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Texas AG Ken Paxton acquitted on 16 charges in state Senate impeachment trial

CNN — Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Saturday was acquitted in his state Senate impeachment trial, an outcome that laid bare the fierce divides within the Republican Party that controls all levers of government there.

The outcome is a political victory for Paxton, a hardline conservative and close ally of former President Donald Trump. Paxton had cast the 16 articles of impeachment he faced, which stemmed from accusations of repeatedly abusing his office to help a donor, as political retribution.

Paxton, who had been suspended without pay since the House impeached him in May, was reinstated in his role shortly after the vote when Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick certified the acquittal.

“Today, the truth prevailed. The truth could not be buried by mudslinging politicians or their powerful benefactors. I’ve said many times: Seek the truth! And that is what was accomplished,” Paxton said in a statement shortly after the vote.

Patrick – a fellow hardline conservative and staunch Paxton ally who presided over the trial – praised the outcome and ripped into the House from the dais immediately after reinstating Paxton. He called for a “full audit” of the House’s spending on the impeachment, which he said was a waste of “millions of taxpayer dollars.”

“The speaker and his team rammed through the first impeachment of a statewide official in Texas in over 100 years while paying no attention to the precedent that the House set in every other impeachment before,” Patrick said.

However, House members who had pursued Paxton’s impeachment characterized the outcome as a conservative Senate choosing to ignore the wrongdoing of an ideological ally.

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, a Republican, said in a statement Saturday: “It is extremely unfortunate that after hearing and evaluating this evidence, the Texas Senate chose not to remove him from office.”

But the acquittal, he added, is “not the end of this matter.”

Texas state Sen. Brian Birdwell acting as a juror votes on the articles of impeachment against suspended Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in the Senate Chamber at the Texas Capitol, Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Texas state Sen. Brian Birdwell acting as a juror votes on the articles of impeachment against suspended Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in the Senate Chamber at the Texas Capitol, Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023, in Austin, Texas. (Eric Gay/AP)

“Ken Paxton is the subject of multiple other lawsuits, indictments and investigations. If new facts continue to come out, those who allowed him to keep his office will have much to answer for,” Phelan said.

Intra-GOP feud

Phelan saved his sharpest barb for Patrick, the lieutenant governor who in Texas also acts as the president of the state Senate, where he regularly presides and wields enormous power over the legislative branch.

Phelan said it was “deeply concerning” that though Patrick had insisted he would preside in an impartial manner over the trial, at its end the lieutenant governor chose to “conclude by confessing his bias and placing his contempt for the people’s House on full display.”

“To be clear, Patrick attacked the House for standing up against corruption. His tirade disrespects the Constitutional impeachment process afforded to us by the founders of this great state,” Phelan said. “The inescapable conclusion is that today’s outcome appears to have been orchestrated from the start, cheating the people of Texas of justice.”

It’s the latest exchange in an increasingly personal rivalry between conservatives, including Patrick and Paxton, and Phelan, the more moderate speaker. Earlier this year, Patrick referred to Phelan as “California Dade.” Paxton accused Phelan of being drunk while presiding over a late-night House session, an allegation Phelan denied.

A former state legislator who was first elected attorney general in 2014, Paxton rose to national prominence with his court battles against then-President Barack Obama over issues including health care and immigration.

He also led an effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election with a failed lawsuit aimed at throwing out the Electoral College votes of four swing states won by President Joe Biden.

But Paxton also spent his entire tenure in the attorney general’s office under the cloud of scandal, starting with a 2015 indictment on securities fraud charges. Paxton has not yet gone to trial on those charges. Meanwhile, the Justice Department took over a corruption investigation into Paxton.

The impeachment charges

The impeachment process began after Paxton requested $3.3 million in taxpayer money to settle a lawsuit with former top staffers who had been fired after reporting the attorney general’s conduct to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2020.

Whistleblowers accused Paxton of using his authority to benefit his political friend Nate Paul, a real estate investor who had donated tens of thousands of dollars to Paxton’s campaign. In the settlement, Paxton apologized but did not admit fault or accept liability. He denied wrongdoing and said in a statement that he had agreed to the settlement “to put this issue to rest.”

One of the impeachment articles accused Paxton of using employees of the attorney general’s office to write a legal opinion intended to help Paul avoid the foreclosure sale of properties that he and his businesses owned.

It was among a series of articles focused on Paxton’s relationship with Paul, including accusations he hired an outside attorney who issued more than 30 grand jury subpoenas while investigating a “baseless complaint” made by Paul, delayed foreclosure sales of Paul’s properties and benefited from Paul hiring a woman with whom Paxton “was having an extramarital affair.”

The articles of impeachment also detailed what are described as Paxton’s efforts to cause “protracted” delays in the securities fraud investigation.

Ultimately, the Texas House voted 121-23 to impeach Paxton.

But he found more support in the state Senate. Beyond acquitting Paxton on the 16 counts under consideration, the chamber also voted to dismiss four other articles of impeachment that were brought by the House but not considered during the Senate trial.

The other four articles were related to Paxton’s ongoing state securities fraud indictment.

The two-week trial began on September 5 with Patrick instructing senators to avoid any media coverage or outside discussion of the proceedings. Paxton’s wife, Angela Paxton, is a state senator and was present at the trial, but she was barred under Senate rules from voting.

‘The Bush era in Texas ends today’

The divides within the GOP in Texas were on stark display in the trial’s closing moments Friday morning, as Paxton’s defense invoked Trump, former President George W. Bush and his family and more to cast the impeachment of Paxton as a political persecution.

Tony Buzbee, Paxton’s defense attorney, compared the impeachment of Paxton to the criminal charges facing Trump, the front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.

He also portrayed Paxton as a political enemy of the Bush family. Former President George W. Bush was Texas governor before his 2000 victory, and Paxton defeated George P. Bush, the former Texas land commissioner and son of Jeb Bush, in the 2022 attorney general primary.

“Let it be known, let it be clear now, the Bush era in Texas ends today,” Buzbee said. “They can go back to Maine.”

Two days earlier, Paxton had said on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, that he will travel to Maine next week to sit down with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson “and discuss the last two weeks in Texas politics. It should be interesting!”

But the House’s impeachment managers said intra-Republican Party politics had nothing to do with their decision to impeach Paxton.

Rep. Jeff Leach, a Republican who, like Paxton, is one of the House impeachment managers from Collin County, said he has long been close to the attorney general and considers him a political ally.

“Karl Rove’s not sitting in my office right now. This is me, and me alone,” he said.

This story has been updated with additional information.

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