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Matt Gaetz, a congressman and Donald Trump ally, is the subject of a sex trafficking inquiry by the Justice Department. The allegations are complicated, and Gaetz's response has been ardent and (at times) confusing. Here's what you need to know about the situation.
First of all, who is Matt Gaetz?
Gaetz is a Republican member of the U.S. House representing the 1st District of Florida. He is serving his third term in Congress and has consistently positioned himself as a hardline Trump supporter. In one 2016 campaign video, Gaetz promised to fight to pass open carry of firearms, “kill Muslim terrorists,” and build the border wall.
Why else have I heard about him?
Gaetz frequently makes headlines for his theatrical antics and controversial stances. In March 2020, he wore a gas mask on the House floor during a vote on COVID relief, which was widely interpreted as an act of mockery. (Gaetz maintained he was simply demonstrating his concern.) In 2018, he invited right-wing internet troll Charles C. Johnson to Trump’s State of the Union address. (Johnson has made statements on Reddit minimizing the Holocaust, writing, “I do not and never have believed the six million figure.” Johnson maintains he's not a Holocaust denier and said those posts “reflect statements I made but it does not reflect my views on the Holocaust.”) Gaetz also tweeted during the George Floyd protests that authorities should “hunt...down” Antifa, which was flagged by Twitter for “glorifying violence.”
Why is he being investigated now?
Gaetz is under investigation by the Department of Justice for sex trafficking, based largely on allegations that he had sex with a 17 year old girl and paid for her to travel with him. It is illegal, under multiple federal statutes, to offer anything of value to someone under 18 in order to induce them to travel over state lines for sex, regardless of local age of consent laws.
The inquiry into Gaetz grew out of a broader investigation into his friend and political ally Joel Greenberg, a former Seminole County tax collector who was indicted last June on a number of charges, including sex trafficking. Investigators believe Greenberg may have recruited women for Gaetz to have sex with and are seeking to determine whether Gaetz paid directly for sex.
The New York Times reported reviewing mobile payment app receipts between Gaetz and an unnamed woman, who allegedly told her friends that the money was in exchange for sex. On April 9, the Daily Beast reported on Venmo transactions between Gaetz and Greenberg that seem to suggest Gaetz paid to have sex with an 18-year-old woman. According to the site's review of the transactions, Gaetz sent Greenberg $900 along with instructions to “hit up” the unnamed woman. Minutes later, Greenberg sent three young women money in transactions totaling $900.
The Times reports that Greenberg is expected to plead guilty, which could be bad news for Gaetz; if Greenberg cooperates, he could become a key witness for the prosecution.
Also, in the wake of the investigation, stories have emerged of Gaetz allegedly showing other members of Congress naked photos and videos of women he claimed to have slept with.
On April 9, the U.S. House Committee on Ethics released a statement saying it has begun its own investigation into allegations against Gaetz. The statement reads:
“The Committee is aware of public allegations that Representative Matt Gaetz may have engaged in sexual misconduct and/or illicit drug use, shared inappropriate images or videos on the House floor, misused state identification records, converted campaign funds to personal use, and/or accepted a bribe, improper gratuity, or impermissible gift, in violation of House Rules, laws, or other standards of conduct.”
What’s the timeline here?
According to the Times, Gaetz’s alleged encounters with the then-minor took place two years ago. The investigation began under the Trump administration and was launched by then-Attorney General William Barr.
How has Gaetz responded?
Gaetz has denied the accusations. “It is verifiably false that I have traveled with a 17-year-old woman,” he said in an interview on March 30, also stating, “I have a suspicion that someone is trying to recategorize my generosity to ex-girlfriends as something more untoward.”
On April 1, Gaetz’s office made another, more thorough statement to the New York Times, addressing accusations that Gaetz recruited women for sex online. “Matt Gaetz has never paid for sex. Matt Gaetz refutes all the disgusting allegations completely. Matt Gaetz has never ever been on any such websites whatsoever. Matt Gaetz cherishes the relationships in his past and looks forward to marrying the love of his life.”
