• Sat. Sep 23rd, 2023


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Takeaways From the Impeachment of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton

The extraordinary vote on impeachment exposed rifts among Texas Republicans and set the stage for a contentious showdown in the State Senate.

Ken Paxton, the firebrand Republican Texas attorney general, was temporarily thrown out of office on Saturday by House lawmakers — many from his own party — who voted to impeach him over a series of bribery and corruption allegations, including that he had given special treatment to a campaign donor who helped him remodel his house.

The vote of 121 to 23 in favor of impeachment included a majority of House Republicans, showing bipartisan support for removing the attorney general from his post. And it came over the objection of former President Donald J. Trump and a host of other prominent conservatives who argued that lawmakers were reversing the will of voters who had re-elected Mr. Paxton to a third term by a wide margin in November.

Mr. Paxton, who has denied wrongdoing and called the proceedings illegal, will at some point face a trial before the State Senate, which is home to many of his allies and his wife, State Senator Angela Paxton.

Here are takeaways from the impeachment proceedings.

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The Texas House voted to impeach Ken Paxton, the attorney general, immediately removing him from office pending a trial in the State Senate.Adam Davis/EPA, via Shutterstock

Following hours of at times impassioned debate, a substantial majority of Republicans in the House ultimately moved to impeach Mr. Paxton, despite his strong appeal with Republican primary voters in Texas.

The proceedings revealed, in stark terms, the divisions that have split Republicans in recent years and that were likely to define the conflict inside the party for some time to come: on one side, those who saw Mr. Paxton as the victim of an unfair process that would help Democrats, and others who felt that a sense of duty and integrity compelled them to act against corruption, even to the detriment of a party leader.

The lines were being drawn in real time, between Republicans presenting the arguments for impeachment, and other Republicans challenging them.

Representative John Smithee, a Republican, said he did not have enough evidence in front of him to support the effort and urged, unsuccessfully, other lawmakers to not vote for impeachment. “Today it could be General Paxton, and tomorrow it could be you,” Mr. Smithee said.

Another Republican opponent was more direct about the politics involved. “This is wrong. You know it. Your voters know it,” said Representative Tony Tinderholt. “Don’t give Democrats another victory handed to them on a silver platter.”

Representative Andrew Murr, who led the committee investigating Mr. Paxton and brought the impeachment resolution to the floor, concluded the debate by saying that “integrity and honesty” were important traits; he urged his colleagues to live up to them and vote to impeach.

“The evidence presented to you is compelling and is more than sufficient to justify going to trial,” he said.

Mr. Paxton’s case will next move to the State Senate, where he will stand trial. Among the senators who will serve as jurors is one who knows him well: Angela Paxton, his wife, who is a Republican.

During that time, Mr. Paxton will be temporarily suspended from office. Gov. Greg Abbott may appoint someone to act as an interim attorney general, but he is not required to. If he does not, those duties would be handled by the next most senior official.

Assuming Ms. Paxton does not recuse herself and all 12 Democratic senators vote to permanently remove Mr. Paxton, nine of the body’s 19 Republicans would also need to vote for impeachment to reach the necessary two-thirds majority.

If the Senate votes to acquit Mr. Paxton, then he would immediately resume the role of attorney general.

It is unclear when the trial will happen, though almost certainly it will not come before the legislative session ends on Monday. The lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, who will preside over the trial and set the rules, can call a special session to hold it. His office has not said if and when he planned to do so.

Representative Ann Johnson holds up a binder of evidence supporting Mr. Paxton’s impeachment.Aaron E. Martinez/Austin American-Statesman, via Associated Press
Representative Andrew Murr fielded most of the questions from Mr. Paxton’s supporters, many of whom criticized the work of the committee Mr. Murr led.Aaron E. Martinez/Austin American-Statesman, via Associated Press

During the four hours in which lawmakers debated whether to impeach Mr. Paxton, several key players emerged who could have an enduring role as the impeachment case proceeds.

Representative Andrew Murr, the Republican who led the committee that investigated Mr. Paxton, brought the impeachment resolution to the floor and fielded most of the questions from Mr. Paxton’s supporters, many of whom directly criticized the committee’s work.

Mr. Murr, with his distinctive curling mustache, parried many of the attacks on the process by returning to the seriousness of the charges against Mr. Paxton. “We will not tolerate corruption, bribery, abuse of office, retaliation and all the related charges that have been presented to you,” he said in his closing remarks. “I’m confident that you cannot tolerate, let alone defend, these most serious and grave official wrongs.”

Representative John Smithee, another Republican, took on the role of arguing against impeachment, focusing less on the accusations and more on the ways in which he viewed the process as unfair. He said that not enough evidence had been presented and that lawmakers had not had enough time to consider such a consequential decision.

“It’s what I call the hang them now and judge them later policy,” he said of the proceedings.

Representative Ann Johnson, a Democrat and former prosecutor, laid into Mr. Paxton from the floor on Saturday, saying he had broken laws that could lead to jail time. She also described what she said were senior members of Mr. Paxton’s staff whose integrity had compelled them to speak up about his behavior. She said one employee observed Mr. Paxton requesting expensive renovations to his home that would be taken care of by his friend and donor.

The employee, deeply disturbed at a situation he regarded as improper, quit his job, Ms. Johnson said. When he continued to be paid by Mr. Paxton, she said, the man returned the money to Mr. Paxton’s campaign. “This is the kind of integrity,” she said, that investigators discovered from the people who spoke up, many of whom were Republicans.

House Speaker Dade Phelan, a Republican in his second session leading the House, managed the proceedings and remained mostly quiet aside from urging decorum at the start. But because he was seen as having allowed the proceeding to take place at all, Mr. Phelan has come under withering and sustained attack from national Republican figures, particularly those allied with Mr. Trump. After the impeachment vote, Mr. Trump personally vilified Mr. Phelan. “What is our Country coming to?” Mr. Trump asked on his social media network, Truth Social.

Mr. Paxton addressing the impeachment charges in Austin on Friday.Eric Gay/Associated Press

The investigative committee spent the first several minutes of Saturday’s floor session laying out the 20 articles of impeachment that ultimately were approved by a majority of lawmakers.

Among the allegations were that Mr. Paxton gave special treatment and abused his office to help Nate Paul, a friend and campaign donor in Austin, in several instances. Lawmakers also said that Mr. Paul helped with renovations on Mr. Paxton’s home and employed a woman with whom Mr. Paxton had been having an affair, actions that amount to bribes in the eyes of Mr. Paxton’s critics.

The impeachment articles also include claims that Mr. Paxton directed his employees to violate the state’s open records law, fired employees who reported his bad behavior, made false statements to a state board, did not accurately disclose his finances and stalled a separate criminal prosecution that accused him of securities fraud.

Mr. Paxton spoke out after the proceedings, slamming the House’s action as an “ugly spectacle” that he said was “illegal, unethical and profoundly unjust.”

In a statement, Mr. Paxton said lawmakers had refused to hear evidence from him, and he accused Mr. Phelan of being driven by a desire for political retribution. He also accused Mr. Phelan and other Republicans who voted for impeachment of being aligned with a range of liberal organizations and politicians, including President Biden and “woke corporations.”

But Mr. Paxton said he looked forward to his trial in the State Senate, where he said he had “full confidence the process will be fair and just.”

James Dobbins, Dave Montgomery and Anushka Patil contributed reporting.