~ April 2021 ~ One of Donald Trump’s loudest cheerleaders in the US Congress is under federal investigation over allegations that he paid for sex with women recruited online, according to a media report.
Matt Gaetz, a Republican congressman from Florida, is one of the former president’s most ardent supporters and frequently appeared on TV to promote his lies about a stolen election.
But the 38-year-old’s rapid ascent is threatened by a strange, sordid and escalating scandal that includes a report by CNN that he allegedly showed nude photos of women he slept with to colleagues on the floor of the House of Representatives.
The crisis for Gaetz began this week when it was reported that the justice department is investigating claims that he had a sexual relationship with an underage girl and paid the 17-year-old to travel with him, potentially breaking interstate sex trafficking laws.
Gaetz denied the allegation and sought to deflect it by suggesting that he and his father are the victims of an “organised crime extortion”.
But there was a further twist when it was reported that scrutiny of Gaetz stems from a separate justice department investigation into one of his allies, Florida politician Joel Greenberg, who was indicted last summer on sex trafficking and other charges that he stalked a political opponent.
Greenberg was involved with multiple women who were recruited online for sex and received cash payments, the New York Times reported on Thursday. Greenberg “initially met the women through websites that connect people who go on dates in exchange for gifts, fine dining, travel and allowances, according to three people with knowledge of the encounters”, the paper said.
“Mr Greenberg introduced the women to Mr Gaetz, who also had sex with them, the people said.”
The New York Times said it obtained receipts from mobile apps that show payments from Gaetz and Greenberg to one of the women, and a payment from Greenberg to a second woman. “The women told their friends that the payments were for sex with the two men, according to two people familiar with the conversations.”
Gaetz took ecstasy, an illegal drug, before having sex, the paper’s sources also claimed.
The congressman vehemently denies the reports. His office said in a statement: “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.”
But adding to a sense of growing momentum against him, a separate report from CNN, based on anonymous sources, told how Gaetz showed off images of women on his phone – sometimes on the House floor – and talked openly about having sex with them. “It was a point of pride,” one source told the network.
And on Friday Gaetz’s communications director, Luke Ball, resigned. A statement said: “The office of Congressman Matt Gaetz and Luke Ball have agreed that it would be best to part ways. We thank him for his time in our office, and we wish him the best moving forward.”
Gaetz, who came to Congress in 2017, is among a pro-Trump coterie that has found a smash-mouth style and talent to outrage is a short cut to political stardom via rightwing media. He even travelled to Wyoming to hold a rally demanding that Liz Cheney, the No 3 Republican in the House, resign over her vote to impeach Trump following the 6 January riot at the US Capitol.
But the congressman is also the latest in a long list of Trump allies to be tarnished by proven or alleged wrongdoing, with some ending up behind bars. So far the ex-president has remained silence on the issue and few of his followers have taken a firm position.
Kevin McCarthy, the Republican minority leader in the House and a staunch Trump supporter, said on Wednesday that he would not strip Gaetz of his committee assignments until the case against is established.
McCarthy told Fox News: “Those are serious implications. If it comes out to be true, yes, we would remove him, if that was the case. But right now, Matt Gaetz says that it’s not true and we don’t have any information. So let’s get all the information.”
But Democrats are urging McCarthy to remove Gaetz the House judiciary committee, which oversees the justice department. On Wednesday Ted Lieu, a Democratic congressman from California, tweeted that Gaetz should not be “sitting on the Congressional Committee that has oversight over the Department that is investigating him”.
And Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, told reporters: “If in fact these allegations are true, of course being removed from the Judiciary committee is the least that could be done. From what we’ve heard so far, this would be a matter for the ethics committee.”
The ethics committee, consisting of five members from each party, can recommend punishments ranging from a reprimand, or formal rebuke, to expulsion. The full House would have to approve such actions, with expulsion requiring a two-thirds majority.
Gaetz – whose Twitter bio says “Florida man. Fiancé. Firebrand. America First” – posted to his 1m followers on Thursday: “The allegations against me are FALSE. The extortion of my family by a former DOJ official is REAL. DOJ has the tapes. Please release them.”