Texas state Attorney General Ken Paxton, center, sits with his attorneys Dan Cogdell, right, and Tony Buzbee during his impeachment trial in the Senate Chamber at the Texas Capitol on Tuesday in Austin. Juan Figueroa/The Dallas Morning News via AP, Pool

AUSTIN — The Texas Senate’s historic impeachment trial of Attorney General Ken Paxton, the conservative firebrand accused of bribery, unfitness for office and abuse of public trust, opened Tuesday with him alternately denounced for betraying “his constituents and the sacred public trust” and defended given “baseless” charges and evidence “dumber than a bag of hair.”

Paxton, only the third official to be impeached since Texas became a state in 1845, left the chamber before a fellow Republican delivered the prosecution’s opening statements.

“Mr. Paxton has been entrusted with great power. Unfortunately, rather than rise to the occasion, he has revealed his true character,” said Rep. Andrew Murr, a lawyer and rancher with a handlebar mustache who led the investigation that culminated in the House’s overwhelming vote to impeach in May. He said he and his colleagues “uncovered egregious misconduct and abuse of office” and alluded to actions by Paxton and his backers “seeking to intimidate the Senate.”

The Senate should oust the 60-year-old Paxton as attorney general and bar him from future public office, he continued. “We simply seek justice on behalf of the people of Texas.”

Both prosecution and defense had an hour for opening statements, and while Murr spoke for 18 minutes, Paxton’s lawyers used nearly all their time. They called the charges against him “outright foolishness” and the result of a politically motivated probe.

Attorney Tony Buzbee rejected “salacious allegations” about Paxton arranging a job for his mistress from wealthy donor Nate Paul and insisted it was “not a bribe.” He also dismissed evidence of alleged payoffs to Paxton and his wife, Sen. Angela Paxton, including a kitchen renovation with granite countertops.

“I don’t know where those are, Senator Paxton,” Buzbee said as she smiled and shook her head. Though she will not be voting on her husband’s fate, she was in her seat on the Senate floor as the trial began and appeared to pay attention during the defense team’s presentation, occasionally taking notes as Buzbee emphasized that a guilty verdict would mean rejecting the will of millions of voters who reelected Paxton last year.

“There is nothing here to support impeachment,” he said. “The people chose [Attorney General] Paxton. Do their votes matter? People are watching. The will of Texas voters should not be subverted.”

Paxton has been a fierce defender of former president Donald Trump – among his high-profile legal battles was his effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election – and a defiant opponent of the Biden administration. That made his impeachment at the hands of his own party all the more stunning. Sixty of 86 House Republicans voted against him, temporarily forcing him from office pending a trial.

Before this spring, the only two officials to have been impeached in state history were a governor in 1917 and a district judge in 1975. Both were accused of misuse of public funds. Both were removed from office.

Paxton supporters, some from his home county north of Dallas, arrived just after dawn clad in red “Texas RINO hunters” T-shirts targeting lawmakers they deem “Republican in name only.” After state troopers opened the doors to the Capitol, they rushed in and lined up when they saw Senate staff handing out tickets for the gallery. Some cheered.

Paxton initially faced 20 charges, including misconduct, bribery, obstruction of justice and misappropriation of public resources stemming from his effort to obtain $3.3 million in state funding to settle a lawsuit by senior aides. The Senate’s impeachment rules committee set aside four charges involving his private business dealings that House investigators alleged were obstruction of justice and false statements in official records. At the end of the trial, the Senate could dismiss those four charges or hold a separate trial on them.

Separately, he still is contending with felony securities fraud charges – he was indicted months after he took office as attorney general in 2015 – but that case has languished as lawyers fought over where Paxton should be tried. A hearing is scheduled in Houston on Oct. 6.

Republican Sen. Phil King began the proceedings Tuesday morning by praying “that when all of this is over all of us will walk away knowing in your eyes that we did the right thing.” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the Republican leader presiding over the trial, noted the momentousness of the occasion by using the historic Sam Houston Bible to swear in the senators who will render judgment. “This is a very significant and serious occasion that will be in the history books,” he said.

Many of Paxton’s backers view the trial as he has described it: politically motivated, and an illegal attempt to unseat a populist who bested significant challengers to win his third term last year.

“It’s a sham impeachment,” said Mark Montgomery, 73, who drove with his wife from nearby New Braunfels to watch and fume from the Senate gallery. “He’s the best attorney general we’ve ever had.”

Patrick started by presenting pretrial motions, leading with a motion by Paxton’s legal team to dismiss the charges. He needed at least 16 senators – a majority in the 31-person chamber – to approve the motion, but it failed, 24-6.

The impeachment trial is being conducted in the Senate similar to a court of law and will take at least a week, according to rules released this summer. Some of the more than 100 potential witnesses summoned Tuesday to testify included whistleblowers and political rivals, according to a confidential copy of the witness list given to senators and published this week by the Dallas Morning News. Each side will have 27 hours to make opening and closing arguments, present evidence and cross-examine witnesses.

Several current and former staffers from the attorney general’s office and a lawyer for a foundation Paxton is accused of acting against to benefit wealthy donor Paul were sworn in Tuesday as witnesses and expected to testify, first for the prosecution.

The trial is rife with potential conflicts of interest. Before becoming attorney general, Paxton served two years in the Senate seat that his wife holds, so he knows many of the senators who will vote. Patrick helped bankroll Paxton’s most recent campaign.

And among the potential witnesses: Sen. Bryan Hughes, who is accused in the articles of impeachment of helping Paxton exploit his office to aid Paul, and Paul, who was indicted and pleaded not guilty in June to charges of financial fraud for making false statements on loan applications. In addition, Paxton’s alleged mistress, whom he is charged with getting Paul to employ, is a former employee of Sen. Donna Campbell.

Patrick is presiding with help from appointed adviser Lana Myers, a retired state prosecutor and appeals court judge. A bipartisan team of House lawmakers are acting as prosecutors, with help from two Houston criminal defense attorneys.

As the morning progressed, Patrick ruled that Paxton could not be compelled by prosecutors to testify. Paxton’s legal team has said their client would not take the stand.

Shortly before a noon break, the lieutenant governor directed the defendant to rise. Paxton stood flanked by Buzbee and another attorney as a clerk read the articles of impeachment.

“Attorney General Paxton, how do you plead?” Patrick asked for each.

“Attorney General Paxton is innocent and therefore pleads not guilty,” Buzbee replied.

Senators ultimately will vote on each article of impeachment. A two-thirds vote is required for Paxton to be convicted, meaning 21 of the 31 lawmakers. The Senate includes 19 Republicans and 12 Democrats, and while Angela Paxton technically isn’t allowed to vote, she counts toward the total and so is effectively a no vote. Conviction on any article would remove Paxton for the rest of his four-year term.

His impeachment has divided Texas Republicans, with grass-roots groups, county Republicans and state leaders openly fighting over his fate. Just 28 percent of GOP voters think the House was justified in impeaching him, compared with 42 percent of independents and three-quarters of Democrats, according to a University of Texas Politics Project poll of 1,200 registered voters released last Friday.

Paxton’s approval among Republicans remained at 46 percent, the poll found. Something he reposted Tuesday, shortly after the trial started, gives a hint as to why. It was a statement of support made by Donald Trump Jr. on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter: “Today marks another milestone in Ken Paxton’s career of fighting the Austin Swamp and Establishment. Ken will survive and continue to combat the Swamp in Texas to put America first.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.