The second week of Attorney General Ken Paxton’s impeachment trial in the Texas Senate could possibly be the last week. At the close of hearings Friday, Lieutenant Governor-turned-high judge Dan Patrick noted that both the House managers and Paxton’s defense each had about 15 hours remaining to present their evidence, meaning the historic trial is “likely past the halfway mark.”
The first four days of the trial featured plenty of pomp and circumstance, with each senator-jurist solemnly sworn in on a Bible that supposedly once belonged to Sam Houston, along with a good deal of showmanship by the good ol‘ boy lawyers from Houston who are running both sides.
The first four witnesses we heard from were all of Paxton’s former top deputies—first assistant Jeff Matteer, deputy first assistant Ryan Bangert, deputy AG Ryan Vassar, and director of law enforcement David Maxwell—and part of the group of eight aides who dropped the dime on their boss to the FBI back in October 2020.
Representing the House impeachment managers, the famous defense attorney Rusty Hardin, slowly, methodically, and sometimes tediously led each witness through their background—establishing their conservative bona fides—and the series of events that led them to believe that Paxton was corrupted by and abusing the power of his office on behalf of Austin real estate developer Nate Paul.
Together, the top deputies detailed Paxton’s unusual personal interest and pressure on his deputies to intervene in a case involving one of Paul’s downtown properties, an open records request that would expose information about an ongoing FBI investigation into Paul—a so-called “midnight opinion” that Paxton ordered his deputies to issue that called to cease foreclosures in the name of COVID-19 and culminated with his hiring of a special outside prosecutor to investigate Paul’s complaints about law enforcement and business adversaries. This was all done against typical protocol, against his deputies’ advice, and often without their full knowledge. And there was their discovery that Paul had hired Paxton’s mistress and paid for home remodeling, allegedly in exchange for the AG’s personal assistance.
This is what House impeachment manager Andrew Murr called in his opening remarks the “slow creep of corruption” that Paxton facilitated over the course of several months.
Tony Buzbee, the prominent Houston trial lawyer, led Paxton’s defense in tandem with Paxton’s longtime defense attorney Dan Cogdell. Buzbee began the trial with a blustery speech dismissing the impeachment case as a “whole lot of nothing.” He likened it to a political assassination by the Republican establishment, fueled by a sensationalistic press corps, all while promising that each charge would be roundly refuted.
He and the defense sought in their cross examinations to cast the top deputies as disloyal lieutenants who got caught in a misguided game of telephone and who rushed to judgment—and to the FBI—without the full set of facts and before giving their boss a chance to explain. Paxton’s team attempted to paint a deep-state conspiracy in which his deputies staged a coup with establishment Bushies, the powerful business group Texans for Lawsuit Reform, and even the Governor’s Office to take out Paxton after failing to oust him in the 2022 primary.
It’s not clear that Paxton’s defense last week was successful in its attempts to blow up the underlying facts and narrative that led to the AG’s impeachment. And their job wasn’t made any easier by the fact that the defendant has been AWOL after appearing for the opening of the trial. Still, the prosecution’s witnesses didn’t provide much in the way of new information beyond what was already detailed and alleged through reporting and the whistleblowers’ lawsuit.
Ahead of the impeachment trial, Hardin teased that, “I promise you, it is 10 times worse than what has been public.” If that’s true, and if the House managers intend to prove it, they still have plenty of work to do in their remaining time.
We’ll get a sense of how much further each side intends to plunge into the allegations this week as the House calls its remaining witnesses, which could include the remaining former deputies, members of Paxton’s security detail, his mistress, Nate Paul, and many others.
Then it’s Team Paxton’s turn to present its witnesses and full defense—which is promised to include a complete review of the Paxtons’ remodeling adventure and review of their kitchen decor, featuring “ratty old tile” and not granite countertops, and photos of their shopping at Home Depot and Lowe’s.
One person we know that the defense will not call on is Paxton himself, who has refused to take the stand.