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Texas AG Ken Paxton pleads not guilty at impeachment trial, departs as arguments commence

The impeachment trial of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has begun, putting Republicans in a difficult position. Paxton, who has faced felony charges and an FBI investigation, has remained popular among hard-right Republicans by aligning himself with Donald Trump. The trial is rare in its attempt to hold a member of the party accountable for alleged wrongdoing.

The impeachment trial of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton commenced on Tuesday, presenting Republicans with a crucial decision of whether to remove a prominent member of their party who has faced allegations of corruption for years, or to stand with one of former President Donald Trump's staunchest defenders.

This trial, which marks the first impeachment proceedings in Texas in nearly 50 years, represents the most significant threat to Paxton to date. Throughout his three terms in office, Paxton has been under felony indictment on securities fraud charges and has been the subject of an ongoing FBI investigation.

Amidst the current climate of intense partisanship in the United States, this trial is a rare instance of a political party holding one of its own accountable for alleged wrongdoing. In Texas, many Republicans have refrained from directly addressing or criticizing the litany of legal troubles surrounding Paxton. Despite this, Paxton has remained popular among the far-right by closely aligning himself with Trump and initiating lawsuits through his office that have halted the Biden administration's priorities.

With his political career hanging in the balance, Paxton did not stay for the entirety of the trial's first day, which was broadcast live on television stations across Texas. While he was present at the defense table in the morning, it remains unclear when or if he will return for opening statements.

Republican state Rep. Andrew Murr, one of the House impeachment managers leading the case against Paxton, argued that "Mr. Paxton should be removed from office because he failed to protect the state and instead used his elected office for his own benefit." Murr emphasized that in Texas, public servants are expected to do more than simply avoid criminal behavior.

Paxton faced a rocky start to the trial, with Republican senators rejecting his numerous requests to dismiss many of the 20 impeachment charges against him. Despite the presence of dozens of his supporters in the Senate gallery, including some who arrived at the Texas Capitol before sunrise, many seats remained empty.

As the articles of impeachment were read aloud, Paxton's attorney, Tony Buzbee, refuted the charges, claiming they were untrue or incorrect, and entered a plea of not guilty on behalf of his client. When the proceedings resumed without Paxton, Buzbee argued that the rules only required Paxton's presence at the start.

At the center of the case are allegations that Paxton misused his office to benefit one of his donors, Austin real estate developer Nate Paul, who was indicted earlier this year on charges of making false statements to a bank in order to secure over $170 million in loans. Buzbee asserted that Paxton had provided nothing significant to Paul and framed the trial as an attempt to overturn the will of the voters.

One victory for Paxton came when the presiding officer ruled that he could not be compelled to testify during the trial, which could last for weeks.

Ultimately, Paxton's fate rests in the hands of the GOP-controlled state Senate, where a dominant Republican majority includes his wife, Sen. Angela Paxton. This highlights the numerous entanglements Paxton has within a chamber that will determine his political future. Though Angela Paxton can attend the trial, she is prohibited from voting on whether her husband should be convicted or acquitted.

In May, the Republican-led House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to impeach Paxton. The 20 articles of impeachment include charges of abuse of public trust, unfitness for office, and bribery. This vote immediately suspended Paxton and made him only the third sitting official in Texas' nearly 200-year history to be impeached.

Paxton has denounced the impeachment as a "politically motivated sham" and an effort to disenfranchise his voters. His lawyers have stated that he will not testify during the Senate trial, and he has expressed confidence in his eventual acquittal.

Paxton's trial will be conducted by a jury of 31 state senators, the majority of whom are his ideological allies. The "judge" overseeing the trial is Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who loaned $125,000 to Paxton's last reelection campaign. Two other senators are also involved in the allegations against Paxton.

Over the weekend, Ken and Angela Paxton rallied supporters at a picnic near their hometown in suburban Dallas. Though Paxton could not discuss the trial due to a gag order, he criticized the Republicans who led his impeachment in the Texas House and called for a "clean house."

Supporters like Peter Bowen, who drove from Houston at 3:30 a.m. to be in line before sunrise, believe that Paxton was impeached because of his support for Trump. They argue that the majority of Texas voters have already made their stance clear and that the impeachment is an attempt to undermine their voice.

The trial requires a two-thirds majority, or 21 senators, for conviction. Even if all 12 Senate Democrats vote against Paxton, they still need at least nine of the 19 Republicans to join them.

The trial is expected to bring forth new evidence, although the outline of the allegations against Paxton has been public since 2020 when eight of his top deputies reported him to the FBI.

These deputies, whom Paxton specifically selected for their positions due to their conservative leanings, informed investigators that Paxton ignored their advice and hired an external lawyer to investigate the FBI's allegations against Paul. They also claimed that Paxton pressured his staff to take actions that benefited Paul.

In return, Paul allegedly hired a former aide to a Republican state senator with whom Paxton admitted to having an affair. Paul also financed renovations to one of Paxton's properties, a million-dollar home in Austin. According to a memo from one of the staffers who reported Paxton to the FBI, the two men bonded over a shared belief that they were being targeted by corrupt law enforcement.

Paxton was indicted on securities fraud charges in 2015 but has yet to stand trial. Initially, the Senate will not address three impeachment articles related to the alleged securities fraud and another related to Paxton's ethics filings.

Federal prosecutors continue to investigate the relationship between Paul and Paxton, so the evidence presented during the impeachment trial carries both legal and political risks for the attorney general.

Following their reports to the FBI, all eight of Paxton's deputies either resigned or were fired. Their departures triggered an exodus of other experienced lawyers and resulted in dysfunction within the attorney general's office.

Four of the deputies subsequently sued Paxton under the state whistleblower act. The bipartisan group of lawmakers leading Paxton's impeachment in the House claimed that Paxton's attempt to seek $3.3 million in taxpayer funds to settle with the group prompted their investigation into his actions.

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