By voting to acquit Ken Paxton and allow him to continue as attorney general, senators sent unmistakable messages Saturday — and none of them are good for Texas.
Their verdicts on 16 articles of impeachment say that a small group of hotheaded political warriors can intimidate elected officials away from doing the right thing. For lack of courage from all but a few members of the Republican majority in the Senate, we have a clear verdict that politics trumps right and wrong.
They say that state employees who witness serious wrongdoing at the highest levels better look the other way, or their careers and reputations will never recover.
They say that law enforcement and prosecutors are not to be trusted and can be targeted and denigrated for doing their jobs.
And worst of all, they say that a state official can bend his or her public office to benefit one person. He can disrupt usual procedures to help his friend. He can marshal taxpayer resources for someone, give that person broad access to his office at a time when that person is helping you conceal an extramarital affair — as long as there isn’t a “smoking gun” to prove bribery.
That’s what Ken Paxton did. He bent the attorney general’s office in outrageous ways to the benefit of developer Nate Paul.
That’s the most outrageous outcome here: The verdict normalizes behavior that every reasonable person should recognize as an inappropriate twisting of the voters’ sacred trust. It tells people with access to state officials that favors are readily available, as long as the officials they solicit are as ethically compromised as Paxton.
The standard to evict Paxton did not have to be whether he broke the law. Senators were called to vote on whether, based on the conduct outlined, Paxton was fit to continue in high public office. They failed the test.
The denigration of law enforcement Paxton’s defenders engaged in to win his acquittal will have lasting effects. Even a decorated Texas Ranger had to be thrown under the bus because he testified to Paxton’s wrongdoing.
Judges, officers and prosecutors everywhere should feel a chill; Paxton revealed a willingness to meddle in federal cases on behalf of those under investigation. Republicans who bought these claims can no longer credibly campaign with the “back the blue” slogan. To protect politicians as contemptible as Donald Trump and Ken Paxton, the GOP backs away from backing the blue.
Or at least a portion of it does. The trial was inherently political. Republican senators, with an assortment of political ambitions, did not want to alienate the core base of the party. Voters who consider themselves Republicans or just lean conservative — still a solid majority of the state — should ask themselves whether these activists represent their interests.
If they do, there may still be a reckoning for Paxton. It could also come from criminal courts. Paxton still faces long-delayed charges of securities fraud, and the FBI is investigating the Nate Paul allegations.
Paxton defense attorney Tony Buzbee, in his scattershot closing arguments Friday, suggested that the House impeachment team thought that the charges alone would chase Paxton out of office.
“They assumed that this man would quit. They assumed that this man would run and hide,” Buzbee said. “But guess what? This man did not resign; he is ready to go back to work.”
He’s right, but not for the reason he thinks. It’s because Paxton is apparently incapable of shame for obvious malfeasance.
And the Texas Senate just endorsed his behavior.
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