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Impeachment trial of suspended Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is underway

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today in the Texas Senate, the impeachment trial of suspended state Attorney General Ken Paxton got underway.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Attorney General Paxton, how do you plead?

TONY BUZBEE: Those allegations are offensive and false. The attorney general pleads not guilty.

SHAPIRO: He is accused of bribery, conspiracy, obstruction of justice, abuse of office and many more charges in connection with his relationship to a real estate developer. Paxton allegedly tried to help the developer avoid an FBI investigation. This was discovered after members of Paxton's staff acted as whistleblowers against him. This morning, Paxton denied all the charges. KERA's Julian Aguilar has been following all this from the Texas State Capitol in Austin. Hi, there.

JULIAN AGUILAR, BYLINE: How you doing?

SHAPIRO: All right. So what did we hear today from Paxton and his defense team?

AGUILAR: So the attorney general - the suspended attorney general himself has been under a gag order, and we thought that, you know, he might be called as a witness during this trial. But now that's off the table, so he will not be compelled to testify. But his attorneys are citing the Texas state constitution that says you can't impeach someone for something they did before they were elected, and Paxton was reelected in 2022. So that's going to be his lead argument - that the state Senate is trying to overrule the will of the voters, and that's according to his lead defense attorney, Tony Buzbee.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUZBEE: Thirty million people live in the state of Texas. Texans chose at the voting booth who they wanted to be their attorney general despite the same baseless allegations that are being made here.

SHAPIRO: OK. So that's the argument from Paxton's attorneys. What about the evidence against him?

AGUILAR: Well, the evidence against him has been posted online or a few weeks, and they include 4,000 pages of exhibits - lots of documents that the Texas House compiled when recommending the 20 counts of impeachment against the attorney general, including, you know, secret Uber accounts so he could travel around - just lots of documentary proof, you know, sort of solidifying his alleged misdeeds.

SHAPIRO: He was considered one of the most powerful Republican attorneys general in the country. He filed dozens of lawsuits against the Obama and Biden administrations. He aligned himself with former President Trump and the MAGA movement. How much is this trial about politics?

AGUILAR: Well, the attorney general and his defense team says it's all about politics. He wants to say that, you know, the supporters of the impeachment and the press have already tried and convicted him. But his supporters say that, you know, he's the most conservative attorney general in the country, and he's standing up for President Trump. I spoke with a gentleman named Peter Bowen. He's from Houston. I found him outside the Capitol this morning. He says Paxton is being unfairly targeted because of his support for Trump.

PETER BOWEN: And that's why he's being attacked. I think it's the Bush forces in the state that don't want Trump.

AGUILAR: So he mentioned the Bushes there. The establishment Republican Party in Texas includes former President George W. Bush, but state Republicans are helping to lead this impeachment.

SHAPIRO: Well, all right. What's next in the trial, and what's at stake here?

AGUILAR: So what's next is they wrapped up at about 4 p.m. Austin time. But, you know, there are some folks that are saying that the lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, who is acting as the judge in this - he wants to go pretty much full days every day, maybe even sometimes on the weekend here, so it'll go for several weeks minimum. You know, several of Mr. Paxton's former deputies have been called as witnesses, including one that testified today.

But what's at stake here is the office of the highest law enforcement officer in the state of Texas, and this is a state that has led the nation on conservative attacks on key issues, including abortion, gender-affirming care, immigration, guns - you know, pretty much every hot topic right now that's in national politics. His office has not taken their foot off the gas since he's been suspended, but this would maybe send the message that people are still being held accountable regardless of what they can offer politically, so there is definitely a lot at stake here.

SHAPIRO: That's Julian Aguilar from the Texas State House in Austin. Thank you.

AGUILAR: Thank y'all. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Julian Aguilar