AUSTIN (AP) — The Republican-led Texas House of Representatives launched a historic impeachment proceeding Saturday against Attorney General Ken Paxton as Donald Trump defended the scandal-plagued Republican official from a vote that could lead to his dismissal.

The House met in the afternoon to debate whether to indict and suspend Paxton on charges of bribery, breach of public trust and unfit for office, just some of the charges that have followed Texas’ top attorney for most of the part of his three terms.

The hearing sets up what could be a remarkably sudden downfall for one of the Republican Party’s most prominent legal combatants, who in 2020 petitioned the US Supreme Court to overturn President Joe Biden’s election defeat of Trump. Only two officials in Texas’ nearly 200-year history have been charged.

Paxton, 60, called the impeachment proceedings «political theater» based on «rumors and gossip, repeating long-disproved claims» and an attempt to disenfranchise the voters who re-elected him in November. On Friday, he called on supporters «to come peacefully so his voices can be heard on Capitol Hill tomorrow.»

“No person should be above the law, least of all the top law enforcement officer in the state of Texas,” Rep. David Spiller, a Republican member of the committee that investigated Paxton, said in opening remarks. Rep. Ann Johnson, a Democratic member, told lawmakers that the «top police officer in Texas is at stake.» Rep. Charlie Geren, a Republican member of the committee, said without elaborating that Paxton had called lawmakers and threatened them with political «consequences.» As the articles of impeachment were expounded, some of the legislators shook their heads. They are expected to debate impeachment for four hours before voting.

Paxton supporters mingled in the House’s public gallery with visitors simply curious to see the government in action.

“This is a blow,” said Kathie Glass of Houston, who waited in line for an hour to secure a seat. Dimitri Nichols of Austin said, «Texas voters were aware of these allegations.»

Paxton has been under investigation by the FBI for years over allegations that he used his office to help a donor and was separately indicted on securities fraud charges in 2015, though he has yet to stand trial. Until this week, his fellow Republicans have remained silent on the allegations.

Impeachment requires only a simple majority in the House. That means only a small fraction of his 85 Republicans would need to join the 64 Democrats to vote against him.

If indicted, Paxton would be removed from office pending a Senate trial, and it would be up to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott to name an interim replacement. Final removal would require a two-thirds vote in the Senate, where Paxton’s wife, Angela, is a member.

Texas’ top elected Republicans had been remarkably quiet on Paxton this week. But on Saturday, both Trump and US Senator Ted Cruz came to his defense, with the senator calling the impeachment process «a travesty» and saying the attorney general’s legal problems should be left to the courts.

“Free Ken Paxton,” Trump wrote on his Truth Social social media platform, adding that if House Republicans continue with the process, “I will fight you.”

Abbott, who praised Paxton as he was sworn in for a third term in January, is among those who have remained silent. The governor spoke at a Memorial Day service in the House chamber about three hours before impeachment proceedings were scheduled to start. Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan was also in attendance, but the two appeared to exchange a few words and Abbott left without comment to reporters.

In a sense, Paxton’s political peril came with breakneck speed: The House committee’s investigation into him came to light Tuesday, and on Thursday lawmakers issued 20 articles of impeachment.

But for Paxton’s detractors, the rebuke was due years ago.

In 2014, he admitted to violating Texas securities law, and a year later he was indicted on securities fraud charges in his hometown near Dallas, accused of defrauding investors in a tech startup. He has pleaded not guilty to two felony charges that carry a potential sentence of five to 99 years.

He opened a legal defense fund and accepted $100,000 from an executive whose company was being investigated by Paxton’s office for Medicaid fraud. An Arizona retiree donated an additional $50,000 to whose son Paxton was later hired for a high-ranking position, but was soon fired after showing child pornography at a meeting. In 2020, Paxton intervened in a Colorado mountain community where a Texas donor and college classmate was facing eviction from his lakeside home under coronavirus orders.

But what ultimately sparked the impeachment push was Paxton’s relationship with Austin real estate developer Nate Paul.

In 2020, eight top advisers told the FBI they were concerned that Paxton was misusing his office to help Paul over the developer’s unsubstantiated claims that an elaborate conspiracy was afoot to steal $200 million of his properties. . The FBI searched Paul’s home in 2019, but he has not been charged and denies any wrongdoing. Paxton also told staff members that he had an affair with a woman who was later found to be working for Paul.

The impeachment trial accuses Paxton of attempting to interfere in foreclosure lawsuits and issuing legal opinions to benefit Paul. The bribery charges allege that Paul employed the woman with whom Paxton had an affair in exchange for legal help and that he paid for expensive renovations to the attorney general’s house.

A lead attorney for Paxton’s office, Chris Hilton, said Friday that the attorney general paid for all repairs and renovations.

Other charges, including lying to investigators, date back to Paxton’s still-pending securities fraud indictment.

Four of the aides who reported Paxton to the FBI later sued under Texas’ whistleblower law, and in February he agreed to settle the case for $3.3 million. The House committee said Paxton was seeking legislative approval for the payment that prompted the investigation of him.

“Were it not for Paxton’s own request for a taxpayer-funded settlement of his wrongful conduct, Paxton would not be facing impeachment,” the panel said.