This story is part of Bum Steers of the Year, 2024. Read about our Bum Steer of the Year Dan Patrick and runners-up Elon Musk and Texas A&M University. Also, check out our Best Things in Texas list for this year’s uplifting moments.

The free-floating anxiety in the Senate chamber at the Texas Capitol was so thick on September 16 that, from the floor to the gallery, you could almost feel the emotional electrons pinging through the air. That Saturday morning was, of course, the day on which, after hearing nine days of arguments and testimony, thirty senators filed into the sun-streaked room to vote to keep or expel Ken Paxton as attorney general of Texas, the first-ever such trial of the state’s chief law enforcement officer. 

The famous kitchen countertops, allegedly part of a bribe from an Austin real estate developer, had already become a meme by this point, but other charges against the attorney general were even more serious. He had been impeached by the state’s Republican-controlled House of Representatives on counts that included obstruction of justice, abuse of public trust, false statements in official records, conspiracy, and more. “He’s always trying to get his hand in somebody’s pocket and make them pay,” noted one of his chief accusers, David Maxwell, a one-time Texas Ranger and former director of law enforcement for the attorney general’s office.

For much of his career, Paxton seemed immune to the consequences that keep most people on good behavior. Again and again, he got himself in legal and ethical tangles that might have tripped up a lesser politician. Some were petty: the suspicious pocketing and subsequent return of a $1,000 Montblanc pen, which became a viral video sensation; his reported failure to share with his staff a colossal coconut Christmas cake sent by H-E-B. But Paxton was also indicted on felony securities-fraud charges, in 2015. He had managed, with help from wealthy supporters, to get that criminal trial postponed for a whopping nine years. 

The press watching from the gallery as senators vote on the articles of impeachment on September 16.
The press watching from the gallery as senators vote on the articles of impeachment on September 16.Eric Gay/AP

Now, though, many thought Paxton’s luck had finally run out. Up in the gallery, three of the attorney general’s former senior staffers—who had blown up their careers to report him to law enforcement—squeezed tensely into one of the narrow rows. Below them, on the Senate floor, the prosecutors, headed by famed Houston lawyers Rusty Hardin and Dick DeGuerin, were buoyant. The pair of octogenarians had countless seemingly impossible wins between them—favorable outcomes for sports stars accused of sexual assault or steroid use, freedom for a real estate heir who had chopped up the body of a man he’d supposedly killed in self-defense. These guys could read a room, and from their view the evidence against Paxton could overcome the political reluctance of many GOP senators to oust one of their own. 

Hardin and DeGuerin, along with those who’d investigated the matter for the House, had assembled a nearly four-thousand-page paper trail of receipts, emails, and texts, along with a parade of damning witnesses, led by officials who were handpicked by Paxton and were once his most loyal deputies. The lawyers were confident enough that they’d spent the night before celebrating the end of the trial with their team at the Texas Chili Parlor, in downtown Austin.

On the defense side, nerves were frayed; eyes were red. For much of the trial, Tony Buzbee had managed to commandeer the spotlight, and not just because of his tangerine-hued, Trumpian tan. He’d claimed since opening arguments that the evidence against the attorney general amounted to “a whole lot of nothing.” He’d stood up for his client like the Marine he’d once been, firing off words such as “silly” and “nonsense” to attack the prosecution’s case. But the night prior to the final vote, Buzbee was holed up in his hotel room at the Four Seasons, his perpetual self-confidence having taken a powder. He was, he’d text-ed me, “Nervous as a dog s—ing peach seeds.” He self-soothed by replaying memories of his tour in Operation Desert Storm, “where we had to shoot and be shot at,” he texted. “This ain’t that.” 

Ken Paxton sitting between attorneys Tony Buzbee and Mitch Little prior to closing arguments on September 15.
Ken Paxton sitting between attorneys Tony Buzbee and Mitch Little prior to closing arguments on September 15. Bob Daemmrich
House impeachment manager Andrew Murr conferring with attorneys Rusty Hardin and Dick DeGuerin.
House impeachment manager Andrew Murr conferring with attorneys Rusty Hardin and Dick DeGuerin. Bob Daemmrich

Sitting alongside Buzbee was Paxton’s longtime consigliere Dan Cogdell, who has the swept-back hair, weathered skin, and mordant sense of humor of someone who’s paid his dues at the Harris County criminal courthouse; in contrast with Buzbee and other members of the defense team, he lacked airs. At 5:30 that morning, in fact, he’d been at a South Austin laundromat, watching his clothes tumble dry. He told me he was virtually certain that at least one of the impeachment articles would “not be a two-word verdict.”

The Republican senators charged with deciding Paxton’s fate had been barraged with messages from constituents and donors begging or threatening them to acquit—a campaign that, in a real courtroom, would be considered jury tampering. The procedural managers from the House, who had led the initial investigation and then the vote to impeach Paxton, were stoic. Their leader, the handlebar-mustached Republican Andrew Murr, had risked his career to secure a Paxton conviction amid threats of a right-wing primary challenge—and, toward the end of the trial, amid threats of actual violence. Guards armed with automatic weapons were waiting downstairs to escort the managers from the building once the vote was done.

