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Texas Attorney General Is Acquitted in Landmark Senate Trial

Prosecutors presented a series of witnesses intended to prove their central case: that Ken Paxton allowed Nate Paul — a friend who had donated $25,000 to Mr. Paxton’s re-election campaign — to use the power of the office of the Texas attorney general to seek an advantage in his own private legal matters and to try to thwart a federal investigation into his business dealings.

The defense made a case that Mr. Paxton had full authority to take the actions that have been depicted as abuse of office — including, for example, appointing a special counsel to look into a federal law enforcement investigation of Mr. Paul. Mr. Paxton, his lawyers said, took no inappropriate actions to benefit Mr. Paul.

They also argued that the former employees who testified against Mr. Paxton were acting in concert with moderate Republicans who sought to remove a hard-right conservative attorney general.

A few moments of the trial stood out during the eight days of testimony.

The Disenchantment of a Senior Aide

An evangelical Christian and socially conservative lawyer, Jeff Mateer, the former top deputy in the attorney general’s office, testified first and said he had joined the staff because he thought that Mr. Paxton was a “true believer.”

But he said he had grown disillusioned.

Mr. Mateer testified that, during Mr. Paxton’s re-election campaign in 2018, he confessed to a group of top aides, including Mr. Mateer, that he was involved in an extramarital affair. His wife, Angela Paxton, who was running for the State Senate at the time, was present at the meeting. Mr. Mateer said he believed Mr. Paxton had repented.

Then, in 2020, Mr. Paxton began trying on various fronts to assist Mr. Paul, Mr. Mateer said. He and other top aides at one point confronted Mr. Paxton about what seemed to be an unusual concern for legal matters involving Mr. Paul. (Another top aide, Ryan Bangert, testified later in the trial that Mr. Paxton’s behavior was “bizarre” and that “he was acting like a man with a gun to his head.”)

“I wanted to have a meeting with the attorney general to discuss why he was involving himself in the affairs of Nate Paul,” Mr. Mateer testified.

He learned that Mr. Paul had hired the woman Mr. Paxton had been seeing in 2018.

“It answered the question, why is he engaged in all of these activities?” Mr. Mateer said.

What Is ‘Evidence’?

Mr. Paxton’s lawyers scored points during the testimony of one of the prosecution’s witnesses, Ryan Vassar, an aide who said he had become alarmed at the actions of Mr. Paxton and went to federal investigators to make an official report.

Under cross-examination, Mr. Vassar was asked whether he had brought any evidence with him to the meeting, which included Mr. Mateer, Mr. Bangert and four other aides.

“You went to the F.B.I. on Sept. 30 with your compatriots and reported the elected attorney general of this state for a crime without any evidence, yes?” said J. Mitchell Little, a lawyer for Mr. Paxton.

“That’s right, we took no evidence,” Mr. Vassar replied.

The comment was seized on by supporters of Mr. Paxton on social media who saw it as proof that the entire impeachment process was unfounded. For days after, the prosecution had to draw out testimony from other aides who went to the F.B.I. and said that they did, indeed, bring evidence, in the form of their own witness accounts of what they had seen at the attorney general’s office.

The Granite Countertops

Renovations to Mr. Paxton’s house in Austin have been a prominent part of the impeachment case because, prosecutors argue, the work was provided for free by Mr. Paul.

Prosecutors presented evidence that Mr. Paxton made no payments for the work until Oct. 1, the day after his aides reported his actions on behalf of Mr. Paul to federal authorities. On that day, Mr. Paxton transferred $121,000 to the contractor. His lawyers said he had directed the payment to be made the day before.

Andrew Wicker, Mr. Paxton’s executive aide, testified that several months before that payment, he overheard the attorney general discussing potential upgrades to the renovations with the contractor, who said, three times, that he would have to run the changes by “Nate.”

The changes included upgrading the kitchen countertops to granite and replacing the cabinets, about $20,000 worth of work, according to Mr. Wicker.

Tony Buzbee, a lawyer for Mr. Paxton, challenged him on that claim, presenting photographs to show that the countertops at the Paxton home had not been changed to granite. Mr. Buzbee, as he spoke, picked up a piece of granite at one point and even offered to take the entire State Senate by bus to see the countertops themselves.

“Now we see that the picture of the Paxton home, we can see that there were no work done on the countertops,” Mr. Buzbee said, referring to the photos.

“Yes, we can,” Mr. Wicker said.

“We can see that there was no work done on the cabinetry, can’t we?” said Mr. Buzbee.

“Yes, sir,” Mr. Wicker said.

“Pretty clear, isn’t it?” Mr. Buzbee said.

“From those images, yes.”

David Maxwell, left, former director of law enforcement at the attorney general’s office, is cross-examined. Mr. Maxwell appeared to be among the most effective witnesses for the prosecution.Credit…Eric Gay/Associated Press

‘Absolutely Ludicrous’

Several former officials from the attorney general’s office testified that Mr. Paul wanted an investigation of federal law enforcement officers and other officials for what he believed had been an illegal search of his home and business based on what he said was a doctored search warrant.

The officials said they had listened to Mr. Paul’s claims, but declined to investigate them. The most colorful and direct testimony on this point came from David Maxwell, a decorated former Texas Ranger who was the agency’s director of law enforcement.

“General Paxton ordered me to meet with this individual,” Mr. Maxwell recalled during his testimony. “My evaluation of the allegations by Nate Paul were that they were absolutely ludicrous, without merit.”

Mr. Maxwell appeared to be among the most effective witnesses for the prosecution. He said Mr. Paul appeared to want the office to interfere with a federal investigation and warned Mr. Paxton that by involving himself closely with Mr. Paul, the attorney general “was going to get himself indicted.”

Mr. Maxwell said several times that he had trouble hearing the questions from Mr. Paxton’s lawyer, Dan Cogdell. That led to, after more than two hours of testimony, a moment of both levity and tension in the trial.

“You are a fellow that has taught folks how to testify, right?” Mr. Cogdell asked.

“Say it again?” Mr. Maxwell replied.

“Why is it that every time I ask you if you’ve taught folks to testify, you suddenly can’t hear the question?” Mr. Cogdell said, smiling. “Is that one of the things you’ve learned by experience, to pause and act like you haven’t heard the question?

“Maybe,” Mr. Maxwell said, deadpan, prompting laughter from the senators and spectators.

“Fair enough,” Mr. Cogdell said, smiling. “Well, what did you learn?”

“I learned that it throws you off,” Mr. Maxwell said.

“And that’s your intent, Ranger,” Mr. Cogdell said, his voice rising in sudden anger. “Rather than testifying to the truth and giving direct answers, your game is to throw people off. Is that where we’re going, Ranger? Is that where we’re going?”


“That’s what you just said. That’s what you just suggested.”

“I just said that I do sometimes pause,” Mr. Maxwell replied, stopping abruptly at the word and holding silent for 11 seconds as he stared at Mr. Cogdell.

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