AUSTIN — Texas’ Republican-led House of Representatives launched historic impeachment proceedings against Attorney General Ken Paxton on Saturday as Donald Trump defended the scandal-plagued GOP official from a vote that could lead to his ouster.
The House convened in the afternoon to debate whether to impeach and suspend Paxton over allegations of bribery, abuse of public trust and that he is unfit for office — just some of the accusations that have trailed Texas’ top lawyer for most of his three terms.
The hearing sets up what could be a remarkably sudden downfall for one of the GOP’s most prominent legal combatants, who in 2020 asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn President Joe Biden’s electoral defeat of Trump. Only two officials in Texas’ nearly 200-year history have been impeached.
Paxton, 60, has called the impeachment proceedings “political theater” based on “hearsay and gossip, parroting long-disproven claims,” and an attempt to disenfranchise voters who reelected him in November. On Friday, he asked supporters “to peacefully come let their voices be heard at the Capitol tomorrow.”
“No one person should be above the law, least not the top law enforcement officer of the state of Texas,” said Rep. David Spiller, a Republican member of the committee that investigated Paxton, said in opening statements. Rep. Ann Johnson, a Democratic member, told lawmakers that Texas’ “top cop is on the take.” Rep. Charlie Geren, a Republican committee member, said without elaborating that Paxton had called lawmakers and threatened them with political “consequences.” As the articles of impeachment were laid out, some of the lawmakers shook their heads. They are expected to debate impeachment for four hours before voting.
Paxton supporters mixed in the House public gallery with visitors just curious to see the government in action.
“This is a coup,” said Kathie Glass of Houston, who waited in line for an hour to secure a seat. Dimitri Nichols, of Austin, said: “Texas voters were aware of these allegations.”
Paxton has been under FBI investigation for years over accusations that he used his office to help a donor and was separately indicted on securities fraud charges in 2015, though he has yet to stand trial. Until this week his fellow Republicans have taken a muted stance on the allegations.
Impeachment requires just a simple majority in the House. That means only a small fraction of its 85 Republicans would need to join 64 Democrats in voting against him.
If impeached, Paxton would be removed from office pending a Senate trial, and it would fall to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott to appoint an interim replacement. Final removal would require a two-thirds vote in the Senate, where Paxton’s wife, Angela, is a member.
Texas’ top elected Republicans had been notably quiet about Paxton this week. But on Saturday both Trump and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz came to his defense, with the senator calling the impeachment process “a travesty” and saying the attorney general’s legal troubles should be left to the courts.
“Free Ken Paxton,” Trump wrote on his social media platform Truth Social, adding that if House Republicans proceed with the process, “I will fight you.”
Abbott, who lauded Paxton while swearing him in for a third term in January, is among those who have remained silent. The governor spoke at a Memorial Day service in the House chamber about three hours before the scheduled start of the impeachment proceedings. Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan also attended but the two appeared to exchange few words, and Abbott left without commenting to reporters.
In one sense, Paxton’s political peril arrived with dizzying speed: The House committee’s investigation of him came to light Tuesday, and by Thursday lawmakers issued 20 articles of impeachment.
But to Paxton’s detractors, the rebuke was years overdue.
In 2014, he admitted to violating Texas securities law, and a year later he was indicted on securities fraud charges in his hometown near Dallas, accused of defrauding investors in a tech startup. He pleaded not guilty to two felony counts carrying a potential sentence of five to 99 years.
He opened a legal defense fund and accepted $100,000 from an executive whose company was under investigation by Paxton’s office for Medicaid fraud. An additional $50,000 was donated by an Arizona retiree whose son Paxton later hired to a high-ranking job but was soon fired after displaying child pornography in a meeting. In 2020, Paxton intervened in a Colorado mountain community where a Texas donor and college classmate faced removal from his lakeside home under coronavirus orders.
But what ultimately unleased the impeachment push was Paxton’s relationship with Austin real estate developer Nate Paul.
In 2020, eight top aides told the FBI they were concerned Paxton was misusing his office to help Paul over the developer’s unproven claims that an elaborate conspiracy to steal $200 million of his properties was afoot. The FBI searched Paul’s home in 2019, but he has not been charged and denies wrongdoing. Paxton also told staff members he had an affair with a woman who, it later emerged, worked for Paul.
The impeachment accuses Paxton of attempting to interfere in foreclosure lawsuits and issuing legal opinions to benefit Paul. Its bribery charges allege that Paul employed the woman with whom Paxton had an affair in exchange for legal help and that he paid for expensive renovations to the attorney general’s home.
A senior lawyer for Paxton’s office, Chris Hilton, said Friday that the attorney general paid for all repairs and renovations.
Other charges, including lying to investigators, date back to Paxton’s still-pending securities fraud indictment.
Four of the aides who reported Paxton to the FBI later sued under Texas’ whistleblower law, and in February he agreed to settle the case for $3.3 million. The House committee said it was Paxton seeking legislative approval for the payout that sparked their probe.
“But for Paxton’s own request for a taxpayer-funded settlement over his wrongful conduct, Paxton would not be facing impeachment,” the panel said.