Presiding over it all was the pale, white-haired lieutenant governor Dan Patrick, whose stranglehold on the Senate is undisputed. Though he was the ostensible judge in the proceedings, he was indebted to the pro-Paxton donors who had graced him with $3 million in campaign loans and contributions shortly before the trial. 

Paxton’s costar, his wife, Angela, sat demurely behind her assigned desk on the Senate floor. The senator from Collin County had shown up valiantly every day of the trial. In contrast to her husband’s mistress, Laura Olson, who’d made a brief star turn during the trial as a ringer for Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct (figure-hugging white sheath, stilettos, blond hair slicked back in a dominatrix style, etc.), Angela stood out by not standing out. She wore her dark, shoulder-length hair in a simple blowout and bestowed a practiced smile. Daily she made the trek from the floor entrance to her seat on sturdy heels, dispensing hugs and hand clasps along the way. Trussing herself into respectable business suits most days, she carried an understated Coach pocketbook, a stark contrast to Olson’s supersized Balenciaga shoulder bag, which retails for around $3,000. Angela prayed and took copious notes. “For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh,” she posted on social media the day of closing arguments. 

But on this, the last day of the impeachment trial, one person was conspicuously MIA: Ken Paxton. He had shown up for opening statements back on September 5 and then again for closing arguments ten days later, 24 hours before he would or would not be voted out of a job. On both occasions Paxton sat placidly at the defense table in a quiet, loose-fitting plaid suit, his thinning copper hair aglow. On neither day did the attorney general take much notice of his Senate loyalists swiveling in their hardwood chairs, nor did he appear to give even a wink or a nod, much less a chaste kiss, to the wife he had betrayed. Paxton’s expression—always a bit lopsided because of a damaged eye—was bland. He looked like a man waiting for a bus.

A bus he knew would arrive right on time. 

paxton impeachment trial characters
Illustrations by Nick Anderson

W hen it began, the trial looked to be the season’s most compelling limited series, even for those who had not previously been interested in the attorney general’s alleged corruption. Previews had started as early as May, with the literal dumpster fire that blazed outside the AG’s office shortly after the House General Investigating Committee held a hearing to discuss the findings that led to the impeachment—an apparently accidental if metaphorical curtain-raiser if ever there was one. 

The Senate trial promised a clash among legal superstars, some of whom detest each other. It would feature steamy tales of illicit sex and secret Uber accounts used for late-night visits to a glitzy club. At the center was Austin real estate mogul Nate Paul, the notorious figure behind the alleged bribery scheme. He had been indicted in June by a federal grand jury on eight felony counts for making false statements to financial institutions (four more counts were added in November), so rumors were rife that he might cut a deal with the feds and show up to testify against Paxton, his former BFF. 

The trial had also attracted national attention, captivating at least one former president: “It is the Radical Left Democrats, RINOS, and Criminals that never stop,” Donald Trump wrote on his social media platform. “Free Ken Paxton . . . !”

A battalion of anxious reporters started lining up for the limited seats before sunup on September 5, checking their phones and equipment in the dark outside the still-locked Capitol doors. Paxton’s behavior had been so questionable for so many years that he had nearly become a one-man beat for certain journalists, especially Lauren McGaughy of the Dallas Morning News, who was on the AG’s office blacklist of reporters, and Patrick Svitek of the Texas Tribune. 

Angela Paxton
Angela Paxton.Juan Figueroa/The Dallas Morning News via AP

As the sky lightened, a cadre of Paxton loyalists arrived, some in American-flag garb, others in homemade T-shirts bearing slogans such as “I’M A GOD FEARIN’ GUN SUPPORTIN’ CONSERVATIVE VOTIN’ CHRISTIAN.” Foreign tourists who had stumbled upon the trial by accident stood in the Capitol rotunda looking bewildered. 

The analysis of seen-it-all types was that the Paxton impeachment trial, for all its surface-level drama, was nothing more than a math problem. There were 31 senators: 12 Democrats and 19 Republicans. That meant 9 Republicans would have to vote for removal to meet the two-thirds majority needed to eject Paxton. The House, led by Speaker Dade Phelan, had unequivocally supported impeachment, while the Senate toiled under the thumb of Patrick, and the two had been publicly feuding for months. Prosecutor Hardin laid out the challenge for me early in the game: “The House is against the Senate, and the Senate is against the House. The lieutenant governor and the Speaker are against each other.” In other words, Paxton’s fate wasn’t just about Paxton but also involved a Texas GOP power struggle. A phrase heard often before opening day was that this was not a civil or criminal trial but a political one.

Some participants believed that the documentary evidence and testimony against Paxton were damning enough to overwhelm the senators’ fear of reprisals. Murr, the Republican House impeachment manager, declared, perhaps naively, “This is about facts and the evidence. It is not about politics.” 

