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Texas AG Ken Paxton’s impeachment trial begins with a former ally who reported him to the FBI

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The impeachment trial of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is underway with live television coverage, a former aide who reported him to the FBI on the witness stand and his wife watching from her desk in the state Senate but prohibited from participating.

But how much Paxton himself will take part in the historic trial that resumes Wednesday is up in the air. Facing the gravest threat yet to his political future, Paxton left the start of the proceedings early and cannot be compelled to testify over accusations of corruption that have dogged one of Texas’ most powerful figures for years.

The trial could last weeks and is beginning with testimony from Paxton’s former second-in-command, the first in a potentially long line of onetime allies who could help Republican impeachment managers build their case that Paxton should be permanently removed from office.

Paxton pleaded not guilty Tuesday but did not return for opening arguments, when his attorneys sharply criticized the impeachment and urged Republican senators to acquit.

“I have one simple ask: Do the right things,” attorney Dan Cogdell said Tuesday. “And the right thing is to vote not guilty.”

The testimony of Jeff Mateer, an evangelical Christian lawyer who describes himself as far to the political right, underscores how Paxton’s impeachment is a rare instance of a party seeking to hold one of its own accountable in a bitterly partisan age. Mateer was the first witness called by impeachment managers and was expected to return to the stand Wednesday.

If convicted, Paxton could be barred from elected office in Texas. Senators on Tuesday rejected numerous motions to dismiss the charges against Paxton, who is not required to attend all the proceedings.

“Mr. Paxton should be removed from office because he failed to protect the state and instead used his elected office for his own benefit,” said Republican state Rep. Andrew Murr, one of the House impeachment managers.

“In Texas we require more from our public servants than merely avoiding being a criminal,” he said.

Paxton was not the only one who left the first day of the proceedings early: Although the start of the trial was carried live by some Texas stations and his supporters lined up before sunrise outside the Capitol, empty seats in the Senate gallery outnumbered onlookers by the end.

For years many Texas Republicans have resisted criticizing or facing head-on the litany of legal troubles surrounding Paxton, who has remained popular among the hard right by aligning himself closely to Trump and rushing his office into lawsuits that have halted priorities of the Biden administration.

At the heart of the case are accusations that Paxton abused his office to help one of his donors, Austin real estate developer Nate Paul, who was indicted this summer on charges of making false statements to a bank to secure more than $170 million in loans.

Paxton attorney Tony Buzbee said Paxton “gave nothing of significance” to Paul and framed the proceedings as an attempt to overturn the will of voters.

The Republican-led House voted 121-23 to impeach Paxton in May, with the 20 articles of impeachment including abuse of public trust, unfitness for office and bribery. The vote immediately suspended Paxton and made him only the third sitting official in Texas’ nearly 200-year history to be impeached.

His future is now in the hands of a Senate stacked with ideological allies and a presiding judge, Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who loaned $125,000 to his last reelection campaign. One member of the Republican majority in the chamber is his wife, Sen. Angela Paxton, but while she can attend the trial, she is barred from voting on whether to convict or acquit.

A two-thirds majority — or 21 senators — is required for conviction, meaning that if all 12 Democrats vote against Paxton, at least nine Republicans would have to join them.

Peter Bowen, 74, drove from Houston at 3:30 a.m. to be in line at the Senate before sunrise Tuesday. He said Paxton, who was reelected to a third term last November, was impeached because of his support for Trump and voters have already made clear where they stand on the allegations.

“We all knew about them, and we elected him. What they are doing is taking away the vote of the majority of the people of Texas,” Bowen said.

The trial will likely bring forth new evidence. But the outline of the allegations against Paxton has been public since 2020, when eight of his top deputies reported him to the FBI, setting off an investigation that remains ongoing.

Jake Bleiberg And Paul J. Weber, The Associated Press