In one of his final acts as leader of the free world, Donald Trump announced a slew of last-minute pardons late Tuesday night. Several went to Trump’s political pals, like his former campaign adviser and right-wing bomb thrower Steve Bannon and GOP fundraiser Elliot Broidy. A couple even went to popular rappers Lil’ Wayne and Kodak Black to overturn their federal gun charges.
But nowhere on the list was Texas’ embattled Attorney General Ken Paxton, who sure seemed to be angling hard for a pardon from his buddy during the final months of the Trump presidency.
Since Trump had previously given out pardons to other right-wing allies of his like Paul Manafort and Roger Stone, there was ample speculation that Paxton’s steadfast loyalty to the president might end up earning him a preemptive get-out-of-jail-free card for future federal charges he might face.
The FBI is currently investigating whether or not Paxton abused his office to help out Nate Paul, an Austin real estate developer accused of fraud who donated $25,000 to Paxton’s reelection campaign in 2018. In October, several of Paxton’s top deputies in the Office of the Attorney General blew the whistle on shady-looking actions Paxton took that benefited Paul; All of those deputies were either fired from their roles, put on leave or resigned in protest.
Paxton also still faces state felony charges of securities fraud for allegedly convincing members of an investment club he was in to buy stock in Servergy Inc. without disclosing that Servergy was paying him to gin-up investment in the company. Even though Paxton was first indicted in 2015, the case still hasn’t gone to trial due to years of delay tactics from Paxton’s legal team.
University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus wasn’t surprised that Paxton didn’t make the cut for Trump’s pardon list.
“My guess is that Paxton’s actions were too inflammatory and too recent even for a presidential pardon from the Trump White House,” Rottinghaus said.
Paxton has been one of Trump’s biggest and earliest boosters, but his efforts to ingratiate himself with the now former president intensified in the months after his latest ethics scandal came to light. Most notably, Paxton tried to get the U.S. Supreme Court to throw out the presidential election results from Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin — four battleground states won by President Joe Biden — due to allegedly unconstitutional election reforms those states implemented to make voting easier during the pandemic.
The Supreme Court quickly tossed Paxton’s case into the trash bin, but Trump seemed delighted that Paxton had the nerve to actually ask the court to try and throw the election to him — “This is the big one,” Trump tweeted about the Paxton suit before it was dismissed.
Paxton also proudly echoed Trump’s debunked claim that the presidential election was stolen at the January 6 rally in Washington, D.C. that ended up escalating into the violent mob assault on the U.S. Capitol. “We will not quit fighting,” Paxton told the crowd of Trump supporters. “We’re Texans, we’re Americans, and the fight will go on,” he said.
Presidential pardons only grant clemency for federal crimes, so even though a preemptive Trump pardon could have protected Paxton from any charges the FBI might bring related to his latest scandal, it wouldn’t have kept him safe from the state felonies he’s been accused of committing in the securities fraud case.
Still, a Trump pardon could have complicated the state’s effort to prosecute Paxton by potentially confusing future jurors into thinking Paxton had been declared innocent of all the crimes he’d allegedly committed, Rottinghaus said.
“It certainly [could have been] an opportunity for Paxton to be able to claim that, politically, he’d been absolved in some general way,” Rottinghaus said, although he doesn’t think it would have completely upended the securities fraud case.
“Presidential pardons have a tendency to shape perceptions about guilt… but because the charges were different, and the state securities charges have been going on for so long, it was unlikely to derail that effort completely.”
Now that Paxton’s pal Trump is out of the White House and Biden is in, Rottinghaus thinks Paxton will take on the role of gleefully antagonizing the new Democratic presidential administration with a flood of lawsuits challenging Biden’s liberal policy proposals.
It’s a job Paxton relished during the Obama years, and one that could help him rally the right-wing base support (and campaign donations) he’ll need to win reelection in 2022.
“My guess is he’s looking for any and every way to sue Joe Biden and the Biden administration over environmental issues, over immigration issues and a host of other policy changes that are going to affect Texas,” Rottinghaus said. “So I think he’s probably full-on in state vs. federal government mode.”
Paxton confirmed that hunch in an Inauguration Day tweet:
My statement on Inauguration Day ?? pic.twitter.com/Hb893NG91x— Texas Attorney General (@TXAG) January 20, 2021
“Paxton also needs to refill the coffers; his fundraising has been anemic,” Rottinghaus explained. “And if he can’t get the money in the bank to run a good race in 2022, then he’s going to definitely be politically in jeopardy.”
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