AUSTIN, Texas — Billionaires, burner phones, alleged bribes: The impeachment trial of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is going to test the will of Republicans senators to oust not only one of their own, but a firebrand who has helped drive the state’s hard turn to the right for years.
The historic proceedings set to start in the state Senate Tuesday are the most serious threat yet to one of Texas’ most powerful figures after nine years engulfed by criminal charges, scandal and accusations of corruption. If convicted, Paxton — just the third official in Texas’ nearly 200-year history to be impeached — could be removed from office.
Witnesses called to testify could include Paxton and a woman with whom he has acknowledged having an extramarital affair. Members of the public hoping to watch from the gallery will have to line up for passes. And conservative activists have already bought up TV airtime and billboards, pressuring senators to acquit one of former President Donald Trump’s biggest defenders.
“It’s a very serious event but it’s a big-time show,” said Bill Miller, a longtime Austin lobbyist and a friend of Paxton. “Any way you cut it, it’s going to have the attention of anyone and everyone.”
The build-up to the trial has widened divisions among Texas Republicans that reflect the wider fissures roiling the party nationally heading into the 2024 election.
At the fore of recent Texas policies are hardline measures to stop migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, battles over what is taught in public schools, and restrictions on LGBTQ+ rights — many of which are championed loudest in the Senate, where Republicans hold a dominant 19-12 majority and have Paxton’s fate in their hands.
The Senate has long been a welcoming place for Paxton. His wife, Angela, is a state senator, although she is barred from voting in the trial. Paxton also was a state senator before becoming attorney general in 2015 and still has entanglements in the chamber, including with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who will preside over the trial and loaned $125,000 to Paxton’s reelection campaign.
If all 12 Democrats vote to convict Paxton, they would still need at least nine Republicans on their side. Or the Senate could vote by a simple majority to dismiss the charges altogether. It was a GOP-dominated House that decided by an overwhelming majority that Paxton should be impeached.
“You’re seeing a fracture within the party right now,” said Matt Langston, a Republican political consultant in Texas. “This is going to impact the leadership and the party for a long time.”
The trial also appears to have heightened Paxton’s legal risks. The case against him largely centers on his relationship with Nate Paul, an Austin real estate developer who was indicted this summer after being accused of making false statements to banks to secure $170 million in loans.
Last month, federal prosecutors in Washington kicked a long-running investigation of Paxton into a higher gear when they began using a grand jury in San Antonio to examine his dealings with Paul, according to two people with knowledge of the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity because of secrecy rules around grand jury proceedings. The grand jury’s role was first reported by the Austin American-Stateman.
Chris Toth, the former executive director of the National Association of Attorneys General, said Paxton has for years weathered scandals unique among top state lawyers. He said the outcome of the trial will send a message about what is acceptable to elected officials across the country.
Impeachment managers in the GOP-controlled Texas House filed nearly 4,000 pages of exhibits ahead of the trial, including accusations that Paxton hid the use of multiple cellphones and reveled in other perks of office.
“There’s very much a vile and insidious level of influence that Ken Paxton exerts through continuing to get away with his conduct,” Toth said.
Part of Paxton’s political durability is his alignment with Trump, and this was never more apparent than when Paxton joined efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Like Trump, Paxton says he is a victim of politically motivated investigations.
But James Dickey, a former chair of the Republican Party of Texas, said the base of the GOP sees Paxton’s impeachment as different from legal troubles facing Trump.
“Exclusively, the actions against President Trump are from Democrat elected officials and so it can’t avoid having more of a partisan tone,” he said. “Therefore, Republican voters have more concern and frustration with it.”
Patrick, in a rare television interview last month, was explicit in what the trial is and is not.
“It’s not a criminal trial. It’s not a civil trial,” he told Houston television station KRIV. “It’s a political trial.”