In 2018, when Ken Paxton ran for reëlection as Texas’s attorney general, he was under state and federal indictments for securities fraud, and he also had a reputation for pettier malfeasance. Justin Nelson, his Democratic opponent, decided to make Paxton’s questionable ethical judgment central to his campaign. “I really just tried to ridicule the dude, and highlight the base venality of the corruption,” Nelson told me recently. Not long before the election, Nelson’s campaign obtained security-camera footage from 2013 of the entrance to the courthouse in Collin County, where Paxton lives. In the grainy video, Paxton, wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase, spies a Montblanc pen that someone has left behind at a metal detector. Paxton slips the thousand-dollar pen into his pocket, then walks away. (After a sheriff’s deputy contacted him a few days later, Paxton returned the pen, saying he took it by mistake.) The video was widely viewed; Paxton won the election anyway, by three points.
Paxton has long been dogged by allegations of fraud, corruption, and general impropriety—his state securities-fraud charges date from 2015—but, until recently, he seemed impervious to them. (He pleaded not guilty to the state charges, and no trial date has been set.) In October, 2020, eight of Paxton’s ex-employees, all high-level staffers in the Texas attorney general’s office, accused their former boss of bribery, abuse of office, and other federal and state crimes. Last fall, Paxton was reëlected again, this time by a margin of nearly ten points.
In the past six months, though, it seemed as though there might be a remarkable turn in Paxton’s political standing. In May, after a secret investigation into the allegations laid out by the whistle-blowers, the Republican-controlled Texas House overwhelmingly voted to impeach him. More than seventy per cent of the Republicans voted in favor of impeachment, including every House member from Paxton’s home county. “I was surprised—I think most people were,” James Henson, the director of the Texas Politics Project, at the University of Texas at Austin, said. “There was no evidence to date that any Republicans would be willing to call Paxton on his behavior, outside the limited conditions of a primary challenge. He’d gotten away with all this percolating for so long.”
For two weeks, Paxton was on trial in the Texas Senate to determine whether he would become the third elected official in Texas ever to be removed from office. As the minority party, Democrats were mostly on the sidelines; the drama played out among Republicans, who comprised both Paxton’s accusers and his ardent advocates. In the lead-up to the vote, Paxton’s supporters attempted to link his fate to that of Donald Trump. “This feels a lot like what they’ve tried to do to President Trump,” Jonathan Stickland, the head of Defend Texas Liberty, a PAC that supports far-right candidates, said on Steve Bannon’s show. Paxton denied wrongdoing and one of his lawyers called the impeachment a “political witch hunt.”
Early in the first week of the trial, I went to the red-granite capitol building in Austin, which Texans like to point out is fourteen feet taller than the national Capitol, to watch the proceedings in the Senate chamber, a fluorescent-lit room ringed by dim oil paintings, relentlessly air-conditioned against the stifling heat outside. As presented by the prosecution, the case against Paxton was both tawdry and consequential, spanning everything from illicit Uber rides to bribery—in the form of a home renovation—and accusations about Paxton’s “bizarre, obsessive” focus on using the power of the state to help a friend, the prominent real-estate developer Nate Paul. At times, the proceedings had an uncomfortably intimate atmosphere. The witnesses testifying against Paxton included several of his top employees: his former chief of staff, attorneys in his office, and the personal assistant whom Paxton’s wife, Angela, once jokingly referred to as the couple’s “second son.” (One of the most-anticipated witnesses, a woman with whom Paxton was reportedly having an affair, did not end up testifying.) The testimony was delivered to a jury that included Angela, a state senator, as a non-voting member.
The trial was presided over by the state’s lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, a political ally of Paxton’s. (Patrick, a former talk-show host with no formal legal training, seemed occasionally befuddled by the lawyerly jargon.) The two attorneys leading the prosecution, Dick DeGuerin and Rusty Hardin, had never worked together before, although they’ve argued opposing sides of a handful of cases. “Nothing where we kicked each other’s shins or anything,” DeGuerin told me. Between them, DeGuerin and Hardin, who are both in their early eighties, have played a role in many of Texas’s most scandalous events, from the fall of Enron to the Waco siege. After Robert Durst admitted to killing and dismembering his neighbor in Galveston, DeGuerin got him acquitted of murder. As the attorney for the estate of Anna Nicole Smith’s oil-tycoon husband, Hardin needled the former Playboy Playmate so relentlessly during cross-examination that she exclaimed, “Screw you, Rusty!” (Smith received nothing from the estate.) As prosecutors, both men affected the role of fond but stern country grandfathers. (At one point, DeGuerin, objecting to a claim by one of Paxton’s attorneys, declared it to be “hogwash.”) Paxton’s lead attorney, Tony Buzbee, was a trial lawyer who, in 2017, got in trouble with his H.O.A. for parking a tank in front of his Houston home. During the first week of the trial, the notably tan Buzbee accused the “bias” press of publishing a photograph that makes him look more orange than he really is.
The testimony was at times dramatic, and the prosecution emphasized that the witnesses testifying against Paxton were not motivated by partisanship. (When one was asked how conservative he was, on a scale of one to ten, he rated himself an eleven.) Part of the prosecution’s closing statement was delivered by the state representative Jeff Leach, a Republican, who described Paxton as a friend and mentor. “I have loved Ken Paxton for a long time,” he said, before urging the senators to remove Paxton from office. On Saturday, Paxton was acquitted of the sixteen charges against him, in a largely party-line vote.