Back then, many of the facts were not publicly known. The House’s investigation had been conducted behind closed doors over a period of two months. The squadron of lawyers who had assisted the investigation now joined forces with a dozen or so attorneys from Hardin’s firm, devoting themselves for as many as twenty hours a day, seven days a week, to proving their case for each of the articles of impeachment. Hardin claimed in a press conference that the evidence of Paxton’s corruption was “ten times worse than has been [made] public.” He told me that he and DeGuerin viewed their task as the same as in “a typical trial in which you are laying out the evidence, and your evidence needs to be sufficient to convict.”

There was, however, nothing typical about this case. In an ordinary civil or criminal trial, any attempt to tamper with the jury would be illegal. Here, Hardin and DeGuerin were appealing to jurors who were subject to nonstop threats—if they voted to convict Paxton, they would face challengers in their next Republican primary election who would be well funded by Paxton’s billionaire backers. The jurors also feared crossing Patrick, who had made his support of Paxton known the moment he accepted $3 million in campaign gifts and loans from Paxton’s superrich supporters, shortly before the Senate trial. Buzbee later said of his opposition, “I think they failed to understand what case they were trying.” 

A lot of people, including Buzbee himself, can get distracted by his shenanigans, such as when he posted on social media that Paxton had hired him even though the AG was still thinking it over. (That post came down; after he eventually got the job, a post went up again.) Or when, as part of trial prep, he and Paxton considered showing up at a press conference with a live kangaroo to demonstrate their contempt for the supposed “kangaroo court.” (Though Buzbee happened to have several rescue kangaroos on his northeast Texas ranch, someone had volunteered another to the defense team.)

Yet at 55, Buzbee is also an avid user, and student, of social media. During the run-up to the trial, he analyzed the pro-Paxton chatter among Republicans on Facebook and elsewhere. He saw his jury not as a handful of malleable Republican senators but rather as their most vocal constituents, many of whom were torrid Paxton loyalists and could be riled up like a den of rattlesnakes to keep their elected officials in line. “Our audience is the public. Some people forget that,” Buzbee told me early on. “This is a political trial, period.” 

Buzbee’s use in the pleadings and in the press of phrases such as “sham trial” and “no evidence” were also being amplified by political operatives on team Paxton. “The social media fed directly into the defense strategy,” said one of the prosecutors, Erin Epley. “These narratives that are the opposite of the truth become the truth for their audience.” 

The rhetorical campaign included freelance social media posters hired by a firm with ties to Brad Parscale, the former director of Trump’s digital operations. (Parscale moved to Midland earlier in 2023 and works closely with Tim Dunn, the oil billionaire who for years has been one of Paxton’s most influential supporters.) The campaign also included posts on X, formerly known as Twitter, from Michael Quinn Sullivan, mouthpiece for the right-wing Texas Scorecard, another Dunn-affiliated organization. Sullivan even wrote and narrated a fabulist documentary, The Texas Heist, asserting that Democrats control the Texas House and that they were behind Paxton’s impeachment, a head-snapping claim considering that Republicans dominate the chamber, 86 to 64. 

The AG’s office also released a 56-page report, compiled by a private law firm—which reportedly had been paid more than $500,000 in taxpayer money to defend Paxton—purporting to tell Paxton’s side of the story while discrediting the whistleblowers. Meanwhile, Paxton, like his mentor in martyrdom, Donald Trump, used the impeachment to fund-raise. Major donors such as Dunn and his close ally and fellow oil billionaire Farris Wilks forked over six-figure donations, as did right-wing Dallas hotelier Monty Bennett and Curves gym-chain founder Gary Heavin, the major player at $500,000. 

A protester outside the Senate chamber.
A protester outside the Senate chamber. Eric Gay/ AP
Dan Patrick
Dan Patrick. Bob Daemmrich

Some of the most influential developments of the impeachment preseason had nothing to do with the lawyers on either side of the case. They instead concerned critical pretrial decisions that were largely in the hands of Lieutenant Governor Patrick. These procedural rules set the table for what, in retrospect, seems to have been an almost inevitable outcome. Patrick could have designated an experienced jurist to oversee the trial, for instance, but he elected instead to appoint himself, even though he had no legal or judicial experience. He promised “total transparency,” then proceeded to create the rules for the trial behind closed doors, aided by a Senate committee of his choosing. 

Under those rules, debated by the full Senate and released on June 21, two Republican senators who had clear conflicts of interest were allowed to vote. Donna Campbell had employed Paxton’s mistress, Laura Olson. Bryan Hughes had, at the behest of his friend and former roommate Paxton, unwittingly helped Paul stave off a public foreclosure sale, an incident that had led to one of the impeachment articles. “In a real court, the people with conflicts would have been eighty-sixed,” said the prosecutor Epley. 

Angela Paxton had the most obvious conflict but refused to recuse herself voluntarily—first tearfully and then stubbornly. Ultimately, she was allowed to attend the trial but not to vote. That compromise appeared innocuous, but it meant that all 31 senators were counted as present—and thus one more senator (21 rather than 20) had to vote guilty for the tally to reach the two-thirds majority required to convict.

