Home A project of States Newsroom
Donald Trump Jr., conservative Republicans ride to Ken Paxton’s defense on eve of impeachment vote


Donald Trump Jr., conservative Republicans ride to Ken Paxton’s defense on eve of impeachment vote

May 26, 2023 | 6:56 pm ET
By Robert Downen
Donald Trump Jr., conservative Republicans ride to Ken Paxton’s defense on eve of impeachment vote
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton waves from the stage at a Donald Trump rally in Robstown on Oct. 22, 2022. (Angela Piazza/Corpus Christi Caller-Times via REUTERS)

Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

One day after a Texas House committee recommended that Attorney General Ken Paxton be impeached, several prominent Republicans pressed a common strategy Friday: attack, attack, attack.

In statements and social media posts, conservatives accused their fellow Republicans in the Texas House — Speaker Dade Phelan in particular — of attempting to undermine voters and conservative values by attacking Paxton. And, largely without addressing the merits of the many accusations against Paxton, they framed him as the victim of a political witch hunt that was orchestrated by a cabal of Democrats and “Republicans in name only.”

“The impeachment proceedings against the Attorney General are but the latest front in the Texas House’s war against Republicans to stop the conservative direction of our state,” Matt Rindaldi, chair of the Republican Party of Texas, said in a statement. “This sham impeachment is the result of the Phelan leadership team empowering Democrats, allowing them to hold leadership positions and letting them control the agenda.”

Rinaldi is thus far the highest-positioned Texas Republican to condemn the investigation. Gov. Greg Abbott has remained silent, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who would preside over an impeachment trial in the Senate, has said it would be improper for him to weigh in.

National Republicans are filling the void, however. While former President Donald Trump — a Paxton ally who endorsed his campaign before last year’s GOP primary — has not commented, his son Donald Trump Jr. said Friday that the investigation into “America First patriot Ken Paxton” is a “disgrace.”

“MAGA stands with Ken Paxton against this RINO/DEMO led witch hunt!!!” Trump Jr. tweeted.

Other prominent right-wing figures have similarly come to Paxton’s defense. Citing Paxton’s frequent lawsuits against the Biden administration, former Trump adviser Stephen Miller called on conservatives to “stand with Ken.” And Kyle Rittenhouse, who was acquitted of homicide after fatally shooting two Black Lives Matter protesters in Wisconsin, accused Phelan of working with “anti-gun Democrats” and “attacking our pro-gun attorney general.”

The attacks on Phelan are nothing new: For months, far-right Republicans have railed against Phelan, accusing him of slow-rolling conservative issues in the House, which has traditionally been more moderate than the Senate.

But this week’s accusations have been particularly aggressive and personal, a clear indication of the high-stakes drama that has gripped the state since Tuesday, when Paxton accused Phelan of presiding over the House while drunk and called for his resignation.

The next day, the House General Investigating Committee unveiled the findings of a two-month investigation into years of alleged misconduct and lawbreaking by the attorney general. After a brief Thursday afternoon meeting, the committee of three Republicans and two Democrats voted unanimously to forward articles of impeachment to the full House. As dust settled Friday from the chaos of the preceding days, Paxton and his supporters went on the attack ahead of a Saturday afternoon debate and vote on the matter in the House.

In a brief Friday speech, Paxton accused the GOP-controlled Texas House of working to undermine him and his aggressive legal challenges to the policies of President Joe Biden, whom Paxton mentioned by name at least eight times, and criticized the impeachment proceedings as unjust and unethical.

Others prominent Republicans have echoed those claims this week.

“Get one thing straight: The impeachment of Ken Paxton by the Texas House is driven by the crony establishment that wants to get along with the Biden administration,” said Michael Quinn Sullivan, publisher of the right-wing Texas Scorecard.

Sullivan’s group has close ties to a group of West Texas oil tycoons — notably Tim Dunn and brothers Dan and Farris Wilks — who have donated small fortunes to Paxton. Campaign finance records show that, since 2002, Dunn and the Wilks have been among Paxton’s most generous backers, pouring in at least $1.4 million in individual contributions and another $870,000 through their various fundraising groups, including Defend Texas Liberty PAC.

Last year, Defend Texas Liberty spent more than $5 million in an ill-fated attempt to replace Abbott and Phelan with more conservative candidates. This session, candidates backed by the group — including Bryan Slaton, the former Royse City representative who was ousted by the House this year for having sex with a teenage aide after giving her alcohol — have been by far the most vocal critics of Phelan.

On Friday, Defend Texas Liberty sent mass text messages urging supporters to contact their representatives and condemn the investigation. “Don’t let them team up with Democrats to steal your vote,” read one text message.

The attacks on Phelan continued Friday at the Capitol, where a handful of Paxton allies were present in the gallery seats overlooking the House floor. One local GOP leader said she drove two hours to support Paxton, whom she believes is under attack by Phelan and the Democratic establishment.

“Paxton is the most effective attorney general this state has ever had,” said Kaci Sisk, president of the Bulverde Spring Branch Conservative Republicans. “Those who vote for impeachment are effectively siding with the Biden administration and corrupt DAs in the state. We don’t care that he’s been indicted. We don’t care.”

Sisk’s apathy toward Paxton’s 2015 indictments on two counts of felony securities fraud has been echoed by other supporters who have dismissed the House committee’s investigation as old hat.

Despite the indictments, Paxton was reelected in 2018 and again in 2022, two years after high-level deputies in the attorney general’s office accused Paxton of accepting bribes and other misconduct.

Citing those victories, supporters say the investigation is a sham intended to overrule voters by dredging up well-known scandals as fodder for impeachment.

On Thursday, Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, said he opposed impeachment, which he believes is “illegal” if it deals with conduct that predates Paxton’s last election, in 2022.

House investigators pushed back against those claims Friday.

In a memo to lawmakers, the General Investigating Committee stressed that its investigation was prompted by Paxton’s request earlier this year for the Legislature to pay $3.3 million to settle a whistleblower lawsuit brought by four agency executives who were fired after reporting their concerns about Paxton’s actions to law enforcement.

The memo also addressed arguments by lawyers with the attorney general’s office who called the committee investigation illegal because impeachment proceedings could not be initiated against Paxton for crimes alleged to have occurred before his last election in 2022. The memo said the so-called “forgiveness doctrine” did not apply in Paxton’s case. The committee noted that in 1917, Gov. James Ferguson was impeached on four articles that related to his conduct before and during the 1916 election. The Senate convicted Ferguson on those counts, removing him from office.

Carla Astudillo and William Melhado contributed to this report.

Stories like the one you just read come to life at The Texas Tribune Festival, the Tribune’s annual celebration of big, bold ideas happening Sept. 21-23 in downtown Austin. For just a little bit longer you can grab a discounted ticket to this year's event, but act fast — savings end on May 31! Buy now and save.