When you come at the king, you best not miss. House Republicans, with backing from Democrats, took a swing at Attorney General Ken Paxton and failed to land a fatal blow.
In the days after Paxton was acquitted by the Texas Senate on all sixteen charges involving alleged corruption and abuse of his office, he and his allies have been positively giddy, trading memes and high fives while promising to go demon mode on their enemies. Paxton has been making the rounds on right-wing media promising retribution against a growing list of enemies, real and perceived. Defense attorney Tony Buzbee, meanwhile, posted a smiling photo of himself on Instagram wielding an antique long rifle in a back room of the Texas Senate.
The reverberations from the impeachment trial are immediate. An emboldened Paxton is back at work in the attorney general’s office. The Texas House and Senate will return to town soon for a special session on whether to allow parents to use taxpayer dollars to pay private school tuition, in the form of education vouchers. This is one of the most divisive and consequential policy issues in modern Texas political history, at a time when the working relationship couldn’t possibly be any worse between House Speaker Dade Phelan and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who helped give Paxton the trial he needed. Paxton’s billionaire backers—Midland oilman and Christian nationalist Tim Dunn foremost among them—are already lining up primary challengers to take down wayward Republicans in March: a long list, given the lopsided, bipartisan vote to impeach in the House.
The long-term implications are more difficult to clock. The Paxton impeachment opened up new fronts in the long-running Texas GOP civil conflict. An axiom of warfare is that conflicts are unpredictable, and combatants often can’t see through the fog of war. Perhaps the hard-right faction of the Texas GOP that has elevated the unimpressive Paxton to Übermensch status will finally seize control of the House and lay waste to whatever bit of bipartisanship is left in this state. If it were to achieve its goal of replacing Dade Phelan with a Speaker who would strip Democrats of their committee chairmanships, the consequences would be far-reaching. Public schools would be decimated. Already-threadbare state services such as mental health care would be further unraveled. And attacks on LGBTQ Texans, individuals seeking abortions, and other targets of the culture wars would be dramatically escalated. The faction’s record of success in hunting what it calls RINOs (Republicans in name only) is middling at best.
There’s also the question of whether acquittal will empower more unethical behavior from Paxton, up to and including potential criminal acts. The lesson of faltering democracies such as Mexico and gangster states like Russia is that corruption has a way of metastasizing if left unchecked. It can happen here too.
Republican representative Andrew Murr, of Junction, one of the House impeachment managers, told the senators their votes would probably be the only thing anyone would remember about them in a hundred years. We don’t need to wait a century, however, to take stock of winners and losers, as well as of those occupying a more ambiguous position. Rarely does a single event in politics touch so many so profoundly.
Let’s start with the obvious. Ken Paxton may be a mediocre attorney and an uncharismatic politician, but he is one hell of an escape artist. He delayed his trial on state securities fraud for eight years, only to be surprised (we assume) by a last-minute House impeachment. No worries. His powerful allies went to work for him. Donald Trump trumpeted his support for the attorney general (and, as night follows day, claimed full credit for his acquittal.) Dunn’s political action committee, Defend Texas Liberty, gave Dan Patrick $3 million in campaign contributions, including a $2 million forgivable loan, just ahead of the trial over which the lieutenant governor was supposed to preside in an impartial manner. And a small army of professional activists went to work online, weaving a narrative tailor-made for the MAGA mind: heroic Ken Paxton was the victim of a witch hunt. Paxton didn’t even bother to attend most of the trial.
Paxton and his defenders never tried to explain his conduct with Nate Paul, the federally indicted Austin developer who allegedly bribed the attorney general. Even if you think prosecutors didn’t prove the attorney general’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the uncontroverted facts surrounding Paxton’s relationship with Paul are troubling. Why, to pick just one example, did Paul and Paxton share an Uber account under the alias “Dave P” that Paxton used to visit Paul’s home and that of his mistress? Why did Paxton ignore his deputies’ warnings and hire an inexperienced attorney to issue subpoenas to Paul’s adversaries?
