George P. Bush wants to challenge beleaguered Texas AG Ken Paxton -- but can he keep Trump out of it?
George P. Bush. (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

Land Commissioner George P. Bush is sending strong signals that he's preparing to launch a primary challenge against Attorney General Ken Paxton, hoping it can center on Paxton's legal troubles and how he has run his office.

But can Bush keep former President Donald Trump out of it — both figuratively and literally?

It is one of the most glaring questions as the foundation is laid for what could be Texas' marquee statewide primary next year. Both men have been Trump supporters, but Bush has a unique history with the former president as the most prominent member of the Bush political dynasty to embrace Trump. And in recent months, Paxton has grown only more overt in his affiliation with the former president, making him an inevitable topic in Paxton's reelection bid.

Bush has insisted there is "no separation" between him and Paxton when it comes to supporting Trump. But even some of Bush's supporters concede that, fair or not, Bush would have to contend with running with a last name that still evokes strong emotions among Trump backers.

"It's very unfortunate to him because George P. Bush is his own man," said Eric Mahroum, Trump's deputy state director during the 2016 campaign in Texas — and an early supporter of Bush challenging Paxton. "I try to educate the base … that no, he was so supportive and helped us. He was willing to do whatever to get us across the finish line in 2016."

Mahroum said his respect for Bush "just went to another level" when he came out in support of Trump in the summer of 2016 and urged Texas Republicans to unify behind the nominee. Mahroum suggested it took Paxton longer to "come out vocally" for Trump back then.

Paxton's campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this story. But it has not entirely ignored Bush, dinging him last month as a "potential opponent more interested with the narrative being set by the liberal media than on the real and important issues facing Texas families and small businesses."

That came after Bush said he is "seriously considering" challenging Paxton, saying that "the top law enforcement official in Texas needs to be above reproach." Paxton has been indicted on state securities fraud charges for most of the time since he took office in 2015, and more recently, he reportedly came under FBI investigation over allegations from former top deputies that he abused his office to help a wealthy donor. Paxton has denied wrongdoing in both cases.Bush has invited supporters to "campaign kick-off rally" June 2 in Austin. An invitation obtained by The Texas Tribune does not specify the office that Bush is running for but bills him as the "next generation of conservative leadership."Bush and Paxton were both beneficiaries of Trump endorsements when they ran for reelection in 2018, and Bush promoted Trump's endorsement heavily as he fended off three primary challengers. Bush also had the support of Trump's son, Donald Trump Jr., who was set to headline a fundraiser for Bush's reelection campaign but called it off amid persistent criticism of the Trump presidency from Bush's dad, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.A Trump spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on whether the former president would take sides in a Bush-Paxton primary. Donald Trump Jr. is personally close with Paxton, though he currently has no plans to get involved in a potential primary battle, according to a source familiar with his thinking.

It remains to be seen how much support Paxton would have even from fellow top Texas Republicans in a competitive primary. He caused a stir earlier this month after The New York Times published a story in which he said he did not think Gov. Greg Abbott supported him for reelection, so he did not support him. Paxton quickly said he did indeed back Abbott for another term, but the damage was done.

"Unlike Ken, I actually support Gov. Abbott and I think that he has done a heck of a lot more for the state of Texas than Ken ever will," Bush said in a radio interview Wednesday.

On Thursday, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn declined to give Paxton a vote of confidence for reelection. Asked if he supported Abbott for another term, as well as other statewide officials up for reelection next year, including Paxton, Cornyn told reporters: "My personal relationship with Gov. Abbott is such that I will support his reelection. Beyond that, I'm really not interested in getting involved in primaries."

Paxton could at least count on the support of the Republican Attorneys General Association, which he previously chaired. RAGA spokesman Johnny Koremenos noted in a statement for this story that the group "has a long history of supporting incumbent Republican AGs." Last year, RAGA stood by Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill as he faced three intraparty challengers amid a groping scandal that caused him to lose his law license. Hill was ultimately defeated in a state GOP convention.

The Bush 'that got it right'

Bush was a supporter of — and surrogate for — his dad when Jeb Bush famously clashed with Trump in the 2016 primary. The two traded bitter attacks, and Trump did not spare other members of the Bush family, blaming George W. Bush for 9/11 and the lead-up to the Iraq War.

