You might not expect backers of Ken Paxton and Joe Biden to sound similar, but with both officeholders at various stages of political investigations, you can hardly tell them apart.
Both are setting an impossible “smoking gun” standard for evidence of corruption. In Paxton’s case, the suspended Texas attorney general is accused of abusing his office on behalf of a donor. For the president, the question is whether his son sold access and possibly favors to foreign companies, with Dad getting a cut.
Caveats are important: Both deny the charges, and in Biden’s case, the evidence is less well-developed than in Paxton’s impeachment trial. But by setting the bar impossibly high, partisans spinning on behalf of both are polluting the processes designed to hold politicians accountable and clean up our governance.
Paxton’s defenders have shifted throughout his Senate trial. First, they said he did not do the things he was accused of. Then, they said whatever he did, it wasn’t inappropriate. Then, they said that he had the authority to do it, so shut up. Then, they said: Heck yeah, he did it, because he was taking on the evil federal law-enforcement deep state.
That last one is a real stretch, but it’s important because it may resonate with the Republican senators who will decide Paxton’s fate. More precisely, it touches a nerve with the most vocal GOP voters, primed by Donald Trump’s troubles to mistrust the Department of Justice and its agencies.
What they try to elide, though, is that Paxton’s crusade against the feds was somehow limited to the case of one man, Nate Paul, who just happened to be the guy who hired the woman with whom Paxton had an affair. Paul was also renovating Paxton’s home, and a once-fierce Paxton loyalist says he clearly heard that Paul would have to sign off on a significant expense, the infamous “granite counters” that the attorney general sought.
Several former Paxton lieutenants have testified that Paxton was deeply, personally involved in the efforts to have the AG’s office investigate the feds who were investigating Paul. They also said that Paxton went outside of usual procedures to hire an inexperienced special prosecutor and gave Paul broad, unusual access to the attorney general’s staff.
Paxton tried to put the office in the position of investigating federal law enforcement, a role it does not hold. And again — just in Paul’s case. But all of that, Paxton’s defenders argue, adds up to “no evidence.”
Biden’s case is not yet as clear. House Republicans plan to open an impeachment inquiry into the activities of the president and his son, Hunter. Let’s stipulate that GOP lawmakers are acting rashly, raising the political stakes to the stratosphere when they could have continued to chip away at an investigation without invoking impeachment.
But to suggest, as Democrats and, sadly, some national media outlets are, that there is “no evidence” is preposterous. Hunter Biden received large payments from Chinese and Ukrainian entities, and the Biden family had an elaborate web of shell companies. Witnesses have contradicted the president’s claims that he never met with people doing business with his son. And there’s just the smell test: What other reason would there be to hire a drug-addled lawyer with a minimal record of achievement than to get access to, if not favors from, his powerful father?
The potential charges may add up to grounds for impeachment, even if we’re not there yet.
"Without definitive proof" would be a defensible modifier. "Without evidence" is not. https://t.co/9epvqQJ7O0
— Conor Friedersdorf (@conor64) September 12, 2023
It’s as if there’s a political version of the “CSI” effect, the concern that jurors are demanding exact scientific evidence to prove guilt in a criminal case. In reality, many cases have to be assembled by laying out facts and sequences that lead to a conclusion beyond a reasonable doubt — not ironclad proof — that the accused did the deed.
Political cases shouldn’t need a “smoking gun,” either. If you’re waiting for a picture of Paul twirling his mustache and handing a bag with a dollar sign on it to Paxton, good luck. Or if you only want a Biden probe when there’s an email in which he writes, “Please give my son a million dollars and I’ll make some calls for you,” not gonna happen.
But we’re not talking about criminal court standards here. We’re talking about judging a politician’s conduct as an abuse of the public’s resources and trust and whether he remains fit for office.
And in both cases, there’s ample evidence to proceed.