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Here's what's going on with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton's impeachment

Everything you need to know about the imperiled Republican's upcoming corruption trial.
Image: Texas state Attorney General Ken Paxton reads a statement at his office in Austin, Texas on May 26, 2023.
Texas state Attorney General Ken Paxton reads a statement at his office in Austin, Texas, on May 26.Eric Gay / AP file

The Republican Party in Texas has been thrown into a bit of turmoil in recent weeks as the Republican-controlled Legislature took the extraordinary step of impeaching Ken Paxton, the state attorney general, who is also a Republican.

Paxton is now only the third official to ever be impeached in Texas history, and he will soon face trial in the state Senate.

Late last month, lawmakers formally accused him of breaking the law, abusing his office, accepting bribes and obstructing justice, and, as dictated by the state constitution, their subsequent impeachment immediately removed him from office pending the results of the Senate trial. If two-thirds of the state Senate votes to convict him on even one of the charges, he will be removed permanently.

Paxton's trial will be the first impeachment trial in decades, and it's already gathered national attention as former President Donald Trump and his allies rally behind him.

"ELECTION INTERFERENCE! Free Ken Paxton, let them wait for the next election!” Trump wrote on social media recently.

Here’s what you need to know.

What are the charges against Paxton?

On May 27, the state House impeached Paxton on 20 articles of impeachment, charging him with disregard of official duty, misapplication of public resources, constitutional bribery, obstruction of justice, false statements in official records, conspiracy and attempted conspiracy, dereliction of duty, unfitness for office and abuse of public trust.

Many of the charges center on Paxton's relationship with Nate Paul, an Austin real estate investor and wealthy donor whom the Texas Republican helped and protected. Other charges center on his retaliation against whistleblowers who reported his conduct.

According to the articles of impeachment, Paxton:

  • Directed his employees to intervene in a lawsuit between a nonprofit group and Paul
  • Issued a legal opinion that helped Paul, disguising his involvement by asking a state senator to solicit the opinion
  • Shared information obtained through his office with Paul
  • Hired an outside attorney to investigate a “baseless complaint” made by Paul
  • Accepted bribes in the form of renovations to his home and a job for a woman with whom he'd had an extramarital affair
  • Fired and retaliated against whistleblowers in his office, and spent government resources to conduct a “sham investigation” into their allegations
  • Obstructed justice by delaying the criminal proceedings into his indictment of securities fraud
  • Violated public information laws

Many of the incidents are well known; they have been reported by local newspapers and seized on by political opponents, and there's an ongoing federal corruption investigation into Paxton's conduct, according to The Associated Press. House lawmakers say their investigation and subsequent impeachment was triggered by a $3.3 million settlement Paxton struck with the whistleblowers and asked the House to sign off on.

"I think the last straw was his belief that he could get the Legislature to just write a blank check for hush money, without any accountability or any attempt to come in and actually give an explanation," said Rep. Ann Johnson, the Houston Democrat and former prosector who presented the case for impeachment to the House.

But an attorney hired by the House to bring the case in the Senate, Rusty Hardin, suggested the trial would bring new details to light.

“I promise you, it’s 10 times worse than has been public,” he said on Thursday.

What does Paxton say?

Paxton called the impeachment effort "illegal," arguing ahead of the vote that impeaching him would overturn the will of voters who elected him in November and "sabotage" his lawsuits against President Joe Biden's administration.

Chris Hilton, one of his top aides, said at that press conference that the claims against Paxton were “completely meritless” and had been “debunked time and time again.”

"The ugly spectacle in the Texas House today confirmed the outrageous impeachment plot against me was never meant to be fair or just," Paxton said in a statement following his impeachment. "I look forward to quick resolution in the Texas Senate, where I have full confidence the process will be fair and just."

Paxton defenders have criticized the House's quick impeachment proceedings over Memorial Day weekend, but the impeachment managers have pointed to a secret investigation that began earlier this winter and quietly continued until the impeachment.

The investigators "had gotten to a point where it was very clear based on all of the evidence that was before them ... that there was a real allegation of criminal conduct occurring by the attorney general. And so what do you want to wait on? You don't leave a child abuser in a home, right," Johnson told NBC News.

Behind the scenes, a member of the Texas House said Paxton has threatened political consequences for Republicans.

"Are you aware that the attorney general himself called members of this House while they were sitting at their desks and threatened them?" Rep. Charlie Geren said during the impeachment proceedings in the House.

"God bless the poor senators, I don't know how long it will be if this passes that they're going to have to put up with the same intimidation tactics from a man who does not deserve to be in office," he added.

What will the trial look like?

"The trial is understood to occur just as a civil or a criminal trial would play out," Rep. Andrew Murr, a West Texas Republican who chairs the board of impeachment managers from the House, said at a press conference Monday.

Lawmakers in both chambers have said witnesses will testify under oath about the allegations and face questions from attorneys on both sides, he said. The same rules of evidence used in Texas civil and criminal trials will be used in the proceeding.

The 31-member Texas Senate will serve as the jury in the impeachment trial, as laid out in the Texas Constitution. There are currently 19 Republicans and 12 Democrats serving.

It's unclear if all will vote in the proceedings; at least two members have personal connections and did not respond to requests for interview. Sen. Bryan Hughes is identified in the articles after Paxton requested he formally seek the attorney general's opinion on a legal matter, and Sen. Angela Paxton is the attorney general’s wife. It's unclear if she was involved in the home renovations Paul gifted to the attorney general's home.

Members of the Senate have been mum on the impeachment. Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, has said he won't address it.

“Don’t ask me any more questions, 'cause I can’t answer them. Look at me like a judge before a case, and look at our senators like that. Be respectful of their space and time, this is very serious,” he said.

Who are the key players?

Paxton will be defended by a team of attorneys from the Office of the Attorney General, who have taken a leave of absence to defend their boss at trial, according to The Texas Tribune. The team includes Judd Stone, the office's top appellate lawyer, and Chris Hilton, head of the litigation division.

The House has appointed a board of managers to handle the prosecution of Paxton in the Senate. State Rep. Andrew Murr, a West Texas Republican and attorney with a distinctive handlebar mustache, chairs the board, while Johnson, a Houston Democrat and former prosecutor, serves as vice chair. Four other Democrats and six Republicans fill out the committee; all but one are attorneys.

The managers have hired Rusty Hardin and Dick DeGuerin, two longtime top lawyers, to prosecute their case in the Senate. Both have a history of defending celebrities and wealthy plaintiffs, and defending or investigating politicians. Together, DeGuerin said, they have more than 100 years of experience.

“The people of the state of Texas are entitled to know whether their top cop is a crook, DeGuerin said in a press conference on Thursday.

When will it happen?

A Senate committee is expected to propose rules and procedures to the greater body by June 20. A trial will begin no later than Aug. 28, according to lawmakers.

Whenever it happens, expect an explosive event. The historic impeachment is already gathering national attention, particularly from Trump and his allies who have defended Paxton, a key player in the legal effort to overturn Trump's loss in 2020.

"The RINO Speaker of the House of Texas, Dade Phelan, who is barely a Republican at all and failed the test on voter integrity, wants to impeach one of the most hard working and effective Attorney Generals in the United States, Ken Paxton, who just won re-election with a large number of American Patriots strongly voting for him,” Trump wrote on social media recently.

Who is serving as attorney general now?

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, appointed former Secretary of State John Scott to serve as interim attorney general on Wednesday.