Thursday Reads: Matt Gaetz’s Wild and Crazy ScandalPosted: April 1, 2021
What on Earth is going on with Matt Gaetz? The story just keeps growing stranger by the day. It all began with this New York Times story published on Tuesday: Matt Gaetz Is Said to Face Justice Dept. Inquiry Over Sex With an Underage Girl.
Representative Matt Gaetz, Republican of Florida and a close ally of former President Donald J. Trump, is being investigated by the Justice Department over whether he had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old and paid for her to travel with him, according to three people briefed on the matter.
Investigators are examining whether Mr. Gaetz violated federal sex trafficking laws, the people said. A variety of federal statutes make it illegal to induce someone under 18 to travel over state lines to engage in sex in exchange for money or something of value. The Justice Department regularly prosecutes such cases, and offenders often receive severe sentences.
It was not clear how Mr. Gaetz met the girl, believed to be 17 at the time of encounters about two years ago that investigators are scrutinizing, according to two of the people.
The investigation was opened in the final months of the Trump administration under Attorney General William P. Barr, the two people said. Given Mr. Gaetz’s national profile, senior Justice Department officials in Washington — including some appointed by Mr. Trump — were notified of the investigation, the people said.
Then Gaetz appeared on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox and made everything worse for himself.
Aaron Rupar at Vox: Matt Gaetz’s disastrous Tucker Carlson interview, explained.
Hours after the New York Times broke the news that Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) is under federal investigation for alleged sex trafficking, he was given a platform by Fox News host Tucker Carlson to tell his side of the story. But Gaetz ended up botching the softball interview so thoroughly that Carlson ended up telling his millions of viewers it was “one of the weirdest interviews I’ve ever conducted.”
At various points during the interview, Gaetz — who denies the allegations — volunteered the existence of criminal allegations against him that aren’t yet part of the public record, brought up sexual misconduct allegations against Carlson that most of his viewers probably weren’t aware of, and went out of his way to involve Carlson in stories about his personal life.
“I can say that actually 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 — and she was actually threatened by the FBI, told that if she wouldn’t cop to the fact that somehow I was involved in some pay-for-play scheme, that could face trouble,” Gaetz said. “So I do believe there are people at the Department of Justice that are trying to smear me. Providing for flights and hotel rooms for people that you’re dating who are of legal age is not a crime.”
It sounds like he’s admitting he paid for travel and hotel rooms for a person he was dating, doesn’t it?
…more importantly than the bizarreness of the interview is the fact that Gaetz didn’t do a very convincing job trying to refute the very serious criminal allegations underpinning the federal investigation. His defense basically amounts to claims that he’s the victim of a vast conspiracy….
During the interview with Carlson, Gaetz denied improper conduct, but he did so in a very limited and specific way, using language that raised more questions than it answered.
“The New York Times is running a story that I have traveled with a 17-year-old woman, and that is verifiably false; people can look at my travel records and see that that is not the case,” Gaetz said — even though a 17-year-old is not a “woman,” the allegations go beyond mere “traveling,” and it’s unclear how “travel records” could disprove any of them.
Gaetz went on to allege that word of the investigation was leaked as part of an extortion plot, saying “what is happening is an extortion of me and my family involving a former Department of Justice official” who demanded $25 million in exchange for making the sex trafficking allegations go away.
But during an MSNBC interview a short time later, one of the Times reporters bylined on the Gaetz story, Katie Benner, debunked one of Gaetz’s central claims, saying unequivocally that the former official Gaetz accused by name of being part of an extortion plot isn’t even involved in the investigation.
I’m still very confused.
Washington Post fact checker Salvador Rizzo explains why travel records could not prove the allegations against Gaetz are false. Basically, these records aren’t available to the public.
Here’s the bottom line: House members’ personal travel and expenses are not subject to disclosure, so there would be no public records to check regarding Gaetz’s private life.“If this was just personal travel, and he wasn’t using campaign or official funds, there’s no disclosure,” said Jordan Libowitz, communications director for the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
Airline flight manifests and personal credit card or bank statements would chart who went where with whom at what times and at whose expense, but those sensitive records are not public. Only law enforcement investigators could look through them by getting subpoenas.
