At the start of this week, the Texas Legislature was sliding toward the conclusion of yet another underwhelming, but basically normal, session. Lawmakers had wasted a lot of time and effort, and soon they would go home. But the calm was illusory. By the end of the week, everything was in flames: blood was sloshing down the Capitol’s marble halls like the building was the Overlook Hotel. Attorney General Ken Paxton called House Speaker Dade Phelan a drunk, urging him to resign and “get the help he needs”; later that afternoon, a House committee announced it had been investigating Paxton for months. The Texas House met Saturday, and after about four hours of debate, voted to impeach Paxton. To paraphrase Mao: everything under the dome is in chaos; the situation is excellent. There’s been a lot of news coverage of the events of the last week. But this being Texas, it’s all underlaid by decades of lore, animosities, and seemingly unaccountable behavior. So if you’re trying to get in on the fun, here’s a primer.
Who is Ken Paxton—and why won’t the haters let him do his thing?
Paxton is the attorney general of Texas, the top law enforcement official in the state. In theory, as the job description suggests, this should be a man or woman of unquestionable integrity. In practice, Texas AGs have often been scoundrels. It is an ideal job for a scoundrel, counterintuitively: there are few constraints on your behavior and a lot of opportunities to make money. Dan Morales, the last Democratic AG in Texas, went to prison for trying to parcel out state settlement money to a friend.
What sets Paxton apart from his predecessors is the sheer width and breadth of his scoundrelhood. One of the problems of writing about Paxton is that there’s never quite enough space to lay out all the things he’s alleged to have done wrong. (The word “allegedly” is going to get a workout in this article.) That has helped him enormously. This stuff can be difficult to keep track of. It’s the scandal version of Montgomery Burns’s disease door: There’s so much that none of it seems to break through.
But it’s important to understand the latest allegations of Paxton’s wrongdoing as an extension of a pattern that dates back to when he was a lowly state representative, from 2003 to 2013. Among other infractions, he took money from a company that benefited from a state contract, and he invested in a property in his district that a local government would soon buy at a markup. In private life he was a probate lawyer, adjudicating wills and estates, and he stood accused of improperly skimming money off the top from a wealthy deceased client. He infamously stole a fellow lawyer’s Montblanc pen at the Collin County Courthouse, and only returned it after he was caught red-handed on security camera footage.
He nonetheless rose through the ranks: first to the state Senate, and then to the AG’s office. In his 2014 race for AG, it was reported that in private practice, Paxton made a habit of advising his legal clients to invest in his friends’ companies or investment firms without telling them he was getting a cut for referring them. In the baroque terms of the legal profession, that type of behavior is known as “criming,” or “doing crimes.” This did not stop Paxton from winning office, but shortly afterward he was indicted for felony securities fraud. This was an earthquake. If convicted, he would be booted from office: felons can’t be attorneys general.
Wow. What did the jury say?
Nothing, yet! The indictment came down nearly eight years ago. Paxton got the case kicked back to Collin County, his home base, where he would be “among friends,” as a mobster might euphemistically say. He and his lawyers have used a long series of procedural and political maneuvers to postpone the trial. As it stands, there’s no resolution in the criminal case.
This seems like suboptimal behavior for a guy whose job it is to put other people in jail.
Yeah, I mean, no disagreements here. But that’s prelude. It’s not even the issue that’s at the crux of Paxton’s current problems. What really got Paxton in trouble recently are two overlapping sets of issues related to Paxton’s friendship with Nate Paul, an allegedly corrupt Austin real estate kingpin—or former kingpin—whom the FBI has been hovering around for years.
The first set of allegations concerns Paxton’s very messy friendship with Paul. Paul was a campaign donor, but he helped Paxton in other ways. For one, Paul employed Paxton’s alleged mistress. For another, as House investigators alleged during this week’s hearing, a “Nate,” presumably Nate Paul, paid to renovate Paxton’s house. Paxton allegedly told the crew doing the renovation work that his wife—that is, state senator Angela Paxton—wanted a particular kind of very expensive granite kitchen countertop. The chief said he would have to “check with Nate.” (In a Friday afternoon address, Chris Hilton, chief of litigation at the AG’s office, told reporters the attorney general’s countertops are tile, not granite.)
When the FBI came for Paul, Paxton stepped in to protect him—like a good bro does. According to investigators, he took steps to interfere with the FBI’s investigation and tried to have his staff investigate the Bureau’s actions. When they refused, he hired an independent investigator with taxpayer money to protect Paul—then seems to have lied in official documents about what he was doing and why. Paxton’s senior staff, conservative legal minds who had been handpicked by Paxton, hated all this. So in 2020, seven of them blew the whistle. They wrote to the U.S. Department of Justice, accusing Paxton of bribery and corruption. Few other figures in the world had as much insight into Paxton’s life as this group. For them to accuse Paxton of serious criminal behavior was an incredibly damning development.