And on April 5, Gaetz published an op-ed in the conservative Washington Examiner denying the allegations once again. “First, I have never, ever paid for sex. And second, I, as an adult man, have not slept with a 17-year-old,” he wrote.
Interestingly, the Times has also reported that Gaetz sought a preemptive blanket pardon from Trump in the last weeks of his presidency for any crimes he or unidentified congressional allies might have committed. It is unclear if Gaetz knew about the DOJ investigation at the time.
Didn’t he also claim that he was being extorted?
Gaetz has characterized the allegations as part of a scheme meant to extort his family for millions of dollars. He claimed that he and his father were the victims of an extortion plot run by two men—former Air Force officer Robert Kent and real estate developer Stephen Alford—who were looking to fund an effort to find Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who went missing in Iran in 2007 while on an unauthorized CIA mission. (Last year, the Trump administration notified Levinson’s family that he had died in captivity. However, some people involved with the case continue to believe Levinson is alive.)
According to the Times, Kent and Alford approached Don Gaetz, Matt Gaetz’s father, to ask for money for their rescue mission. They allegedly suggested that Levinson’s safe return could be used as fodder for a pardon in the event that Gaetz were charged with a federal crime.
Kent maintained to the Times that he'd only heard rumors that Gaetz was under investigation and said the Florida lawmaker's efforts to characterize the proposed rescue effort as an extortion plot related to the DOJ investigation was “to divert attention from himself.”
“I told him I’m not trying to extort, but if this were true, he might be interested in doing something good,” Kent said in an interview with the paper. After that conversation, Don Gaetz contacted the FBI. Matt Gaetz said that his father wore a wire for a meeting with Alford.
In an interview with Northwest Florida Daily News, Alford said, “We have confidence we can obtain [Levinson's] release from Iran. That was our only purpose for going to Don Gaetz in the first place.”
What could the consequences be?
While Gaetz has not been charged, sex trafficking cases are routinely prosecuted by the Justice Department, and sentences are often severe. If Gaetz is charged and found guilty, he could face a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison.
Does Gaetz have supporters?
Not many. The severity of the accusations has isolated Gaetz, even from his own party. “For something like this, a 10-foot pole is not long enough,” Barry Bennett, a Republican operative and former Trump advisor, told the Daily Beast.
Trump has reportedly been advised not to weigh in, although he did release a statement on April 7 that said: “Congressman Matt Gaetz has never asked me for a pardon. It must also be remembered that he has totally denied the accusations against him.”
Very few Republican lawmakers have publicly voiced their support for Gaetz. A few notable exceptions were Marjorie Taylor Greene, the first-term Georgia representative who has embraced far-right conspiracy theories, and Jim Jordan, the high-ranking Ohio representative who has been accused of ignoring sexual abuse by a team doctor when he was a wrestling coach at Ohio State University.
Two of Gaetz's staff members have quit, including his communications director and legislative director. On April 8, Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger became the first Republican lawmaker to call on Gaetz to resign.
Wasn’t there some other news story about Gaetz that wasn’t quite so serious but was just kind of… weird?
You bet. In June 2020, Gaetz implied that he had “nonwhite children” during a debate about police reform with then-Rep. Cedric Richmond. When social media users noted that Gaetz does not have any children, Gaetz, 38, tweeted a photo of himself with Nestor Galbán, 19. “For all those wondering, this is my son Nestor. We share no blood but he is my life. He came from Cuba (legally, of course) six years ago and lives with me in Florida. I am so proud of him and raising him has been the best, most rewarding thing I’ve done in my life.”
Gaetz later clarified that Galbán is the younger brother of Gaetz’s ex-girlfriend and that he has not legally adopted Galbán. He had previously described Galbán as a “local student” and “my helper.”
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