Team Paxton, including his attorneys, clearly took to heart the adage that if you’re explaining, you’re losing. To his fans, Paxton is a martyr. Post-trial Paxton is a thing to behold. He’s being interviewed by Tucker Carlson. He’s calling his wife hot on X. He’s got the look of a man who can’t believe his luck.
Caveat: Paxton could still face comeuppance. His approval rating among registered voters in Texas took a beating in the lead-up to the trial, plummeting to 27 percent from 39 percent just a few months ago. The state securities fraud case is finally moving forward, with a hearing scheduled for October. And the feds are actively investigating the Paul matter. A criminal-trial jury and a federal grand jury are unlikely to be composed of, or fearful of, Paxton’s political allies. (The kind of flagrant jury tampering that Paxton’s allies engaged in by threatening senators would be illegal in a criminal trial.) Finally, Paxton may be free from the impeachment charges, but he is not fully at liberty. There are powerful interests who have invested a lot in him. And they expect a return on their investment.
The lieutenant governor demonstrated once again why he is one of the most powerful Texas politicians of his generation. Throughout the trial, he had most everyone convinced that he was acting as an impartial jurist. And if you just judge from the way Patrick managed most of the day-to-day business of the impeachment court, that would be a fair assessment. But there are no coincidences in Dan Patrick’s Texas Senate.
First, there’s the $3 million contribution he accepted from Defend Texas Liberty, which is thirty times more than what the organization gave Patrick last year when he was up for reelection. Imagine if a judge in a criminal trial took $3 million from a friend of the defendant: we would call that bribery of the most blatant kind.
Second, Patrick could have appointed an experienced jurist to preside over the trial, as the rules allowed. Instead, he left himself as judge, virtually guaranteeing that there would be a taint of political bias over the proceedings.
Third, the Senate rules for the trial prevented Senator Angela Paxton, Ken’s wife, from voting on the impeachment charges, but they left the threshold for conviction at 21 votes instead of 20—the same effect as if she had voted no. Two other senator-jurors with conflicts of interest—Bryan Hughes and Donna Campbell—were allowed to participate. Both voted to acquit on all sixteen charges.
Fourth, prosecutors planned to call Paxton as a witness, but Patrick ruled that the attorney general didn’t have to testify or even attend the trial. The House impeachment managers also planned to put Laura Olson, Paxton’s mistress, on the stand, and she was seen in the Capitol last week clutching a fancy Balenciaga bag. But Patrick said she had been “deemed unavailable” to testify. He refused to provide any further explanation at the trial.
Finally, Patrick imposed a strict gag order on discussions of the trial by involved parties, but he took phone calls from two jurors during verdict deliberations. (He says they only discussed procedural issues.) And seven jurors were seen together at an Austin diner the evening before the closing arguments. They said they were not discussing the trial.
Perhaps each of these examples could be explained away individually. But taken together, they appeared to suggest a bias by the judge in favor of the defense. Any doubt was erased when Patrick launched into an angry tirade as soon as the verdict was rendered, ripping the House for “ramming through” the impeachment and calling for an audit of the lower chamber’s spending. Within days, he was sending out fund-raising emails under the banner of “SHAM-peachment” and giving interviews to the media arm of Dunn’s political operation. This is not the behavior of someone who was going to allow a fellow MAGA traveler to be impeached.
From the rubble of the trial, Patrick emerges more powerful than ever. He has proved his fealty to Trump. He has reminded the Senate who is in charge. He has laid waste to his enemies in the House. One suspects that the $2 million loan will be forgiven.
Caveat: the hostilities between Patrick and Phelan could sink school vouchers, which Patrick has called “the civil rights [issue] of our time.”
Dade Phelan and the Impeachment Managers
The biggest question here is why the House managers thought they could get an impeachment in Dan Patrick’s Senate. You could argue that Phelan and company were just doing the right thing, damn the consequences. And they certainly earned considerable admiration from those who saw the impeachment as an act of political courage. But the House impeachment managers seemed genuinely surprised and angered by the lopsided acquittal. Evidently they too fell for the Kindly Judge Dan act. Convinced that it could win on the evidence, Phelan’s prosecution team, including legendary lawyers Dick DeGuerin and Rusty Hardin, conducted the trial as if it were a normal criminal proceeding. It was not. Before the trial even started, the lawyers laid a trap for themselves. They overpromised and underdelivered.
