Trump acolyte in spotlight over sex trafficking probe
Washington, United States: Firebrand congressman Matt Gaetz was a rising Republican star loyal to Donald Trump but now finds himself in an extraordinary imbroglio: under investigation for sex with a minor and claiming he faced blackmail over an American missing in Iran.
Gaetz, a third-term congressman from Florida, has not been charged with a crime, and he has vehemently denied the various accusations against him, among them that he had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl, as a "lie."
But the unsettling panoply of allegations -- including that he may have broken federal sex trafficking laws and been involved in a scheme to recruit and pay women for sex -- has put the 38-year-old conservative's political future in doubt just as he was being seen as an increasingly potent force in the Republican Party.
In the latest twist, The New York Times -- which last week broke the story that the Department of Justice (DOJ) was investigating Gaetz -- reported Wednesday that the congressman had sought a blanket pardon from the White House in the waning weeks of Trump's presidency.
Trump had grown fond of Gaetz, a lawmaker who offered fierce loyalty to the president throughout his four-year term. But a Gaetz pardon never came.
With the scandal mushrooming, Trump himself weighed in on Wednesday.
"Congressman Matt Gaetz has never asked me for a pardon," the 45th president said. "It must also be remembered that he has totally denied the accusations against him."
The top Republican in the House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy, last week acknowledged the allegations were "serious" and could lead to severe repercussions, but said he wanted to see more of the facts.
"If it comes out to be true, yes, we would remove him," McCarthy told Fox News.
Gaetz has pushed back forcefully against the allegations and sought to divert attention from the DOJ investigation by insisting he and his family have been victims of an extortion scheme.
He says two men, including former Air Force officer Robert Kent, approached Gaetz's father seeking $25 million to fund their bid to locate and free American Robert Levinson, who disappeared 14 years ago in Iran.
Kent acknowledged texting the congressman's father Don Gaetz, a former Florida Senate president, telling him he knew of an "indictment" soon to be filed against his son, and that "I have a plan that can make his future legal and political problems go away."
Speaking to CNN, Kent said mentioning Gaetz's legal trouble was merely a "teaser," and he explained to the father "that this was not an extortion attempt," but a legitimate offer to help rescue Levinson while potentially showing Representative Gaetz in a positive light.
Levinson's family said in 2020 that US officials had told them that the ex-FBI agent had died while in Iranian custody.
Brash and combative, Gaetz has taken controversial steps in Congress, wearing a gas mask on the House floor last year during a vote on an early coronavirus response package.
In 2019 he delayed impeachment proceedings against Trump when he led dozens of Republican lawmakers who burst into closed-door witness depositions and refused to leave for several hours.
And in January Gaetz traveled to Wyoming to help stir up opposition to senior congresswoman Liz Cheney, one of 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump.
Salacious details of Gaetz's behavior have emerged too. According to CNN, Gaetz bragged about his sexual escapades to fellow lawmakers, showing them nude photographs of women he claimed to have slept with.
Gaetz has dug in, penning a column in Monday's Washington Examiner.
"The swamp is out to drown me with false charges, but I'm not giving up," he wrote.
But the DOJ investigation -- which was launched while Trump was still in office and not by Gaetz's political opponents -- could halt the ambitious Republican's rise.
It centers on Gaetz and fellow Floridian Joel Greenberg, a former tax collector in Seminole County who was indicted last year on a federal child sex trafficking charge.
According to the Times, people close to the investigation said they believe Greenberg met women through websites and introduced them to Gaetz, who had sex with them.
The DOJ is also investigating whether Gaetz had sex with a 17-year-old.
Most Republicans meanwhile have withheld comment on Gaetz's scandal. He is scheduled to speak Friday at a Trump-owned golf club in Miami, during the "Save America Summit" sponsored by a pro-Trump women's group.