m not,” he said, stopping to look me in the eye and shake my hand. “But I appreciate you asking questions,” Ellzey added, smiling.
Austin congressman Chip Roy, who once worked as Paxton’s first assistant before being forced to resign, echoed Ellzey’s reluctance to engage in all of the political drama. “That’s for the Texas Legislature to figure out,” said Roy when I asked if Senator Paxton’s husband should be there with her at his impeachment. “I think I should be leaving it to them.”
Congressman Greg Casar, a Democrat from Austin, disagreed. “Obviously, yes,” laughed the Congressional Progressive Caucus whip when I asked him the same question. “Then again, it’s hard to say Paxton should be at his impeachment because he shouldn’t be attorney general. He should have resigned multiple indictments ago.” Casar didn’t bite on the “very tan” question about Buzbee.
“It’s hard to be inside Ken Paxton’s head, at this point,” Casar added. Enter Democratic congressman Vicente Gonzalez, of McAllen. “I would suspect that he knows the answer to the jury results already, okay? I’m assuming that they’ve already lobbied and talked to every member, so they know what is gonna happen, and right now we’re just going through the dog and pony show.”
I asked Gonzalez for his prediction on the outcome of the trial.
“I think he stays because his wife’s a senator. She’s probably gonna talk to all her friends in their Senate majority. Otherwise, I think he would resign because the testimony has been just egregious to the bone and embarrassing for the state of Texas, for the institutions, and certainly for his wife. But as bad as it is, this smells like he’s gonna survive it,” Gonzalez said.
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