At a press conference shortly after the House voted to impeach, Hardin said that Paxton’s misdeeds were “ten times worse than [what] has been public.” That created the expectation of a smoking gun. Instead, the senators were treated to a parade of witnesses, chiefly the whistleblowers who turned Paxton in to the FBI, who told largely the same tale, to varying degrees of effectiveness. The lawyering was plodding, repetitive, and—for the most part—rather boring. The lack of blockbuster new evidence and of the opportunity to grill Paxton, Paul, or Olson gave the Republican majority all the excuse it needed for an acquittal.
Meanwhile, the defense, led by the bombastic Tony Buzbee, put on a political trial, painting its client as a victim besieged by RINOs, the media, liberals, and the Bush family, which has become an all-purpose bogeyman for right-wing Texas politicians. Buzbee understood something the other side did not. As H. L. Mencken wrote of William Jennings Bryan, the lawyer-politician who argued for the prosecution in the Scopes Monkey Trial, “He will win the case, not by academic appeals to law and precedent, but by direct and powerful appeals to the immemorial fears and superstitions of man.”
By impeaching Paxton, Phelan has put his House members in the crosshairs. The political donors of the hard-right faction will spend lavishly to remake the House in its image. In this hangover period after the trial, members of Team Phelan are consoling themselves that, unlike the cowardly Republicans in the Senate, they followed the law and their consciences. Republican representative Jeff Leach, of Plano, a onetime Paxton ally who gave the closing argument for the House impeachment managers, resorted to Calvinism. “Duty is ours,” he tweeted. “Results are God’s.”
Louie Gohmert, Rick Perry, Karl Rove, and Chip Roy
This quartet of legendary Texas Republicans—political consultant Rove, former governor Perry, former congressman Gohmert, and Congressman Roy—all came out strongly in favor of impeachment. Their reward: getting branded as traitors by their party’s leaders.
Remains to Be Seen
To be a Texas Democrat is to live in perpetual disappointment and irrelevance. The Paxton impeachment could have been, finally, a moment of accountability for, as Democratic state representative Ann Johnson put it, “the most corrupt politician in the state of Texas.” But once again Democrats found themselves on the outside looking in. They helped their House Republican colleagues impeach Paxton but watched helplessly as Senate Republicans acquitted him.
There is a silver lining here, though: Paxton is likely to continue to do damage to the GOP brand. His office is a mess, he faces deepening legal problems, and his approval ratings are underwater. If his past transgressive behavior is prologue, then we are probably mere months away from the next scandal. Can Democrats take advantage of the coming GOP primary bloodbath? Don’t count on it. But maybe!
The governor was quiet during the Paxton trial, wasn’t he? And for good reason. Never one to stick his neck out, the governor would have risked alienating one of the warring factions by picking a side.
Surely Abbott would have preferred to get rid of the persistent embarrassment that is Paxton. By all accounts, the governor, who served as a state Supreme Court justice and Texas attorney general, has a sharp legal mind. He can’t think Paxton is an effective AG, given his successor’s mediocre record of winning lawsuits. And if Paxton had been removed from office, Abbott could have handpicked a successor.
The bitterness of the Senate trial has also done Abbott no favors. The governor has staked a football stadium’s worth of political capital on passing a private school voucher plan—something his billionaire backers, and elements of the GOP grassroots, dearly desire. Is the House more or less likely to pass such a plan now? On the one hand, the open hostility of the Senate makes negotiations harder. On the other, every Republican voucher opponent in the House but two also voted for impeachment, meaning Paxton’s monied backers will spend millions of dollars picking off Abbott’s enemies. No wonder, then, that this week, Abbott threatened Republicans with well-funded primary opponents if they don’t give him what he wants.
Things could have been much worse for Senator Paxton. Her husband is employed again. She was never made to face Laura Olson during the trial. And no one is talking about her questionable associations. On the other hand, knowing her husband in ways she may not have before this scandal erupted, she must realize that it’s only a matter of time before the next shoe drops.