Like his dad, Bush did not endorse Trump once he became the presumptive GOP nominee in May 2016, and he declined to attend the Republican National Convention that summer. He said in an Associated Press interview at the time that Trump "has the ability to win us over if he clarifies many of his remarks and he demonstrates that he has humility and that he doesn't besmirch peoples' character as the motivating factor for why he's running for office."

But as the chairman of the Texas GOP's 2016 Victory effort — responsible for ensuring Republicans won up and down the ballot that November — Bush had a choice to make. So during a meeting with state Republican activists in early August, shortly after the convention, Bush threw his support behind Trump, acknowledging it was a "bitter pill to swallow" for "Team Bush" but urging Texas Republicans to unify to defeat Hillary Clinton.

"I didn't create controversy," George P. Bush said in a post-election TV interview. "My family understands my position."

In the ensuing months, his family members continued to draw attention for their resistance to Trump. The two former presidents in the family — the late George H.W. Bush, who was Bush's grandfather, and George W. Bush, who is Bush's uncle — notably declined to endorse Trump in 2016. But the land commissioner did not look back and emerged as a reliable booster of Trump in office.

After Trump endorsed Bush for reelection in 2018, helping him win a four-way primary with 58% of the vote, the former president continued to revel in Bush's unique status in his family. During an August 2019 visit to Texas, Trump brought Bush onstage and said he was the "only Bush that likes me" and the one "that got it right."

"I like him," Trump said. "He's going far. He's going places."

In June 2020, when word got out that George W. Bush did not plan to support Trump for a second term — and that Jeb Bush was unsure of how he would vote — George P. Bush made sure to separate himself.

"I endorsed President Trump in the 2016 election cycle and plan to do so again in 2020," George P. Bush said in a statement.

Notably, Bush stayed out of the fray after Trump lost reelection and spent weeks falsely claiming the election was stolen — claims that coincided with Paxton's lawsuit in December challenging Trump's defeat in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Once Joe Biden was sworn in, though, Bush swiftly issued a statement congratulating him and vowing to be part of the "loyal opposition."

Most recently, Bush aligned himself with the Trump-fueled effort to remove U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming from House GOP leadership. Cheney voted to impeach Trump earlier this year and has continued to speak out about her belief that the GOP needs to move on from the former president.

Speaking on the radio minutes after news of Cheney's ouster broke, Bush called it a "good thing."

"Instead of training fire on the president, she really should've been training fire on Biden and that agenda, and … I think that that's what you want out of your leadership," Bush said, "and unfortunately … she didn't rise to the challenge."

Cheney is the daughter of Dick Cheney, who served as vice president when George W. Bush was president.

Bush's allies say he may never be able to fully distance himself from the anti-Trump brand that his family cultivated. But they express confidence that voters will see he has navigated the past several years as his own man.

"Oh, there's always gonna be that, but … my respect for George P. is because of George P.," said Adrienne Peña-Garza, the chairwoman of the Hidalgo County GOP, who is personally supportive of Bush running against Paxton. "No disrespect to his family — I really appreciate how he as a young man has built his own career. He's a man of service to the community, and I think people will see that and believe that. So I don't believe he'll have a hard time at all [navigating the Trump dynamic]."

Paxton and Trump

Like Bush, Paxton did not immediately embrace Trump after backing someone else in the 2016 primary — Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in this case. Paxton attended the 2016 national convention, though, and declared his support for Trump there, saying he planned to "support him, vote for him, tell everybody to vote for him."

After Trump got into the White House, Paxton emerged as one of the most pro-Trump attorneys general in the county, most notably leading the lawsuit to fully repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Paxton hugged Trump even closer in his final weeks in office, though. He spearheaded a lawsuit challenging the 2020 election results in four battleground states, which the U.S. Supreme Court eventually declined to hear. He spoke at the pro-Trump rally that preceded the deadly U.S. Capitol riot in January. And in late February, he hit the golf course with Trump at the former president's Mar-a-Lago club in Florida.

There was even speculation that Paxton could be included in Trump's final raft of pardons before he left office.

Paxton's legal woes are undoubtedly fueling the movement to take him out in the primary. Another early backer of Bush's likely challenge to Paxton — Manny Ramirez, president of the Fort Worth Police Officers' Association — said Paxton has been a "good partner to law enforcement" but that the attorney general "needs to be unquestionably qualified and able to do the job without distractions."

As for voters concerned with how supportive Bush and Paxton have been of Trump, Ramirez said, "it's just picking between Option 1A and Option 1B."