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Texas House impeaches state AG Ken Paxton

Impeachment proceedings against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton are underway in the Texas House of Representatives on Saturday in Austin, Texas. The Texas House voted to send articles of impeachment to the state Senate.  (Eleanor Dearman)
By Molly Hennessy-Fiske Washington Post

The Texas House impeached Attorney General Ken Paxton on Saturday over allegations of bribery, unfitness for office and abuse of public trust, a stunning rebuke of the conservative firebrand that at least temporarily forces him from office pending a state Senate trial that could lead to his permanent ouster.

The move against Paxton was engineered by his fellow Republicans, who have long controlled all three branches of state government. Only two other officials in Texas’s nearly 200-year history have been impeached, both for misuse of public funds: A state district judge in 1975 and the governor in 1917, after a contentious proceeding that experts likened to Paxton’s impeachment.

Paxton, who has been under various investigations for years, had dismissed the impeachment effort as “political theater” based on “hearsay and gossip, parroting long-disproven claims” and an attempt to disenfranchise voters who elected him to a third term last November.

Many of the allegations that form the basis of the articles of impeachment surfaced in 2020 when Paxton’s top aides accused him of abuse of office to benefit a wealthy donor. They reported their concerns to the FBI, which began an investigation, although no charges were filed. Four of the aides were fired and filed suit alleging retaliation.

In February, they reached a $3.3 million settlement – contingent on the state paying. House Speaker Dade Phelan (R) balked at Paxton’s request for the payment from the annual budget, triggering a bipartisan House committee’s impeachment investigation. Earlier this week, the Republican-led committee recommended Paxton’s impeachment for “grave offenses.”

“But for Paxton’s own request for a taxpayer-funded settlement over his wrongful conduct, Paxton would not be facing impeachment,” the committee said in a memo released by Phelan’s office Friday.

With Paxton’s impeachment, Gov. Greg Abbott, a fellow Republican who has worked closely with the attorney general, will be able to appoint a temporary replacement. It was not clear Saturday when that could occur nor when Paxton’s Senate trial would start.

By law, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Paxton ally, will schedule and preside over the trial but not vote; Texas’ legislative session ends Monday, and the trial could interrupt those final proceedings or be scheduled later. During the trial, the Senate can request documents, witnesses and testimony, meet privately for deliberations and exercise “any other powers necessary,” according to state law.

Paxton’s permanent removal would require a two-thirds vote by the Senate’s 19 Republicans and dozen Democrats. Paxton’s wife, Angela, is a Republican senator entitled to vote. So is Sen. Bryan Hughes (R), a Patrick lieutenant mentioned in the House articles of impeachment as having aided Paxton. Patrick has not said how he plans to handle those potential conflicts of interest. Both he and Abbott have remained conspicuously silent during Paxton’s impeachment investigation.

“Patrick is much more ideologically and politically aligned with Paxton than he is with the speaker of the House,” said James Henson, who heads the Texas Politics Project at University of Texas at Austin. But the impeachment puts Patrick in an awkward position given “the strength of the case against Paxton,” he said.

Matt Mackowiak, chair of the Republican Party in Travis County, which includes Austin, said it was unlikely that enough Republican senators would vote to impeach Paxton unless Patrick called for it.

“I don’t expect it. Ideologically they’re very aligned. And you’ve started to see Trumpworld weigh in,” he said, noting that Donald Trump Jr., former White House aide Stephen Miller and conservative activist Charlie Kirk tweeted support for Paxton this week.

Shortly before debate began, former president Donald Trump weighed in, criticizing Phelan and threatening to “fight” House Republicans who failed to support Paxton. “It is the Radical Left Democrats, RINOS, and Criminals that never stop,” Trump said on his social media platform. “ELECTION INTERFERENCE! Free Ken Paxton, let them wait for the next election!” Paxton retweeted Trump’s statement.

Sen. Ted Cruz also expressed support for Paxton in a series of tweets Saturday, saying the courts should address his alleged wrongdoing.

“Ken has been the strongest conservative AG in the country. Bar none,” Cruz wrote. “No attorney general has battled the abuses of the Biden admin more ferociously – and more effectively.”

Of 146 House members present, 121 voted to impeach Paxton – more than the majority required – 23 voted no and two didn’t vote. The vote came after four hours of debate about the legitimacy of the process and the 20 articles of impeachment.

During four hours of debate leading up to the vote, Paxton’s critics spelled out the case against him.