The second set of allegations concern what Paxton did to cover up his Nate Paul–related oopsies. Namely, he fired all the whistleblowers. This was a straightforward violation of the law—retribution against whistleblowers who act to expose illegal activity is something courts take seriously (or they’re supposed to).
That all sounds pretty bad.
Yeah, I mean, it ain’t great. Even in Texas, where a lot of unethical behavior is tolerated as the cost of doing business, this was some painfully on-the-nose and scandalous stuff.
So what happened?
Nothing. The Legislature pretended Paxton didn’t exist in its 2021 session, and he won reelection in 2022 by an even wider margin than he did in 2018. Nihilism is the WD-40 of Texas politics: everything goes down easier if you accept that nothing really changes and nothing really matters. Until, suddenly, it does.
What changed, then? Why is there a willingness to hold Paxton accountable now?
Well, there are a few possible answers to that.
The material facts of the case changed in the past few months. The whistleblowers had a slam-dunk case for illegal termination. Some of them sued. Partly in order to shut down the lawsuit quickly—and to prevent the plaintiffs from liberating AG documents via the discovery process—Paxton settled in February 2023, offering them $3.3 million in taxpayer money. He asked lawmakers to fund the settlement. Even though the dollar amount was trivial, this didn’t sit well with many in the Legislature. Paxton was asking them to eat a turd sandwich so he could protect himself from his own stupidity. It made them look bad. It made the party look bad.
In March, the House Committee on General Investigating opened an investigation into the settlement. The committee is most famous this session for laying the groundwork for the unanimous expulsion of Bryan Slaton, the Republican former representative from Royse City who had sex with a nineteen-year-old staffer after giving her alcohol. The Slaton case was known within the committee as “Matter B.” The Paxton inquiry was known as “Matter A.” The committee has been working on it for months, hiring five investigators. Though their work was clearly diligent and thorough, it couldn’t have been all that difficult: most of the material behind the twenty impeachment charges the committee gave to the House is publicly available. Some of it has been known for the better part of a decade.
And look, these guys all knew what Paxton was. There’s a famous story about Paxton and Governor Greg Abbott that has circulated in Lege circles for years but has never been addressed by either man. When Paxton was a lowly lawmaker and Abbott was the attorney general, the story goes, they ended up in a box together at a football game. Supposedly, Abbott unleashed on Paxton about his unethical and potentially illegal behavior, making his contempt clear. Within just a few years, Paxton was attorney general and Abbott was celebrating him on the campaign trail. Lawmakers and state leaders hadn’t learned to love Paxton, presumably. But taking him on would have eaten up political capital and alienated Paxton’s powerful right-wing backers. So they just . . . didn’t.
The reality is, there was no clear way for the Lege to get rid of Paxton other than by beating him in an election or impeaching him. The first has proven very difficult. Impeachment, which is so alien a process to the modern Legislature that it might as well have come from Mars, needed a hook. Nothing Paxton did before he became attorney general would work. It’s arguably not until this session that the Lege has had a clear case: Paxton asked for taxpayer money to pay off whistleblowers he had illegally fired to cover up other illegal activity. On Friday, the House committee conducting the investigation released a statement in which it underlined the connection. “We cannot over-emphasize the fact that, but for Paxton’s own request for a taxpayer-funded settlement . . . Paxton would not be facing impeachment.”
But this is still an extraordinary, earthshaking thing for the Lege to do. After it became public what the House was up to, Paxton was asked by a conservative radio host what he thought about the news. Paxton affected an air of wounded surprise. “I have no idea why they’ve chosen to do this,” he said. The House had violated the omertà that state officials in Texas generally follow, in other words—they don’t hold each other accountable. In a properly functional system, of course, they’d be doing that all the time.
Didn’t you say something earlier about Dade Phelan being drunk?
Yeah, so—shortly before all this went public, Paxton released a statement calling for House Speaker Phelan, who has been under a lot of criticism from the far right, to resign. His reason: a 44-second video clip circulating of Phelan, during a long late-night floor debate, slurring his words.
Was he drunk?
I don’t know, maybe? Maybe he was plastered; maybe he was tired. Maybe he accidentally took NyQuil during the day. Being drunk on the House floor, if he was, is the legislative equivalent of a class C misdemeanor. In the House, where members often work multiple eighteen-hour days back-to-back, lawmakers drink—which Paxton knows, because he served there for a decade. Paxton’s call for Phelan’s resignation was a shocking development for about an hour, until it became clear that it was a preemptive attack. And that’s about all the attention it deserves.
