Matt Gaetz: Why this Trump ally is fighting for his political life

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Representative Matt Gaetz speaks to reporters outside the West Wing of the White HouseImage source, Getty Images

Matt Gaetz, a rising star in the Republican Party known for his flashy lifestyle and frequent flirtations with controversy, may now be embroiled in a sex scandal that carries very real legal jeopardy.

Gaetz-gate, as it is being called, began with reports last week that the third-term congressman from Florida may have had sexual relations with a 17-year-old girl. Since then, the story has spiralled into a world of "sugar daddies" - men who lavish young women with cash and gifts - extortion, fraud and sex trafficking.

It has included reports that Gaetz showed photos of nude women on his phone to lawmakers on the floor of the House of Representatives and boasted about his sexual exploits.

The congressman has vehemently denied all allegations and dismissed calls for his resignation. One of Donald Trump's most loyal defenders, who has stuck by the ex-president through all of his scandals and controversies, is now facing an existential political crisis of his own, however.

Who is Matt Gaetz (and why should we care)?

Gaetz was first elected to the US Congress in 2016, representing a House district in the northern panhandle of Florida - a region more politically akin to neighbouring arch-conservative Alabama than the multicultural southern tip of the state. Prior to that, he had spent six years in the Florida state legislature.

Junior members of the House of Representatives usually toil in relatively anonymity unless they have Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez-level media savviness or boast influential political connections.

Gaetz had both - and used them to become a leading face of a new generation of Republican politicians.

The 38-year-old congressman, blessed with good looks, better hair and a sharp tongue, has been a frequent guest on conservative cable news outlets - 346 weekday appearances since August 2017, according to the liberal watchdog group Media Matters.

Upon taking congressional office, he quickly raised his public profile and caught the eye of that most powerful consumer of conservative media content, Donald Trump.

Gaetz became a regular warm-up speaker for Trump whenever the former president campaigned in Florida during his 2020 re-election bid. He met his fiancée, 26-year-old Ginger Luckey, while visiting Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort. He's posted Twitter selfies taken on Air Force One.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Rep Matt Gaetz and his fiancee, Ginger Luckey, reportedly met at Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort

The Florida congressman boosted his political notoriety with a variety of viral publicity stunts as well, including wearing a gas mask on the floor of the House of Representatives during debate over the first coronavirus pandemic aid bill in March 2020 and joining a group of Republican members of Congress who forced their way into a closed congressional witness deposition during the run-up to Trump's first impeachment in 2019.

In January, Gaetz travelled to Wyoming to hold a rally against Liz Cheney, the Republican congressional leader who had denounced Trump and voted to impeach him after the 6 January Capitol attack.

He's also been connected to a few stories that border on the bizarre, such as his revelation last year that he has been living with a 19-year-old non-biological, non-adopted "son", Cuban immigrant Nestor Galban, whom he met when Galban was 12 and Gaetz was dating his older sister.

What are the allegations against Gaetz?

Gaetz, as first disclosed by the New York Times, is being investigated by the US Justice Department for allegedly having a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl and paying for her to cross state lines. (Interstate trafficking of underage children for sex is a federal offence.)

It appears the investigation - which started under, and reportedly had the approval of, Trump-appointed Attorney General William Barr - is part of a larger inquiry into sex trafficking that led to the indictment of a Gaetz friend and local Florida politician, Joel Greenberg.

The 36-year-old former tax collector in Seminole County, near Orlando, was arrested last June and subsequently charged with a variety of criminal offences, including stalking, fraud, bribery, embezzlement, identity theft, forgery and sex trafficking.

According to the Times, this latest inquiry is focusing on whether Greenberg and Gaetz sought out women on so-called "sugar daddy" websites, where women sign up to meet men who provide them with cash and gifts in exchange for sex.

Image source, Getty Images
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Matt Gaetz supported efforts to oust Rep Liz Cheney, who voted in favour of impeaching Donald Trump

"The Times has reviewed receipts from Cash App, a mobile payments app, and Apple Pay that show payments from Mr Gaetz and Mr Greenberg to one of the women, and a payment from Mr Greenberg to a second woman," the Times reports. "The women told their friends that the payments were for sex with the two men, according to two people familiar with the conversations."