Patrick also made clear that he wanted to get the trial over with pronto. He set it to commence roughly three months after the release of the rules, a compressed window that called to mind Patrick’s complaint that the House had rushed to impeach Paxton. The trial itself would also be fast-tracked: each side would have a total of 24 hours to present its case, including the examination of its witnesses and cross-examination of those for the other side. “You can’t try a DWI case in twenty-four hours,” the defense lawyer Cogdell told me. (The rules also allowed each side an hour of rebuttal.) Witness lists were to be kept confidential, ostensibly to prevent the influence efforts that were already taking place online and in real life. 

A few weeks later, on July 17, Patrick exerted more control over the process by issuing a gag order. Then the next day news leaked that he’d done something no judge in any court—except maybe a couple of members of the U.S. Supreme Court—would do. He accepted that $3 million (a $1 million donation and a $2 million loan) from Defend Texas Liberty, which is overwhelmingly financed by Paxton supporters Dunn and Wilks. The political action committee had already made its preferences clear: soon after Paxton was impeached by the House, it urged Republican supporters to call their senators and “stop this madness and end this witch hunt.” 

By then, the prosecution had seen enough. Hardin had figured out that the impeachment trial would proceed without a real judge or a real jury, which suggested it wasn’t going to be a real trial at all. And he felt a need to rebuke the pro-Paxton rhetorical campaign. “They kept saying we had no evidence, so we released our evidence,” he told me. 

On August 15 the prosecution submitted into evidence those four thousand pages, which were then published on the Senate impeachment website. For the first time, the extent of Paxton’s alleged malfeasance was visible for anyone to see. 

David Maxwell, bottom left, and other whistleblowers awaiting the verdict.
David Maxwell, bottom left, and other whistleblowers awaiting the verdict.Ilana Panich-Linsman/The New York Times/Redux

The path of that evidence could be traced back to September 29, 2020, when six men and one woman crammed into a small conference room on the eighth floor of the William P. Clements building in downtown Austin, headquarters for the office of the attorney general. They each had been proud to work in what many conservatives believed to be the most aggressive and prestigious attorney general’s office in the country. 

Jeff Mateer, Paxton’s first assistant and de facto leader of the office, had called an emergency meeting, even pulling some staffers out of a conference in the governor’s office. Mateer, a snaggletoothed, choir-boyish, “rule-of-law guy” by his own admission, had previously been general counsel at First Liberty, the Plano-based nonprofit law firm nationally known for defending right-wing causes, especially those involving religious freedom. 

Mateer had discovered that Paxton, ignoring proper procedures and over the objection of several senior staffers, had asked an inexperienced outside lawyer named Brandon Cammack to serve subpoenas on, and thus harass, adversaries of the real estate developer Paul. The number of legally perilous steps Paxton had taken to arrive at that decision was confounding. Paul’s own lawyer had recommended Cammack for the job and then ridden along when subpoenas were served. “We were shocked,” recalled Blake Brickman, one of several deputy attorneys general in the room. 

Paul had been a growing menace to the AG’s office since the FBI had searched his home and office, in August 2019. The burly entrepreneur, then 32, had been a highflier whose World Class Holdings was now awash in lawsuits, and Paul was teetering on bankruptcy. He claimed that the ruination of his billion-dollar business was the result of a conspiracy involving the FBI, the Texas Department of Public Safety, a particular U.S. attorney, and a federal judge, among others. Paxton had inexplicably become obsessed with Paul’s welfare, so much so that Mateer had even begun to wonder if his boss was being blackmailed. For months, Mateer and other senior staffers warned Paxton to steer clear of Paul, and Paxton promised to do so—and then did the opposite. The deputies also knew that Paul had made a $25,000 donation to Paxton’s 2018 campaign. 

Now, as they compared notes, the seven people around the conference table—along with director of law enforcement David Maxwell, who phoned in from Colorado—slowly realized that their boss, the highest-ranking lawman in the state, had tried to use each of them to protect Paul from the law. He had pressured Maxwell, the gruff former Texas Ranger, to waste precious time investigating Paul’s specious conspiracy claims. Paxton had duped another deputy, Ryan Vassar, into giving him a copy of the confidential subpoena and affidavit that the FBI had used in its search of Paul’s property. Information contained in those documents had somehow wound up in Paul’s hands.

Paxton had hounded two deputies, Brickman and Darren McCarty, to help him intervene against a charity engaged in litigation with Paul. Over the summer of 2020, Paxton had demanded that two staffers rewrite a legal opinion on public gatherings during the pandemic in order to stop a public sale on some of Paul’s foreclosed properties. Previously, Paxton had supported Greg Abbott’s push to keep the state as open as possible. 

Whistleblower Jeff Mateer giving testimony
Whistleblower Jeff Mateer giving testimony.Eric Gay/AP

As the meeting went on, it became clear to the staffers how much they had overlooked, including the reappearance of Paxton’s mistress. (Paxton had promised key staffers that the affair was over during an emotional meeting in 2018.) He had ditched his security detail and ignored his scheduler in order to attend secret meetings with Paul. Some staffers had even heard that Paul had paid for Paxton’s extensive home renovations in the summer of 2020. 

