And now we wait. After eight grueling days, the 30 Texas senators who will decide the fate of Ken Paxton are deliberating in private. When they emerge, they will cast votes on each of the sixteen impeachment charges brought by the Texas House. A two-thirds majority—that’s 21 senators—on any of the sixteen will result in a conviction and Paxton’s removal from office. The standard is “beyond a reasonable doubt”—the same as in a criminal trial. But this is no typical criminal trial, which is one of the only things that everyone can agree on. As Plano representative Jeff Leach, a House impeachment manager, pointed out in his closing argument, the “Impeachment Trial of Warren Kenneth Paxton, Jr.” is a “unique mix” of the civil and the criminal. And in the end, it is a political project.
Though the rules require senators to base their decision only on the facts and evidence presented during the trial, in practice that is an impossibility. Republican senators will no doubt be mindful that their decision to acquit or convict will have consequences not just for their own careers but for the fate of the Legislature and the Republican Party. Hard-right enforcers backed by Midland billionaire Tim Dunn have promised to primary any Republican who votes to convict. Their mantra: “There is no evidence.” One of the most ardent Paxton apologists, Luke Macias, has predicted a “civil war.” Professional Paxton defenders spent much of the day urging their followers to call senators’ offices, and Trump himself has weighed in to back Ken. If Paxton is convicted, the next attorney general—appointed by Governor Greg Abbott—could very well be one of these senators now deliberating on whether to convict! If Paxton stays in office, senators will take the blame if he decides to do more (alleged) crimes, or if a Democrat manages to knock him out in 2026, or if he ends up being indicted by the feds.
Tony Buzbee, the unnaturally tanned, hyperaggressive attorney who leads Paxton’s defense team, understands all of this perhaps better than anyone. In his angry closing argument, Buzbee dispensed with any pretense that the senators’ decision will be high-minded. He wove a sinister tale of conspiracy and victimhood on behalf of his client. Paxton, the most effective state attorney general in the land, had been targeted unfairly by the Bushes, the media, and liberals. “I would suggest to you that this is a political witch hunt,” Buzbee said. He added: “The. Bush. Era. Ends. Today.” He tempted the GOP senators: a vote to acquit would own the libs. But wasn’t it some very conservative Paxton employees who blew the whistle on their boss? Wasn’t it Republicans in the House who impeached Paxton? Buzbee had an answer for that too. The whistleblowers and the House impeachment managers had “taken a long walk off a short pier”—they had made accusations, hoping to gather sufficient evidence later. But the evidence never came. He could have left it at that, but Buzbee seems incapable of reining in his belligerence. “We’re here because [House Speaker] Dade Phelan got his feelings hurt. He was so drunk!”—a reference to a semiviral clip of Phelan slurring his words at the dais late in the regular session. It was that kind of trial.
The prosecution, on the other hand, took the high road in its closing, reviewing key evidence for each of the sixteen charges and appealing to the better angels of the Senate’s nature. Representative Andrew Murr, a mustachioed Republican from Junction who counts former Texas governor Coke Stevenson as an ancestor, told the senators, “This is the most important choice you have ever faced.” In a hundred years, he said, it is probably the only vote of theirs that will be remembered. “It’s about what public service means.”
The last word, however, went to Leach, a somewhat idiosyncratic Republican. This was a smart choice by the prosecution. Leach is a hard-core Christian conservative. He can speak to the Republicans in the chamber in terms that go beyond evidence and argumentation. And, as he told the senators, he counts Paxton as a “dear friend, a political mentor, a brother in Christ, and a once trusted adviser.” Speaking in the language familiar to evangelicals, he told the Senate that he had “loved Ken Paxton for a long time. I’ve done life with Ken Paxton.” But, he suggested, it was time for some tough love. Paxton had to go.
As someone said to me on social media—a stranger who disagreed with some mild praise I had for the prosecutors—observing the trial was like watching two different movies on the same screen. The Paxton side saw what they wanted to see: the railroading of one of America’s most reliable defenders of liberty. The absence of evidence. A witch hunt orchestrated by George P. Bush and other RINOs. Whereas the other side saw a great marshaling of evidence, a crook finally getting his accountability moment. What the senators saw? Well, we will just have to wait and see.
- More About:
- Politics & Policy