“The evidence is substantial. It is alarming and unnerving,” said Rep. Andrew Murr (R), who chaired the committee that recommended Paxton’s impeachment.

Rep. Charlie Geren (R), a longtime legislator who served on the committee, said members acted “beyond partisan affiliation in order to take the necessary steps to protect the institution that is our state government.” He noted that several colleagues had “received telephone calls from Gen. Paxton personally threatening them with political consequences in their next election.”

Afterward, a Democrat colleague tweeted a proposal to amend the impeachment articles against Paxton to include intimidation of House members and Senate jury tampering.

“No one person should be above the law, least not the top law enforcement official of the state of Texas,” said Rep. David Spiller (R), a lawyer who also served on the committee. “We each took an oath of office. Attorney General Paxton took an oath of office. He violated that oath. He put the interests of himself above the laws of the state of Texas.”

Paxton’s defenders questioned the legitimacy, speed and secrecy of the impeachment investigation. Rep. Brian Harrison (R) called the impeachment a “sham railroading of a political enemy.” At least one Democrat, Rep. Harold Dutton, voted against impeachment because he said the investigation was “abbreviated to the point it encroaches on due process.”

“This process is indefensible,” said Rep. John Smithee (R), a veteran legislator and lawyer, noting that Paxton was not allowed to defend himself before the committee or to cross-examine witnesses. He called the findings “hearsay.”

By contrast, Smithee and other critics noted that the last impeachment in 1975 was a “slow and deliberative process” where the accused attended, House members were allowed to review evidence and to question dozens of witnesses with public hearings over the course of months.

“What you’re being asked to do today is to impeach without evidence. It is all rumor, it is all innuendo, it is all speculation,” said Smithee, who voted no, likening Paxton’s impeachment to “a mob out for a lynching.” At that, the gallery erupted in applause, despite warnings from the speaker.

Rep. Tony Tinderholt warned fellow Republicans not to “give Democrats another victory.”

Paxton, 60, established himself as a GOP legal warrior in Texas, serving for a decade in the House and two years in the Senate before he succeeded Abbott as attorney general in 2015.

“Ken has been much more closely aligned with the grass roots, activist wing of the party. He’s been willing to be more bold, certainly more of a risk taker” than Abbott, Mackowiak said.

Across Texas, Republicans and observers were struck by the speed at which the previously powerful official suffered a dire threat to his career.

“It’s not something we’ve seen at this level in a century,” Henson said. “It has big, historical implications, and it’s going to require people to look at procedures that have not been used in a long time. … People had begun to take it for granted that Paxton was not going to pay any permanent cost for these accumulating legal problems.”

It was as attorney general that Paxton became a national conservative hero by championing Trump and his policies in court. Paxton led a multistate legal challenge to Biden’s election. He spoke at a Trump rally in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, shortly before the insurrection.

Paxton then fought the Biden administration on multiple fronts, particularly immigration. His legal challenges forced the administration to reinstate a Trump-era policy that required migrants to remain in Mexico while awaiting immigration hearings. Paxton led a coalition of Republican-led states that stalled the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program designed to protect migrant children from deportation.

He championed abortion restrictions, and challenged gun regulations and the Affordable Care Act. Last year, Paxton helped the governor investigate families of transgender children for child abuse. More recently, he investigated clinics in Austin and Houston for treating transgender youths.

“Paxton’s been the leading edge for the Republican attorney general model, challenging virtually every action by the Democrat president and, when you had a Republican president, running defense for Trump,” said Josh Blackman, a constitutional law professor at South Texas College of Law Houston who has filed briefs in support of some of Paxton’s cases.

Blackman said Paxton might try to get the courts involved to block his impeachment, potentially seeking a restraining order.

“When you’re about to be impeached, you use any legal reasoning you can think of,” Blackman said.

In arguing against impeachment, Paxton and his allies have insisted that Texas law exempts acts committed before official were elected – in his case, acts before last November. He won reelection with more than 53 percent of the vote after swamping former Texas land commissioner George P. Bush, the nephew and grandson of former presidents, in the Republican primary.

Paxton’s impeachment by the House was celebrated by Texas Democrats, immigrant and LGBTQ+ advocacy groups.

“Not only has Paxton run from the law and asked taxpayers to pay his debts, but he has consistently abused his power to target our community. He has robbed transgender kids of their childhoods and forced families to live in fear,” said Ricardo Martinez, CEO of Equality Texas.