Instead of being the standard-bearers of a conservative crusade, they realized they were potentially enabling a criminal enterprise. They all agreed, according to Brickman, that Paxton’s actions were “outrageous” and that they needed to immediately report him to the FBI. There was, he said, “no arm-twisting, no ‘Guys, I don’t know if we should do this.’ ” 

They knew what it would cost them. As Brian Wice, a special prosecutor in the fraud cases, noted, “Paxton’s capacity for exacting vengeance on his enemies makes Michael Corleone look like Mahatma Gandhi.” Indeed, once Paxton heard what his senior staff had done, he launched a retaliation campaign that would become part of the articles of impeachment.

Within two months, all eight senior staffers who had taken their concerns to the FBI had either resigned or been fired. Meanwhile, Paxton released a statement famously branding them “rogue employees.” In the past, such bare-knuckle tactics had scared off or leveled Paxton’s opponents, but now four of the fired staffers, having learned a thing or two from their boss, filed suit, in November 2020, under the Texas whistleblower statutes. They wanted several million in damages and an apology. 

After stalling long enough to get reelected in 2022, Paxton moved to settle for $3.3 million to “save taxpayer dollars.” Then he did something ill-conceived but true to form. Instead of using his own campaign funds to pay up, Paxton punted the bill to the Legislature, expecting the representatives to placidly pass the expense to Texas taxpayers. But the House, led by a skeptical Phelan, balked. 

After months of a quiet investigation based on the whistleblowers’ claims, House members voted 121–23 on May 27 to impeach Paxton, only the third such decision against a state official in Texas history, and suspend him from office. Even as legislators prepared to cast their impeachment votes, Paxton promised political payback. Some three months later, the Senate trial began.

Something happened on the first day that probably gave Patrick, Paxton, and their loyalists a case of the heebie-jeebies. As sunlight streamed in through the chamber’s wooden shutters, spilling onto the patterned green carpet, the Senate took votes on whether or not to dismiss any of the articles of impeachment against Paxton. 

In a shocking turn, the members decided they wanted to try Paxton on all sixteen of them. The rules would have permitted the senators to decide otherwise—to forget the whole thing and reinstate the AG on the spot. But they appeared to want a trial, which jolted the defense and gave the prosecution fragile hope. “The votes were not only against us, they weren’t even close,” Buzbee said. “We couldn’t get one article dismissed.”

That apparent setback for the defense was countered shortly afterward, when Patrick ruled that Paxton would not be required to testify, thereby protecting him from having to respond under oath to the myriad accusations against him. “Criminals have an MO, patterns that develop over time,” said House impeachment manager and former prosecutor Ann Johnson. “Paxton has avoided the courtroom and lied to the public for almost a decade.”

Paxton declined to speak even when asked how he would plead; Buzbee pronounced the words “not guilty.” When Hardin later challenged Patrick on Paxton’s absence, he saw a flash of anger on the lieutenant governor’s face. “We weren’t naive,” Hardin said. “It was always a question as to whether or not Patrick was going to put his weight on the scale. And if he did, was it going to be a finger? Or was it going to be his whole frickin’ hand?” 

That afternoon, the actual trial commenced with opening statements. Murr, the lead House impeachment manager, went first, giving a measured, seventeen-minute discourse on the ways Paxton had betrayed the people of Texas as he illegally assisted Paul in his quest to escape both financial disaster and criminal prosecution. “Mr. Paxton’s slow creep of corruption,” he called it. Murr quoted Abraham Lincoln on the abuse of power, and he asserted that as Paxton’s power grew, “rather than rise to the occasion, he’s revealed his true character. And as the overwhelming evidence will show, he is not fit to be the attorney general for the state of Texas.” 

Then it was Buzbee’s turn. It was like an assault weapon suddenly replaced a slingshot. For his allotted thirty minutes, his Texas twang spanned many octaves and decibels in an aria of outrage. Buzbee asserted that everyone was to blame for this farce except for his persecuted, much-aggrieved client, who by the way had done a stellar job fighting the Obama and Biden administrations. “Ken Paxton is the best attorney general in the country, period,” he declared. 

Buzbee didn’t spare his jury: “Are we really going to get a fair trial here?” he asked. “Have you already decided based on what is politically expedient or what’s best for you personally?” 

He dispatched the whistleblowers as disloyal whiners. Then he moved on to a laundry list of more moderate Republicans who had it in for the AG, including House Speaker Phelan and George P. Bush, who ran against Paxton in 2022. (Buzbee said Paxton “trounced the establishment candidate, a member of the Bush dynasty.”) And in a shout-out to situational ethics, he insisted that the House’s attempt to label Paul’s 2018 campaign contribution a bribe was a “precedent that would be perilous for any elected official.” (Including, one assumes, Dan Patrick.)

The speech was a head-scratcher to many. The Bush dynasty had long been dead, particularly since Trump beaned Jeb with his own lunch box in 2015. But the tirade made sense when considering Buzbee’s true audience: social media. “I absolutely was focused on what the chatter was,” he told me. “That’s the same chatter that the jurors were looking at, and the same chatter influencing the conservative media and the talking heads that go on conservative media.” 

