While many expected a crowd to form outside the Capitol grounds’ black wrought-iron fences on the first morning of Ken Paxton’s impeachment trial, those who arrived first had to have been disappointed by the sparse predawn numbers. Perhaps they hadn’t needed to arrive at 2:45 a.m. after all.
By 6 a.m., when the lawn sprinklers announced daybreak and spread extra mist into the humid air, a crowd of about a dozen reporters and cameramen started to gather at the south entrance. One reporter wiped his laptop and muttered that his screen was getting wet. Another asked, “What word should we use to describe this humidity? Suffocating?”
Anxious to get the first spot in the security line, a Paxton supporter near the east-side gate hopped over a spot in the fence but was turned back by a guard. “It’s our house,” one man said with a shrug. “I leave my house unlocked.”
Nearby, a man wearing a black cowboy hat and a red shirt that read “Texas Rino Hunting permit” introduced himself as Kyle Sims, a onetime body man for former senator Don Huffines who currently works as the campaign manager for conservative congressional candidate Julie Clark. He stood with a growing cluster of red-shirted Rino Hunters, who nudged him to speak on the group’s behalf. “My personal opinion is if our attorney general has done something wrong then try him in a court of law,” he said. “I’m hoping to see this dismissed.”
Hope for dismissal would become a refrain throughout the morning. Marcia Watson, executive director for a nonprofit called Citizens Defending Freedom, held tight to a Trump tote slung over her right shoulder. “There’s just nothing new under the sun, you know?” she said. “So he had an affair. Half the people in this building have had an affair. Is that impeachable? I don’t think so. Some say that he had securities fraud. He’s been to court on that. He paid a fine on that.” (Note: Paxton has delayed his criminal trial for securities fraud for eight years.)
At around 6:15 a.m., when security personnel opened the gates to the grounds, spectators walked up the long sidewalks and began forming a queue at the door of the south entrance. One visitor stepped out of line to smoke a cigarette, commenting that he thought he’d see more security. Perhaps the officer standing with an assault rifle on the Capitol steps, scanning the lawn, was considered sufficient.
Morning running groups jogged in a loop around the Capitol, and as the sun began to peek through the live oaks, the cicadas’ buzz gave way to the grackles’ squeaking. At 7 a.m., when the Capitol’s tall doors opened, a blast of air-conditioning welcomed those approaching the metal detectors. Those inside may not like one thing or another about the proceedings, but they could at least be comforted by some hours in frigid temperatures. Scuffling through the building, fishing in their bags for sweaters, the media curled up to the right side of the stairway while the public climbed the left, forming two lines that led from the Senate gallery doorway, down the hall, and into the rotunda.
The first two attendees in line grabbed their green tickets and waited to be let into the Senate chamber. They were state workers, nervous about giving their names but excited that they could watch history unfold. “Paxton is the third state official ever to be impeached in all of Texas history,” said one. The other had family who worked in the building and had been talking to him about Paxton for years. “It’s interesting to see it come to fruition in like a really historic way,” he said.
Theater was a major draw. Jane Vaughn, who drove up that morning from San Marcos, brought along her own “cheat sheet” she’d written out in blue-pen cursive, so she could keep track of the players on the Senate floor. She pulled it out of her purse and unfolded it. “Well, here are the prosecuting lawyers and the defense lawyers,” she said, pointing to the attorney names and the names of prominent clients they’d defended. “I was surprised by the ages of all three.” (Rusty Hardin is 81, Dick DeGuerin is 82, Tony Buzbee is 55.) One of her Houston friends was always going on about Buzbee; she was excited to see him in action.
Few were openly disdainful of Paxton—especially within earshot of anyone wearing a bright red T-shirt supporting his cause. “I’m a lone wolf today,” said Lynn Toszer, who’d prepared a protest sign in case she couldn’t get into the gallery. The sign read “Ken ❤ Nate,” a reference to Paxton’s financial contributor Nate Paul. “I think this guy is an embarrassment,” she said of Paxton. “I hate him. Can I say that?”
At the gallery door, a staffer in a suit gave the queue a thumbs-up and opened the doors at 8 a.m. sharp. The hallway cleared quickly, and two clerks discussed attendance. Nearly three hundred people would have been allowed in the gallery, but only about one hundred members of the public showed up. A reporter, walking by, asked, “Is this what you were expecting?”
One of the clerks responded, “We didn’t know what to expect.”