WASHINGTON – Rep. Matt Gaetz, a firebrand Florida Republican and close ally of former President Donald Trump, is under investigation over allegations that he had sex with an underage girl, according to media reports Tuesday.
The revelation that the Justice Department is investigating Gaetz for potential violations of sex trafficking laws swiftly roiled national politics. Gaetz was accused of having a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl and paying for her travel, The New York Times first reported.
The third-term congressman denied wrongdoing, insinuating that he and his family have been under the threat of extortion from a former Justice official.
Gaetz has not been charged and said he is cooperating with the DOJ investigation.
The allegations at the heart of the evolving controversy are the most serious charges levied at a congressman who is no stranger to political scandal. The broader story of the situation involves multiple elected officials and investigations in Florida and Washington.
Here’s what we know:
Who is Matt Gaetz?
Gaetz, 38, has represented Florida’s 1st Congressional District, which encompasses much of the Panhandle, since 2017. Before that, Gaetz had served in the Florida House of Representatives since 2010.
He was raised in a political family; his father, Don, served in the Florida state Legislature as Senate president after co-founding the hospice care company VITAS Healthcare. He lives in Fort Walton Beach, near Destin.
Since entering national politics, Gaetz has been a frequent presence on conservative media and a viral hit across social media platforms. The profile has made Gaetz a popular conservative figure with the Republican Party’s base of voters.
In June 2020, after a fellow congressman said his white colleagues did not understand what it meant to raise a child of color in the U.S., Gaetz revealed he had raised a Cuban immigrant son, Nestor Galban, 19, who has no blood relation to Gaetz.
In December 2020, Gaetz became engaged to Ginger Luckey, 26, sister of Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey.
Before news of the Justice Department investigation broke, Gaetz said Tuesday morning he was interested in leaving Congress to join the television station Newsmax as an on-air personality.
DOJ investigates Gaetz
The Justice Department is investigatingwhether Gaetz violated federal sex trafficking laws in paying for the travel of an underage teen girl, The New York Times reported, citing anonymous sources familiar with the matter.
The investigation, which began under Attorney General Bill Barr and was led by some Trump-appointed federal agents, is part of a larger investigation into a close Gaetz ally, Seminole County tax collector Joel Greenberg.
In August, Greenberg was charged with sex trafficking girls ages 14 to 17. Greenberg faces 14 other federal charges, including stalking a political opponent by allegedly impersonating the candidate in fake Titter accounts and claiming the rival was “a segregationist and in favor of white supremacy.”
It is unclear how central the congressman is to the overall investigation though charges against him, if levied, would constitute federal crimes. Multiple federal laws make it illegal for a minor to travel across state lines to have sex with someone in exchange for money or valuable assets.
After news of the investigation began circulating, Gaetz confirmed he was under Justice Department investigation to Axios.
He told Axios, “I have definitely, in my single days, provided for women I’ve dated. You know, I’ve paid for flights, for hotel rooms. I’ve been, you know, generous as a partner. I think someone is trying to make that look criminal when it is not.”
He denied to The New York Times that he had committed any improper acts with the underage girl and alleged his family is the victim of an extortion racket.
“Over the past several weeks my family and I have been victims of an organized criminal extortion involving a former DOJ official seeking $25 million while threatening to smear my name,” Gaetz wrote in a tweet, claiming the sex trafficking investigation was a ploy to distract from the alleged extortion plot.
“I demand the DOJ immediately release the tapes, made at their direction, which implicate their former colleague in crimes against me based on false allegations,” he said.
Gaetz interview on ‘Tucker Carlson Tonight’
Tuesday night, Gaetz appeared on Fox News’ “Tucker Carlson Tonight” to discuss the controversy with the conservative host.
“You and I went to dinner about two years ago, your wife was there, and I brought a friend of mine, you’ll remember her,” Gaetz told Carlson.
“I don’t remember the woman you are speaking of or the context at all, honestly,” Carlson quickly said.
Gaetz again claimed the investigation into him was a cover for extortion, suggesting the effort was concocted by Democratic rivals in the House.
“I know that there was a demand for money in exchange for a commitment that he could make this investigation go away along with his co-conspirators,” Gaetz insisted, referring to the former Justice official.
“They even claimed to have specific connections inside the Biden White House,” Gaetz claimed. “Now, I don’t know if that’s true. They were promising that Joe Biden would pardon me. Obviously, I don’t need a pardon. I’m not seeking a pardon. I have not done anything improper or wrong.”
After the interview, Carlson declared, “That was one of the weirdest interviews I’ve ever conducted.”
The Fox News host continued that “on the certainty that there is always more than you read in the newspaper, we immediately called Matt Gaetz and asked him to come on and tell us more, which, as you saw, he did.”
“I don’t think that clarified much, but it certainly showed this is a deeply interesting story, and we will be following it. Don’t quite understand it, but we will bring you more when we find out,” Carlson said.
Gaetz is no stranger to controversy
Gaetz has been a lightning rod for controversy since entering Congress. In his early days in office, the congressman quickly crafted a political image as a close ally of Trump, adopting the pugnacious attitude toward national politics, in turn emulating the president’s penchant for attracting scandal.
One of his first acts in Congress was to call for the abolition of the Environmental Protection Agency. Gaetz was also early to call on Trump to fire special counsel Robert Mueller for his investigation into potential ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
The Florida representative drew loud condemnations from across the aisle for being the lone member of the House to vote against anti-human trafficking legislation in 2017. In 2018, Gaetz drew condemnations for inviting a prominent far-right conspiracy theorist and white nationalist to the State of the Union.
In 2019, Gaetz came under investigation by the Florida Bar Association for a tweet he issued threatening former Trump attorney Michael Cohen before Cohen’s testimony against Trump in multiple investigations.
Gaetz came under investigation in April 2020 for allegedly renting office space from a former donor, which would be a violation of House rules.
In July 2020, Gaetz was investigated for $28,000 in government funds his congressional office paid to a political consultant, another potential violation of House rules. He denied any wrongdoing.
Before taking office, Gaetz was charged with driving under the influence in 2008 and has had six traffic citations since 1999, according to a Treasure Coast Newspapers investigation.