He had to find a villain, he told me, and the whistleblowers and the House managers weren’t villainous enough. “The villain was the moderate wing of the Republican party.” 

This choice dovetailed perfectly with Paxton’s political consultants from Axiom, who were meeting almost nightly with Buzbee and other defense lawyers to decide which themes to push during the trial. That is, which themes would best make far-right activists and voters livid enough to keep badgering their senators. By then, the pressure had intensified on anyone who might be considered a weak link in Paxton’s chain. The former Trump strategist Steve Bannon was beating the acquittal tom-toms on his War Room podcast, singling out several senators who may have been tempted to convict Paxton: “We’re gonna make all these six famous in the days ahead,” Bannon raged. 

Whistleblower Ryan Vassar on the stand.
Whistleblower Ryan Vassar on the stand.Eric Gay/AP

What followed over the next nine days was two trials. The prosecution’s stubbornly fact-based case mostly drew on the testimony of the whistleblowers. First on the stand was an earnest and somewhat tedious Mateer, Paxton’s former right hand, who admitted his failure to get Paxton to heed his myriad warnings about Paul. Next up was Ryan Bangert, another of Paxton’s former deputies, who dolefully explained how Paxton had insisted he rewrite COVID rules to stave off a foreclosure sale for Paul.

Then there was the youthful Vassar, who wept as he recounted his fealty to the state of Texas and how hurtful it had been when Paxton branded him a “rogue employee.” Maxwell, the white-haired, crusty lawman, reiterated that he’d told Paxton to keep his distance from Paul: “If he didn’t get away from this individual and stop doing what he was doing, he was gonna get himself indicted.” 

Former deputy attorney general for criminal justice Mark Penley seemed to be channeling a funeral director as he recounted the multiple times Paxton told him he didn’t trust law enforcement’s investigation into Paul. “This could look like bribery,” he told Paxton of his attempts to defend the troubled businessman.

Later, Paxton’s young personal aide Drew Wicker talked about those viral countertops. It was Wicker who had reported to his boss, Brickman, that he had overheard Paxton talking with a contractor about switching the kitchen countertops from tile to granite, as part of a six-figure home renovation. “I’ll have to check with Nate,” Wicker heard the contractor say. (When he shared his concerns that Paul was paying for the work, Paxton denied it and then apparently decided against installing those countertops.) Wicker had also stumbled upon Paxton and Olson when visiting an Austin resort with his family. Paxton later offered him a promotion and bonus that he did not accept, fearing that it could appear Paxton was trying to buy his loyalty.

A furious Brickman was the last to give testimony for the prosecution. He recounted how Paxton had blocked any settlement with the whistleblowers until he was reelected. “I think Ken Paxton lied to the public for two years about our case,” he said.

Paxton’s defense attorneys brought plenty of fireworks but little substance. They didn’t refute many facts in the case, choosing instead to portray the whistleblowers as ungrateful turncoats who, as lawyers like to put it, assumed facts not in evidence. (Cogdell was the exception; his approach was more in tune with that of his evidence-based colleagues on the other side.) The dapper, scenery-chomping Mitch Little was the far right’s breakout star. His contempt for the whistleblowers was grandiose, his cross-examinations floridly patronizing.

In his signature moment, Little boxed Vassar into admitting he had taken no evidence with him to the FBI. Of course, Vassar’s own observations were evidence, but by the time Hardin cleared that up on cross-examination, it was too late. “No evidence!” was already coursing through pro-Paxton social media. “That’s called ‘all she wrote!’ ” Buzbee texted me that afternoon, proclaiming the end of the trial then and there, on day three.

Some critics claimed that the prosecutors wasted too much time trying to convince the senators of their witnesses’ far-right bona fides. And there were times when some of the attorneys got rattled by the defense lawyers’ constant objections, which in a normal court are used, in part, to create a record for later appeal, as opposed to this case, in which they were often exploited to run out the clock.

As the trial moved into its second week, Patrick was no longer paying much attention to the legal adviser (a real judge) sitting next to him. He had become quite comfortable sustaining and overruling objections on his own. Especially crucial was Patrick’s refusal in a private chamber conference to have Paxton’s mistress testify, which could have been plutonium to the defense. Ms. Olson, just what is the nature of your relationship with the attorney general? Ms. Olson, just what exactly do you do as a project manager for Nate Paul? Olson intended to take the Fifth on such questions, but her attorney filed a motion to keep her off the stand completely. 

The prosecutor Epley argued that this being a political trial, the protections accorded in criminal cases did not apply. Paxton’s involvement with Olson was relevant to the case because, the prosecution alleged, Paul had given her a job as a quid pro quo. It was fine if Olson didn’t want to testify, but she could still be called to the stand to take the Fifth. (And be seen in her Basic Instinct ensemble by every God-fearing senator in the room; clips of her walking through the Capitol soon went viral.) “You can’t just decide you don’t want the ridicule or embarrassment of addressing events or people you’ve been involved with and be able to plead the Fifth as a protection,” Epley argued. Patrick wasn’t convinced. Maybe he never watched legal dramas. “What is there to gain” by claiming the Fifth Amendment “twenty times?” he asked. 