Paxton was born in North Dakota, where his father was serving on an Air Force base, and later attended Baylor University, in Texas, where he met Angela. For much of his career, he’s lived in McKinney, a sprawling and fast-growing exurb thirty miles north of Dallas, where he helped found a nearby megachurch, involved himself in various questionable business deals, and served as in-house counsel for J. C. Penney. His rise to political power seems based less on his outstanding personal qualities than on his alliances within the Republican Party. (When I described Paxton as “not particularly charismatic” to Henson, he burst out laughing. “Yeah, I think that’s safe to say,” he said.) He won his first election to the State House in 2002, part of a wave that gave Republicans a majority in the legislative chamber for the first time since Reconstruction and cemented their control over Texas politics. While in office, Paxton aligned himself with an increasingly reactionary evangelical faction. As that cohort came to dominate Republican politics in Texas and across the nation, Paxton “rode that wave impeccably,” Henson said.
After one term in the State Senate, Paxton was elected Texas’s top lawyer at a time when attorneys general were playing a newly prominent, and partisan, role in national politics. At an event in 2016, Angela Paxton joked onstage about how often her husband was away, either at the state capitol or in Washington, D.C., where he followed the example of his predecessor, Greg Abbott, in initiating numerous lawsuits against the Obama Administration. “If you’re gonna come home after I’ve already gone to bed, I need a heads-up, so you don’t get shot,” Angela said brightly, to chuckles from the crowd. “As you can see, he’s here, he has not gotten shot.” Then she launched into a version of a Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters song, adapted to reflect the details of her marriage: “I’m a pistol-packin’ mama, and my husband sues Obama, I’m a pistol-packin’ mama, yes, I am.”
Under Paxton, the attorney general’s office has issued guidance classifying gender-affirming care for minors as child abuse and supported legislation that incentivizes private citizens to sue anyone who helped someone get an abortion. Paxton has said that he would back Texas’s anti-sodomy law if the Supreme Court revisited Lawrence v. Texas. He has also been a key defender of Donald Trump. On January 6, 2021, Paxton spoke at the pro-Trump rally that preceded the storming of the Capitol, with Angela by his side. “Because we’re here today, the message goes on: We will not quit fighting,” he said. “We’re Texans. We’re Americans. And we’re not quitting.” He would go on to blame that afternoon’s violence on Antifa, and to spearhead a failed lawsuit that sought to overturn the election.
Some Republicans were uneasy that statewide concerns seemed to be taking a back seat to grandstanding about national issues. The attorney general’s office also developed a reputation for issuing opinions that aligned with the interests of Paxton’s supporters, a former high-ranking Republican elected official told me. “I can’t imagine that happening under Abbott and certainly not under [John] Cornyn,” now a senator, he said.
Soon after taking over as attorney general, Paxton fired high-ranking employees and replaced them with aides with far-right pedigrees. These new employees included Jeff Mateer, an attorney who had previously represented an Oregon bakery that refused to bake a cake for a lesbian couple, and who had called transgender children part of “Satan’s plan.” In September, Mateer was the first of the whistle-blowers called to testify against Paxton. Mateer was red-faced and uneasy on the stand, but his sense of betrayal by his former boss was palpable. “I concluded that Mr. Paxton was engaged in conduct that was immoral, unethical, and I had the good-faith belief that it was illegal,” he said.
The impeachment charges stemmed from Paxton’s relationship with Nate Paul, the developer. Paul, the son of immigrants from India, bought his first piece of real estate, a thirteen-unit apartment building, after completing his freshman year at the University of Texas at Austin. He eventually dropped out of college, and, around the time he was twenty-two, his business started raising a twenty-five-million-dollar investment from the Austin Police Retirement System. Paul’s timing was fortuitous: not long after he started the business, the 2008 recession hit, and he bought properties during a period of low interest rates and prices, and he saw their valuations rise precipitously during Austin’s tech-fuelled boom. In 2014, “Nate Paul” was the most-searched phrase on the Austin Business Journal’s Web site; three years later, Paul, then thirty, told Forbes that he had “kind of cornered the market on potential office space in downtown Austin.”
But soon there were signs of trouble. In 2018, Paul’s businesses began to default on reportedly hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of loans. The next year, his office and home were raided by the F.B.I. (In June, Paul was indicted on eight counts of lying to financial institutions in order to get loans. According to the indictment, he provided crudely doctored financial statements indicating, for example, that an account held $18.5 million when it actually held only twelve thousand dollars. Paul had previously denied wrongdoing in the case.) Paul believed that the raid was politically motivated, and he wanted the attorney general’s office to intervene. According to one of the whistle-blowers, Paxton thought that his securities-fraud charges were the result of a biased investigation, and was a willing listener. But his deputies were skeptical. Paxton’s former head of law enforcement, a gruff veteran Texas Ranger named David Maxwell, testified that he warned his boss against getting involved with Paul. “I told him Nate Paul was a criminal, that he was running a Ponzi scheme that would rival Billie Sol Estes”—a notorious Texas fraudster—“and that, if he didn’t get away from this individual and stop doing what he was doing, he was gonna get himself indicted.” Paxton’s and Paul’s legal representatives didn’t respond to requests for comment.