The first week of the impeachment trial of Warren Kenneth Paxton, the attorney general of Texas, came to a close Friday with some courtroom fireworks, but the testimony generally left observers who were promised substantial proof of crimes wondering where all the “shock and awe” was.
On Tuesday morning, the trial was gaveled in by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, sitting as judge before the entire Texas Senate, who are sitting as jurors. Almost immediately Paxton’s team made a variety of dismissal motions designed as test votes to discern where senators would lean on some of the more muddled and controversial impeachment articles. A handful of Republican senators voted to dismiss some, and a small cadre voted consistently to dismiss all, but each motion was denied by a solid majority of senators.
Before any witnesses were called, Judge Patrick exhorted the jury that according to the rules of the impeachment court that they had passed, only evidence that was sworn before these proceedings could be considered as they assessed their final votes. While it may seem obvious, it was an important reminder and a subtle rebuke of the Texas House, which had infamously rammed the impeachment resolution through the House in less than 48 hours over the Memorial holiday weekend in May after receiving a mix of closed and public third-hand summary testimony from sworn investigators who were recounting interviews from witnesses who had not been sworn during their own interviews.
Witness Testimony Went from Awkward to Worse
The House prosecution team’s first witness was Jeff Mateer who served as first assistant attorney general under Ken Paxton. Mateer is a widely respected Christian whose biggest claim to fame was having his nomination for district judge under President Trump scuttled for being too conservative. In his testimony, he came across as an Alex Vindman-style bureaucrat defending the “inter-agency consensus” who was upset at Paxton for marching to his own drum and not strictly hewing to departmental policies — as actual elected officials are often wont to do.
Defense Attorney Tony Buzbee put on a masterclass in deconstructing a web of complex allegations made by an otherwise credible witness. He offered innocent, compelling, and credible explanations for everything that drove the whistleblowers to assume Paxton’s conduct was illegal, which Mateer struggled to refute. Mateer also came across as remaining deeply offended and judgmental about Paxton’s prior confessed extramarital affair, which had clearly caused a rift between him and Paxton, thereby keeping any innocent explanations for Paxton’s conduct from being candidly communicated between the two men.
Next up was Ryan Bangert who served as deputy first assistant attorney general. His primary claim of misconduct was that during Covid, Paxton had sought to get official guidance released to forestall public “courthouse step” foreclosure sales. Bangert’s theory of misconduct was that all along this was an effort to help Nate Paul’s business interests, which he acknowledged was based on media reports, not any investigation of Paul’s particular circumstance. Nate Paul was a friend and donor of Paxton who was persistent if not downright obnoxious in trying to leverage his connections with Paxton for help with his various legal troubles. Paxton’s lawyer credibly established that because Paul had filed for bankruptcy prior to the time when the guidance was released — which automatically stayed the foreclosure — the guidance didn’t benefit Paul at all.
The cross-examination derailed into additional back and forth about how offended Bangert was with how the attorney general didn’t follow the internal process for official opinions, which at one point had Bangert bizarrely arguing a hyper-technical interpretation of Texas government code. In Bangert’s telling, it meant the informal guidance that he himself had authored really was an official opinion under the statute, even though the guidance letter literally said, “Please note this letter is not a formal Attorney General opinion under section 402.042 of the Texas Government Code; rather it is intended only to convey informal legal guidance” — as the closing line right above Bangert’s own signature block.
Ryan Vasser, the final OAG lawyer to be called as a witness, nearly single-handedly broke the Central Texas drought with his own waterworks on the stand, and that was before he had to publicly explain the cringe group texts making fun of his co-workers that he and his fellow whistleblowing wunderkinds had shared between themselves. Recall these were lawyers in the process of staging a mass exit, reporting their boss to the FBI, and seeking whistleblower protections — and they didn’t have the good sense to consider that their text messages would be discoverable during any future litigation.
Vasser was also the witness who acknowledged under cross-examination by Mitchell Little that they “took no evidence” when reporting the elected attorney general of Texas to the FBI whom he had “no reason not to” trust. He also acknowledged that for three years he and his fellow whistleblowers haven’t paid a single dime for representation from a high-powered Austin attorney who just happens to be linked to Paxton’s primary opponent, George P. Bush.
Iconic Texas Lawman Testifies
The final witness of the week was Texas Ranger David Maxwell, who served as Paxton’s deputy attorney general for criminal justice. There is a mythology around Texas Rangers, and his resume alone ensured his testimony would capture the attention of the senators of the impeachment jury. He initially came across as a folksy, Andy Griffith-type guy sent from central casting to play the role of a tough Texas lawman. His allegations were powerful and, for most of his time on the stand, appeared extremely credible.