Worse for the prosecution was Patrick’s refusal to allow testimony about some salient Uber records that showed that Paxton (as “Dave P”) had used an Uber account funded at least in part by Paul to visit Olson, a Church’s Texas Chicken, a Trump hotel in Chicago, and Paul himself.

Nor was the prosecution allowed to bring rebuttal witnesses to explain why certain financial records were relevant to the case. For instance, on October 1, 2020, the day after the whistleblowers went to the FBI—and the day they alerted Paxton that they had done so—Paxton wired $121,617 to a company called Cupertino Builders, even before an invoice had been generated. Oddly, Cupertino wasn’t formally registered as a business with the secretary of state’s office until October 19 (though it was registered in Delaware). Stranger still, it was registered in the name of Narsimha Raju Sagiraju, aka Raj Kumar, a convicted felon and longtime associate of Paul. 

Still, it’s hard to say how much any of that would have mattered. 

Laura Olson waiting to be called as a witness.
Laura Olson waiting to be called as a witness.William Luther/San Antonio Express-News via ZUMA Press

Closing arguments can be, as Cogdell put it, “an opportunity to connect all the dots that couldn’t be connected during the trial itself”—for each side to once more lay out their narrative. 

The morning of September 15, a Friday, Murr reappeared for the prosecution and addressed the chamber. He was forthright but flourish-free, so methodical that he almost undercut the power of his words. “Ken Paxton,” he said, betrayed “his conservative principles and his commitment to family values, the law, and his oath of office.” 

Then Murr said something that had been all but lost in the course of the trial: “His lawyers have come in here and tried to normalize his behavior. They are not denying that Ken Paxton did any of the acts alleged. Instead, they want you to believe there was nothing wrong” with Paxton ignoring the warnings of his trusted staff. Murr issued a prophecy for those leaning toward acquittal. “If he’s given the opportunity, he will continue to abuse the power given to him.” 

Murr was followed by Paxton protégé and “brother in Christ” Jeff Leach. “I have loved Ken Paxton for a long time,” state representative Leach said, before cataloging the sins that had caused him to vote for impeachment in the House proceedings. There comes a time, he said, “not to ask yourself what is safe or popular or politic but what is right.” 

What the defense lacked in eloquence, it made up for in bombast, with yet another bizarre attack on moderates—the Bushes, Buzbee said, “can go back to Maine.” Buzbee took nearly all of the allotted time, leaving his colleague Cogdell little to work with. Many assumed this was yet another instance of Buzbee’s refusal to share the spotlight, but in truth team Paxton was all in on Buzbee’s red-meat approach. (“Cogdell was doing factual,” Hardin told me.) 

Around noon, Patrick sent the case to the jury, scattering the senators like children on a scavenger hunt to peruse the evidence in various rooms near the Senate chamber, ordering them to stay until at least 8 p.m. Some of them reviewed towering stacks of exhibits. Some watched videos of Paul’s meetings with Paxton’s senior staffers who would soon become whistleblowers. One senator opted to rely on the Bible. There were some genuine debates. Angela Paxton was there, giggling and snacking on her catered dinner, to the astonishment of other colleagues who knew that, as a nonvoting member, she wasn’t supposed to be anywhere near them as they deliberated her husband’s fate. After a few senators gently suggested she take her leave, she finally did so, with the sergeant at arms leading the way. 

Patrick reportedly took two phone calls from senators during that night’s deliberations. He later said they strictly concerned procedural questions. Meanwhile, some of Patrick’s surrogates, such as Senator Paul Bettencourt, were said to be lobbying “low-hanging fruit,” inspiring rumors of chairmanships promised or up for grabs. (Bettencourt denied discussing chairmanships with colleagues during the trial.) Bettencourt was also spotted the night before closing arguments at 24 Diner with senators Bob Hall and Donna Campbell, as well as three other Paxton loyalists, sharing a friendly dinner with supposedly undecided senator Charles Perry. “When they took Perry out to dinner, I started to be very concerned,” said one senator, who did not wish to be identified for fear of retaliation. 

The concern was warranted. As members caucused and calculated possible votes, two senators told me that the closest they got to removing Paxton was an impressive but ultimately fruitless 20 votes. “Little by little they started peeling off” as it became clear they weren’t going to get the two-thirds majority, one of the members said. Various senators appeared to be genuinely torn, including Joan Huffman, Mayes Middleton, and Drew Springer. “I won’t say exactly who said what,” the senator told me about the deliberations. “But the point was we can vote with Democrats and we still don’t get there”—meaning to the 21 votes needed to convict Paxton. “And then what’s going to happen to us? They were afraid of their primaries, what happens with Patrick. That was the loneliest night I’ve ever spent.”