Greenberg and Gaetz were also recorded by security cameras several years ago entering a closed tax collector office on a weekend, according to information provided to the Orlando Sentinel by an unnamed source. The footage also reportedly shows Greenberg going through a basket of returned driver's licences scheduled for disposal.

"An indictment states that Greenberg used his access as an elected official to look up information about a girl between the ages of 14 and 17 in a state database, in order 'to produce a false identification document and to facilitate his efforts to engage in commercial sex acts'," the Sentinel notes. Greenberg has denied the allegations against him.

Greenberg and Gaetz's friendship - most prominently documented in photos Greenberg tweeted of the two at a White House event in 2019 and from 2017 with Trump confidante Roger Stone - is at the very least proving politically damaging. It may yet turn out to be a legal threat as well.

What has Gaetz said?

Gaetz has denied having sexual relationships with any underage girls, paying women for sex or visiting "sugar daddy" websites. He said that he has been "generous" with girlfriends in the past, but he has never engaged in illegal conduct.

On Monday morning, the Washington Examiner published an opinion column by Gaetz drawing parallels to what he characterised as the unjustified political persecution of Trump, Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Senator John McCain.

"Washington scandal cycles are predictable, and sex is especially potent in politics," he writes. "Let me first remind everyone that I am a representative in Congress, not a monk, and certainly not a criminal."

Read more by Anthony Zurcher:

During a contentious appearance on Tucker Carlson's highly rated Fox News talk show last week, Gaetz alleged that the Justice Department investigation was, in fact, related to an attempt by a former government official to extort money from his family.

"On 16 March, my father got a text message demanding a meeting, wherein a person demanded $25m in exchange for making horrible sex trafficking allegations against me go away," Gaetz said.

David McGee, the ex-Justice Department official Gaetz named, denies this allegation. (The Washington Post reports that the department is conducting a separate investigation into whether an attempt to contact Gaetz's father and offer legal help in exchange for assistance freeing an American believed to be held in Iran might constitute extortion.)

Gaetz also told Carlson that a then-girlfriend of his - whom the Fox host had met - was pressured by the FBI to accuse the congressman of a "pay-for-play scheme", although he has provided no additional details.

"The Office of Congressman Matt Gaetz and Luke Ball have agreed that it would be best to part ways," Gaetz's chief of staff informed the New York Times. "We thank him for his time in our office, and we wish him the best moving forward."

What does this mean for Trumpworld?

Given that Gaetz has been one of Trump's most vocal defenders, the whole controversy has become, at least partially, the latest proxy battle over the former president's legacy and ongoing influence in US politics.

Image source, Getty Images
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Matt Gaetz was an ardent supporter of Donald Trump

With Trump out of office, politicians like Gaetz have become the heirs apparent - testing whether his confrontational conservative rhetoric, penchant for cultural warfare and right-wing populism can be a blueprint for long-term electoral success.

Gaetz certainly has followed the Trump playbook when defending himself against these allegations - conceding nothing and lobbing a shotgun blast of assorted accusations at his critics and detractors.

In his Washington Examiner piece, he even echoes Trump's "they aren't coming for me, they are coming for you - I'm just in the way" turn of phrase.

It remains to be seen whether the Trump defence will work for someone not named Trump, however. Already, some Democrats have called for him to be removed from his seat on the House Judiciary Committee. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she agrees - if the reports are proven to be true. And Republican House leader Kevin McCarthy has said the allegations are "serious" and told reporters that he planned to speak to Gaetz (a meeting that has yet to be confirmed).

At least so far the top man at Mar-a-Lago has remained silent about the Gaetz accusations. If Trump weighs in, either via his now-common tweet-like press releases or in a media interview, it could bolster Gaetz's defence or deliver a politically fatal blow.

In the end, however, federal prosecutors may have the final say in Gaetz's future.