AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The historic impeachment trial of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton began Tuesday with accusations of corruption that went unchecked for years and the Republican pleading not guilty as his party confronts whether to oust one of former President Donald Trump's biggest defenders.
But the day ended without Paxton around at all — he left and did not return after the state Senate overwhelming rejected his numerous attempts to dismiss the charges. His absence does not stop Texas' first impeachment trial in nearly 50 years but demonstrates the potential twists ahead in the coming weeks.
He was not the only one who left early: Although the start of the trial was carried live by some Texas stations and supporters of Paxton lined up before sunrise outside the Capitol, by the end empty seats in the Senate gallery outnumbered onlookers.
If convicted, Paxton could be barred from holding elected office in Texas.
“Mr. Paxton should be removed from office because he failed to protect the state and instead used his elected office for his own benefit,” said Republican state Rep. Andrew Murr, one of the House impeachment managers leading the case against Paxton.
“In Texas, we require more from our public servants than merely avoiding being a criminal,” he said.
In an era of bitter partisanship across the U.S., the trial is a rare instance of a political party seeking to hold one of its own to account for allegations of wrongdoing. For years many Texas Republicans have resisted criticizing or facing head-on the litany of legal troubles surrounding Paxton, who has remained popular among the hard right by aligning himself closely to Trump and rushing his office into lawsuits that have halted priorities of the Biden administration.
As the articles of impeachment were formally read aloud, Paxton’s attorney, Tony Buzbee, answered by calling them untrue or incorrect and saying his client pleads not guilty. He later used his opening statements to launch into a litany of grievances against the news media, the Texas House of Representatives, which impeached Paxton in May, and the special prosecutors who have pursued him for years on state charges of securities fraud.
At the heart of the case are accusations that Paxton abused his office to help one of his donors, Austin real estate developer Nate Paul, who was indicted this summer on charges of making false statements to a bank to secure more than $170 million in loans.
Buzbee said Paxton “gave nothing of significance" to Paul and framed the proceedings as an attempt to overturn the will of voters.
“What could be less democratic than only 30 people deciding who should be the attorney general of Texas,” Buzbee said. “The Texas House took away the votes of the over 4 million people who voted for Ken Paxton.”
In one victory for Paxton, the presiding officer ruled that he cannot be compelled to testify during the proceedings, which could last for weeks.
The first witness was Jeff Mateer, one of eight former Paxton aides who reported him to the FBI in 2020. His testimony was expected to continue Tuesday.
Paxton's political future is in the hands of the Senate, where the Republican majority includes his wife, underscoring the many entanglements of his case. Sen. Angela Paxton can attend the trial but is barred from voting on whether to convict or acquit.
Shortly before the trial began, Ken and Angela Paxton spoke for a few minutes on the Senate floor and shared a brief kiss.
The Republican-led House voted 121-23 to impeach Paxton in May. The 20 articles of impeachment include abuse of public trust, unfitness for office and bribery. The vote immediately suspended Paxton and made him only the third sitting official in Texas' nearly 200-year history to be impeached.
Paxton faces trial by a Senate jury stacked with ideological allies and a presiding judge, Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who loaned $125,000 to his last reelection campaign.
A two-thirds majority — or 21 senators — is required for conviction, meaning that if all 12 Senate Democrats vote against Paxton, they still need at least nine Republicans to join them.
Peter Bowen, 74, drove from Houston at 3:30 a.m. to be in line at the Senate before sunrise. He said Paxton, who was reelected to a third term last November, was impeached because of his support for Trump and voters have already made clear where they stand on the allegations.
“We all knew about them, and we elected him. What they are doing is taking away the vote of the majority of the people of Texas,” Bowen said.
The trial will likely bring forth new evidence. But the outline of the allegations against Paxton has been public since 2020, when eight of his top deputies reported him to the the FBI.
The former aides — largely conservatives handpicked by the attorney general — told investigators that Paxton had gone against their advice and hired an outside lawyer to probe the FBI's allegations of wrongdoing by Paul'. They also said Paxton pressured his staff to take other actions that helped Paul.
In return, Paul allegedly hired a former aide to a Republican state senator with whom Paxton acknowledged having had an affair and bankrolled the renovations of one of the attorney general's properties, a million-dollar home in Austin.
Federal prosecutors continue to examine Paul and Paxton's relationship, so the evidence presented during his impeachment trial poses a legal as well as a political risk to the attorney general.
After going to the FBI, all eight of Paxton's deputies quit or were fired. Their departures led to an exodus of other seasoned lawyers and saw the attorney general's office consumed by dysfunction behind the scenes.