Brandon Bell/Getty

The vote took place the next morning, in a seemingly endless public roll call, double-checked by Patrick like a manager confirming inventory. While the whistleblowers slumped in the gallery and members of the defense team failed to hide their growing ebullience, no article of impeachment won more than fourteen votes. “If you had seen some of those people’s faces that morning, you could tell that they were voting against their conscience,” said one Senate staffer who was present. Ultimately just two Republicans voted to convict, Kelly Hancock, of North Richland Hills, and Robert Nichols, of Jacksonville. “The fact that sixteen Republican senators were okay with this blatant corruption is outrageous and a stain on the Republican Party of Texas and a national embarrassment for Texas,” former deputy attorney general Brickman told me. 

Patrick was also outraged, but for different reasons. Just as soon as the votes were in and counted, the lieutenant governor, who had promised transparency, made good by delivering a speech so vitriolic that it left no question where he had stood for the duration of the trial. Much of his rancor was aimed at the House for daring to impeach Paxton. “With virtually no time for the hundred and fifty members to even study the articles,” Patrick scowled, “the Speaker and his team rammed through the first impeachment of a statewide official in Texas in over a hundred years.” 

To make sure Texans wouldn’t suffer such indignities again, Patrick promised to call for a constitutional amendment with new rules for impeachment. The Texas House had wasted “millions of taxpayer dollars” on the impeachment. Paxton’s name came up only once. 

The House impeachment manager, Ann Johnson, told me that she actually took some solace from Patrick’s words. After failing to convict the attorney general, “I would have regretted and second-guessed for the rest of my life” whether the prosecution could have presented a better case. Then “Dan Patrick opened his mouth,” and she concluded he was intent on fixing the outcome regardless. 

Trump posted his congratulations to Paxton and then took credit for the victory. Paxton issued his first formal statement: “The sham impeachment coordinated by the Biden administration with liberal House Speaker Dade Phelan and his kangaroo court has cost taxpayers millions of dollars,” he wrote, echoing Patrick. (“Wasting taxpayer dollars” might soon replace “no evidence” as the most common pro-Paxton post.) 

Then he was off on a vengeance tour—primaries were just around the corner, after all. “I’ll be spending a lot of time in Beaumont. I’ll be spending a lot of time in . . . Kerrville. I’ll be spending a lot of time in Collin County,” he told a Dallas radio show, singling out the districts of representatives Phelan, Murr, and Leach. He also appeared on Tucker Carlson’s show and promoted yet another fantastical version of events. “So you’re saying that the Republican Speaker of Texas is chosen by the Democrats?” a theatrically astonished Carlson asked. “Pretty much,” Paxton responded. 

Angela embarked on her own recovery tour, posting a fund-raising video of her kitchen and those now legendary countertops with the signature line, “Never take freedom for GRANITE.” 

Other victors moved swiftly to capitalize on their success. Defense attorney Little announced a run for the House against Kronda Thimesch, a Lewisville Republican who had voted to impeach. As of this writing, Buzbee had made it to a runoff in his bid for a Houston City Council seat. Two other members of the defense team, former solicitor general Judd Stone and assistant attorney general Christopher Hilton, who had taken unpaid leave from the AG’s office to represent Paxton, decided to open their own law firm. Meanwhile, the AG’s office appeared to be in shambles, as Paxton’s number two, Brent Webster, turned desperately to LinkedIn to seek someone to fill Stone’s old job, one of the most important legal positions in the state. 

Patrick remained as powerful as ever. He briefly ran into some trouble when pesky reporters kept harping on that $3 million pretrial gift from his pro-Paxton donors. First he said that he had taken just as much money from “the other side.” When that didn’t fly—and after the Wilks- and Dunn-backed Defend Texas Liberty was caught up in an antisemitic scandal—he said he would be using the money to purchase Israeli bonds.

The anti-Paxton forces suffered some compounding losses. The moderate House Republican Kyle Kacal announced his departure, as did Murr. This will open up two more seats for far-right candidates to potentially take over, signaling that an attempt to rationally and uprightly serve the citizens of Texas is a loser’s game.

As for Paxton, he isn’t in the clear. The criminal trial on securities-fraud charges that he has dodged for nearly a decade has finally been scheduled to commence in April. The FBI continues to investigate Paul and those close to him, presumably including Paxton. The state bar association is suing to discipline Paxton, perhaps even by revoking his license to practice law, for his filing of frivolous lawsuits challenging the results of the 2020 presidential election. And the whistleblowers’ suit is still moving forward, which may finally force the attorney general into a real court to give testimony under oath. “In a Texas courtroom, he won’t have the protections of politics to shield him from the rule of law,” Brickman told me.

Meanwhile, Buzbee and Cogdell are free to enjoy a gift from Little, their fellow defense attorney. He sent them each a pair of custom-designed, snow-white Nikes, the sides accented in silver and gold. Just below the heels, atop the thickened sole, is the abbreviation KP1.

He sure did. Again.  

This article has been updated to include a response from Senator Paul Bettencourt regarding his efforts to lobby his colleagues to acquit Paxton.

The article originally appeared in the January 2024 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Greatest Sideshow on Earth.” Subscribe today.