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Op-Ed | The American Prospect | March 15, 2024

Ken Paxton, America First Legal, and Premonitions of Project 2025

State Attorneys General

This article was originally published in The American Prospect. Read on the original site here.

Texas today is what America will look like if Trump wins. It’s not pretty.

Over his nearly ten years serving as the attorney general of Texas—almost nine of which he has been under criminal indictment—Ken Paxton has pushed steadily more extreme, right-wing policies to deprive Texans of their rights. Be it their right to clean air or water, their right to basic democratic participation, or their right to not face discrimination, Paxton has attacked them all.

In these efforts, Paxton has had help from rightwing influence networks. In recent years, that has been especially true of the Conservative Partnership Institute (CPI). This partnership is important in its own right, but it also gives us a preview of what Project 2025—the Republican program for a second Trump presidency—looks like at the state level.

For readers who haven’t heard of it before, CPI is a Wall Street-backed conservative incubator and training organization that continuously challenges the Biden administration in court. It is also a holding tank for right-wing extremists, replete with former (and potentially future) Trump staffers, like Mark Meadows and Cleeta Mitchell. It has seven sub-organizations spanning many issue areas and advocacy styles, including those detailed in Project 2025’s notorious policy agenda. CPI’s organizations include the Center For Renewing America (CRA), the Election Integrity Network (EIN), the State Freedom Caucus Network (SFCN), America First Legal (AFL), the American Accountability Foundation (AAF), American Cornerstone Institute, and American Moment (AM.) 

CPI affiliates are well-integrated into the Project 2025 network, and are quickly rising to prominence by virtue of their associations with it. American Moment, for example, is a key component of the Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025, for which AM’s Personnel Manager Sarah Clavis was also a Project Coordinator. (CRA, a separate CPI sub-organization, run by former Trump Office of Management and Budget appointee, Russell Vought, is also a Project 2025 partner.) 

While not a formal Project 2025 partner in its own right, CPI’s America First Legal (AFL) functions as a litigation-on-demand firm for the network, and since its founding in 2021, has quickly made itself indispensable to the conservative legal movement writ large. 

It’s also stacked with conservative extremists. Russell Vought is a defender of Christian Nationalism and a member of AFL’s Board of Trustees. Past AFL board member Mark Meadows, a founding member of the Freedom Caucus, architect of a 2013 government shutdown in hopes of sabotaging the Affordable Care Act, and Donald Trump’s former chief of staff, was up to his neck in January 6 and is currently facing charges for his role in the attempted putsch. 

Further, AFL President Stephen Miller, is one of Donald Trump’s longest serving aides and “catch-all symbol of the racism and malice” of Trump’s White House. Miller has also previously promoted explicitly white nationalist books and articles and has longstanding ties to prominent white nationalists, like Richard Spencer. Miller was also the architect of some of the Trump Administration’s most heinously cruel immigration policies. Miller, notably, has also been floated as a potential Attorney General under a second Trump administration. 

Finally, Gene Hamilton, AFL’s current Vice President and General Counsel, is a former counselor to Donald Trump’s Attorney General, Jeff Sessions. Hamilton authored the memo that gutted DACA under Trump, was instrumental in ending protected status for immigrants from Sudan and South Sudan and a key player in implementing family separation at the United States’ border. 

It is no surprise that this dubious cast of characters has used AFL’s immense resources— entrusted to it in part via CPI’s own donor network, such as the Uihlein Foundation, Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and the Rizzuto Foundation—to litigate in support of the most extreme hard-right positions on a broad spectrum of local, state and federal issues. 

This leads us back to Ken Paxton. He has joined AFL in forcing these appalling positions through state and federal courts, and has been particularly aggressive in throwing public dollars, and the official weight of the Texas AG’s office, behind AFL’s extreme anti-immigration agenda. 

In 2021—mere months following Biden’s inauguration—AFL attorneys functioned as outside counsel for Paxton in attempting to force the administration to enforce a notoriously racist, xenophobic, and arguably unconstitutional provision called “Title 42.” This refers to a provision in U.S. law granting the president additional powers to fight the spread of communicable disease. Trump used it to block and expel asylum seekers without the slightest regard to whether that slowed the spread of COVID-19. 

Though Title 42 enforcement has since ended, its effect was devastating on asylum seekers and clearly did nothing to protect the public from COVID. So it makes sense that Paxton and the AFL would be for it, considering that both of them routinely and independently challenged COVID science and pushed various conspiracy theories about the pandemic. For them, COVID is merely a convenient excuse to be racist.

In 2022, AFL once again served as outside counsel for Paxton and Texas state to sue the Biden Administration (along with a coalition of other Republican states) to end the Central American Minors Program. The program meant to provide certain qualified children of foreign nationals (of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras), and potentially certain of their families, an opportunity to seek refugee status and potential access to legal resettlement within the United States. The suit functionally sought to end one of the only opportunities for children to legally reunite with their families in the US. 

Also in 2022, AFL was again outside counsel to Texas, suing the Biden administration over a DOJ and DHS rule that would expedite asylum applications. The rule was intended to clear the hundreds of thousands of case backlogs clogging immigration proceedings and to create a sustainable system for fairly processing asylum claims. 

In 2023, AFL, serving again as outside counsel for Texas and in partnership with Oklahoma, claimed that it sued Biden’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to “prevent the relinquishing of American sovereignty to the World Health Organization (WHO).” The rule in question of course did not actually relinquish American sovereignty. Instead, the rule established “broad recommendations related to international cooperation on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response. Nowhere in the 30-page document are lockdowns, closures or specific citizen surveillance systems mentioned.”

Paxton’s association with AFL doesn’t end at their shared litigative efforts. Investigative journalist Peter Stone has previously written that AFL’s Director Stephen Miller “​​is playing a key role in seeking lawyers fully in sync with Trump’s radical agenda to expand his power and curb some major agencies.” It is anticipated that a second Trump Administration would be staffed with attorneys mined from “either Miller’s group or have worked for Texas’s attorney general, Ken Paxton, a close Trump and Miller ally who has faced several ethics and criminal inquiries.”
Ken Paxton’s career and associations give us a premonition not only for what might come under a Trump administration, but also for dangerous trends within a set of partisans that have routinely wielded power and influence in the years following their AG tenure. From the corruption that has defined Paxton’s tenure to the devastation it has wrought on everyday people, it’s a chilling vision indeed.


State Attorneys General

More articles by Toni Aguilar Rosenthal

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