In Maxwell’s telling, his concern began when Paxton advocated for the AG’s office to open an investigation into Nate Paul’s alleged mistreatment by the FBI and Texas DPS during a raid. Paul’s contention was that the feds did him dirty by illegally altering the search warrants after the fact to expand their scope just to get him. His technical experts theorized that there was altered metadata in the digital versions that proved the documents were changed.
Maxwell quickly developed the opinion “that Nate Paul was a criminal that we should not be associated with.” Accordingly, he dragged his feet and ultimately refused to open a formal investigation into the alleged FBI and DPS misconduct. Paxton, convinced of the idea the FBI was untrustworthy — not particularly far-fetched given what transpired with President Trump — eventually hired outside counsel to help explore and adjudicate Paul’s claims, an act that would eventually become the primary catalyst for the “whistleblower” complaints.
Maxwell now claims any investigation into alleged law enforcement misconduct on behalf of Nate Paul would have been committing several federal crimes, including obstruction of justice and interfering with a federal investigation. It should be noted that three years hence, neither the FBI nor the hostile-to-Republicans Travis County district attorney’s office sought charges for the investigation that was eventually opened at Paxton’s direction.
When pushed on the speculative nature of many of his claims and how he was failing to make clear delineations between what he knew versus what he suspected, Maxwell demurred and argued that all he did was “give an investigative committee a lead to go and investigate,” effectively shrugging off the lack of evidence to support his claims as someone else’s fault. This didn’t sit well with Paxton’s lawyer Dan Cogdell, who appeared to be building up to accuse Maxwell of leveraging his vast experience at being a savvy witness to deliberately obscure the fact that he wasn’t speaking with “personal knowledge” when all heck broke loose.
After Cogdell suggested he was playing games from the witness stand, Maxwell sheepishly smirked and said “maybe,” which elicited laughter in the Senate chamber. Cogdell wasn’t impressed and quickly and sternly accused him of playing a “game to throw people off” instead of “testifying to the truth.” Maxwell dramatically paused and stared Cogdell down and then became even more recalcitrant with the remainder of the cross.
Easily the most important moment in Maxwell’s testimony was when he stated, “I didn’t know if it was correct or incorrect. I passed it onto the House, that’s their job.” Admitting that his prior unsworn allegations to the House’s investigators were speculative and not based on personal knowledge was a shocking admission.
Too Many Indians Fashioned as Chiefs
From the offered testimony, it’s clear that in early 2020, discontent within the AG’s office was coming to a crescendo. Against the backdrop of Covid craziness and a boss who had earlier confessed to and sought forgiveness from his leadership team, with his wife by his side, that he had been unfaithful, the leadership team became increasingly suspicious of Ken Paxton. What resulted was a toxic stew of “worst possible assumption” sprinkled with an “I’m smarter than everyone else here” attitude that crippled that office.
The rift widened as senior staff began arrogating to themselves the authority of the elected attorney general when he was in another state with the fig leaf of Paxton being “absent” as justification, and Maxwell dragging his feet to thwart an investigation that Paxton wanted. Whether frustration with their boss begat suspicions around his integrity, or suspicions around his integrity begat their frustration is, at this point, unknowable to the outsider.
The First to Plead His Case Seems Right Until Another Comes and Examines Him
Maxwell’s admission highlighted how the House had largely just repeated suspicions and innuendo as fact in their impeachment articles and never did any sort of credible investigation that cross-examined the claims disgruntled people were making. During the brief House impeachment debate in May, Rep. Matt Schaefer rose to ask if “any member of the general investigations committee had cross-examined a witness?” Chairman Andrew Murr answered, “We hired long-skilled and qualified attorneys and investigators to do that work for us.” One wonders if he now regrets the decision to take that shortcut.
With all four witnesses, the defense did an effective job shaping their counter-narrative that self-righteous and self-appointed defenders of the bureaucratic imperative had zealously judged Paxton’s conduct through a glass darkly, reinforced each other with a toxic cynicism, and lost all perspective during their own makeshift in-house star chamber rush to judgment. The Texas House did no better in their so-called investigation before they rushed through hastily assembled articles of impeachment.
The degree to which the defense was able to offer clear and concise explanations only serves to underscore how derelict the House investigators were and how much this entire affair has been a sham from the start. House members involved in pushing this should be embarrassed to have foisted this upon Texas. It’s a shameful abuse of the machinery of the state, a complete corruption of the important process of holding elected officials accountable, and a stain on each elected official involved.