Can I see the video, though?
Yeah, you bet. Here you go.
Is Paxton cooked?
Well, we’ll see. It’s certainly not smart to bet against Kenny—he’s wriggled out of more traps than anybody in politics today except maybe Donald Trump, whom Paxton has furiously attempted to enlist in his support this week. (He initially failed, while securing the off-brand endorsement of Donald Trump Jr.; late in the debate on Saturday, the elder Trump did “truth” his support.)
On Saturday afternoon, the House met to consider the committee’s twenty articles of impeachment. The members of the investigating committee laid out the charges and defended them against some hostile questioning. The House seemed likely to vote to impeach, but the margin mattered quite a bit. If more than half of the Republican caucus voted to impeach Paxton, he was in much bigger trouble than if most of the votes to impeach came from Democrats.
The impeachment resolution got support from some notable conservative members, which was a good sign for Paxton opponents. State representative Jeff Leach, a Republican from Plano, rose to read a statement from the Republican former state representative David Simpson, a legendary oddball from Longview famous for his strong religious beliefs and personal integrity: Simpson quoted Davy Crockett and urged lawmakers to do what was right. The chairman of the House General Investigating Committee, Andrew Murr, gave a forceful defense of his committee’s work, looking, with his formidable mustache, a fair sight like Wyatt Earp.
But there were also a few surprising voices against impeachment. State representative Harold Dutton Jr., an old-school Houston Democrat, said Paxton had been deprived of his right to due process, that he had been treated in the way many Blacks once had been by the judicial process. He said he’d vote “present.” Moderate Republican state representative Travis Clardy said he’d vote no, too. It started to feel possible the vote would produce a softer mandate than would be needed to continue to push the case against Paxton.
There was no need to worry. After several hours of debate, the House voted 121–23 to impeach Paxton. That kind of margin is, to put it gently, a kick in the balls. Some 70 percent of the House GOP caucus voted to impeach.
How did Paxton’s allies defend him?
They didn’t. This is important to note. Plenty of folks got up to the microphones to argue against impeachment, but they didn’t argue that Paxton was a good man—that he had good taste in pens, or was a faithful husband. They didn’t argue against the evidence that had been presented. Paxton had given them no tools with which to do so.
They argued that the process was wrong. That it had been too rushed, or too secretive. Right-wingers in the House—the sort of folks who love to bemoan the dangers of “moral relativism” and the inability of so many to deal in truth and absolutes—sounded suddenly very mushy on the idea of accountability and conviction. State representative Tony Tinderholt, a Republican from Arlington, is typically very sure of himself—the kind of fellow who has repeatedly offered bills to subject those who have abortions to the death penalty. But during the House debate, he suddenly sounded like a midtier psychonaut at a Phish concert. “I believe perception is truth to the person that perceives,” he said. Pass the blunt, space cowboy!
The case now proceeds to the Senate, where Paxton will likely find more supporters. But Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who controls the Senate, has so far refused to rule anything out. While the trial goes on, Paxton is out of office: his deputy, Brent Webster, will replace him for the time being. If Paxton is convicted, Governor Abbott will likely appoint his successor. You can be sure he would be thrilled to do that.
Just because representatives had trouble making an affirmative case for Paxton doesn’t mean that he doesn’t still have a lot of fans. Paxton has survived so long in part because of his ability to frame his opposition as a liberal mob, and to frame himself as the nation’s foremost warrior for conservative values. That view still has real support among the Republican base. On Thursday night, right-wing representative Steve Toth, from the Woodlands, recorded a live stream in which he said Paxton’s impeachment would set back the conservative cause and let the Biden administration, which Paxton sues regularly, off the hook at a critical moment in the nation’s history. That’s still a pretty common sentiment among conservatives.
It’s also exactly backward, 100 percent wrong. As attorney general, Paxton has two responsibilities to perform for his party. He can take the fight to the Democrats in the White House and big Texas cities, and he can prosecute criminals to win positive headlines. But he’s extremely bad at both of those things. He can’t even keep the office of the attorney general staffed anymore. After he fired the whistleblowers, he had to bring in whomever would agree to work for him. As the AP reported, one of those B-team legal experts was quietly fired after he intentionally showed child pornography at a meeting.
The truth of the matter is, nearly anyone the governor could appoint to replace Paxton would likely be better at the job than Paxton—every bit as conservative, but also cleaner and smarter, with more integrity. They’d go after Biden with more vigor, and they’d be better at making the party look good. In Texas it’s one thing to be corrupt: to be corrupt and useless is another matter. If anything, the state’s Democrats may look back with fondness on the Paxton era.