AUSTIN, Texas — Attorney General Ken Paxton pleaded not guilty to 20 articles of impeachment alleging corruption, abuse of public trust, misuse of public funds and more as the Texas Senate began a historic impeachment trial Tuesday.
Paxton, a Republican firebrand, was impeached in May by an overwhelming vote in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives over his involvement with real estate developer and donor Nate Paul. Now, the state Senate — convened as a high court of impeachment — will determine whether or not to remove him from office.
Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who is presiding over the proceedings, swore in the senators as jurors Tuesday morning, while 200 spectators — including members of the public and the media — watched from the Senate gallery above, before he turned to pretrial motions.
Paxton's attorneys had filed more than a dozen motions to dismiss the articles of impeachment or exclude evidence from being considered, and all of them failed Tuesday morning when as many as a dozen Republican senators joined with the Democratic senators to vote against them.
But Paxton secured one key win Tuesday, when Patrick — who alone decides procedural matters under the rules approved by the Senate — decided that Paxton could not be forced to appear as a witness at his own trial.
House impeachment managers had sought to compel Paxton to be called to the witness stand, though they said in a filing that they expected he would invoke his right not to self-incriminate.
The trial, the first of a state attorney general in Texas history, marks a dramatic fall for a man who gained a national profile as a leader of red states' opposition on topics from health care to immigration during President Barack Obama's administration and who became a key conservative ally of Donald Trump when he was in the White House. Paxton has denied all wrongdoing and vowed to fight the allegations.
In his opening statement, the House impeachment manager, Rep. Andrew Murr, said Paxton's conduct doesn't need to be criminal to be impeachable and promised illustrative testimony from former staffers with "chilling detail" about how they came to believe their boss was corrupt.
"In Texas, we require more from our public officials than to merely avoid being a criminal," he said.
Paxton attorney Dan Cogdell argued, however, that the impeachment was a question of Texas democracy.
“Is it up to voters or is it up to politicians to see who stays in office? Your decision is much bigger than Ken Paxton. Your decision is literally about democracy in this state,” he said.
More than 100 potential witnesses have received subpoenas to testify. The list reportedly includes Paul, the developer and donor from whom Paxton is accused of accepting bribes, and current and former staffers from the attorney general’s office, some of whom told the FBI he should be investigated for bribery and abuse of office. Paxton’s 2022 primary challenger, George P. Bush, and even famed Texas political strategist Karl Rove are also on the list, as is Laura Olson — the woman with whom Paxton was allegedly having an extramarital affair — according to The Dallas Morning News, which obtained the confidential witness.
“It’s not a criminal trial. It’s not a civil trial. It’s a political trial,” Patrick said in an interview with KRIV-TV of Houston this summer.
Politics is proving to be a major theme.
One of the House managers' first questions for their first witness, Paxton's former second-in-command Jeff Mateer, was, "Are you a RINO?"
Mateer blanched at the slang acronym for "Republican in Name Only," responding that he is "certainly far from right of center." He added that he was nominated by Trump to be a federal judge but was derailed by opposition from "liberal Republicans" and Democrats.
Mateer's nomination failed after CNN reported that he called transgender children evidence of "Satan's plan" in 2015.
Outside the courtroom, Paxton and his allies, including Trump, have already threatened political retribution for impeaching him.
“Hopefully Republicans in the Texas House will agree that this is a very unfair process that should not be allowed to happen or proceed — I will fight you if it does,” Trump wrote on Truth Social during the House impeachment proceedings.
Jonathan Stickland, the president of the far-right Defend Texas Liberty PAC, recently appeared on Steve Bannon's "War Room" podcast with a candidate for Dallas County GOP chair, Lauren Davis. The pair rallied viewers to pressure a half-dozen specific Republican senators to vote against conviction.
"We're spending millions of dollars," Stickland said on the show. "Anyone who votes against Ken Paxton in this impeachment is risking their entire political career, and we will make sure that that is the case."
That's a sentiment shared by Paxton supporters who showed up to watch the trial.
“He got elected by us; they’re trying to overturn our votes,” said Kaci Sisk, the president of the Bulverde Spring Branch Conservative Republicans. Sisk and members of her group arrived at the Capitol in matching red shirts just after 6 a.m. to wait in line for tickets to sit in the Senate gallery.
“We don’t care; we don’t care. We elected him knowing everything,” Sisk said. “He is the best attorney general that we have ever had. He’s very important to not just the state of Texas, but to this country. He leads the way for this country.”