Philip Bump at The Washington Post: The Matt Gaetz allegation, explained.
“The Justice Department is investigating Rep. Matt Gaetz — a Florida Republican considered a close political ally of former president Donald Trump — over an alleged sexual relationship with an underage girl,” The Washington Post’s Matt Zapotosky and Devlin Barrett explain. That relationship allegedly included paying for the girl to travel, potentially across state lines, adding the complexity of potential federal charges related to sex trafficking, according to the Times. Both the Post and Times stories are constrained for fairly obvious reasons, including the limits of available information and the need to accurately convey the potential risk Gaetz faces.
The investigation apparently spun out of another sex-trafficking probe in Florida. That one focused on a former county official named Joel Greenberg, who was charged in the summer with a number of federal offenses, including sex trafficking of a minor.
“According to an indictment in the case, Greenberg abused his access to a statewide database, using it to look up the personal information of people with whom he was in ‘sugar daddy’ relationships, including the minor, and to help produce fake identification documents to ‘facilitate his efforts to engage in commercial sex acts,’ ” Zapotosky and Barrett report. “He was also accused of seeking to undermine a political opponent by surfacing fabricated evidence of racism and misconduct.”
It’s worth noting that questions about Gaetz’s relationships have emerged in the past. A Mother Jones article from 2019 documents concerns raised by a former member of Gaetz’s staff about a 21-year-old he was then dating and who was apparently posting photos of the two of them on Instagram alongside other photos showing not-conservative-politician-friendly activities.
There’s more explanation and confusion at the link. What is clear is that there are two different investigations that Gaetz is trying to combine in his defense. Other than that, I’m still confused.
Gaetz’s father chimed in at Politico yesterday: Matt Gaetz’s dad says he wore a wire for FBI probe into DOJ extortion claims.
Rep. Matt Gaetz’s father, Don, a former Florida Senate president, said he is working with the FBI, including wearing a wire on more than one occasion as part of an investigation into an alleged extortion plot that the pair said was organized by former federal prosecutor David McGee.
“The FBI asked me to try and get that information for Matt and an indication we would transfer money to Mr. David McGee,” Don Gaetz said in an interview late Tuesday, without specifying what information he was referring to.
McGee, who is now in private practice with a Pensacola, Fla.-based law firm, did not respond to a POLITICO request seeking comment, but told other media outlets there is no truth to the alleged extortion plot.
Don Gaetz said in the interview he wore a wire during a meeting earlier this month with McGee and said he was set to meet Wednesday with Stephen Alford, a local developer who he said is also part of the alleged extortion scheme. During that meeting, Don Gaetz said, he was again set to wear a wire and try to get Alford to talk about payments he allegedly was to make to McGee, but the meeting fell apart when news broke that his son was being investigated by the Justice Department. Alford did not respond to text messages seeking comment.
In separate interviews, Don and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) acknowledged a Justice Department probe involving the younger Gaetz, 38, into whether he had improper involvement with a 17-year-old girl. The Gaetzes say they are the target of an extortion plot seeking money to keep the DOJ investigation quiet.
Today The Washington Post reported that the scandal involves Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who went missing in Iran and is believed to be dead. Here’s a summary at The Week: The Matt Gaetz case now involves a missing FBI agent last seen in Iran.
When Rep. Matt Gaetz’s (R-Fla.) father received a message that referred to a Justice Department investigation into his son and asked for help funding the search for Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who went missing in Iran 14 years ago, he thought the request was suspicious and went to the FBI, people familiar with the matter told The Washington Post on Wednesday.
On Tuesday night, The New York Times reported that in the waning months of the Trump administration, the DOJ launched an investigation into whether Gaetz had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl and paid for her to travel with him out of state. Gaetz, who denied any wrongdoing and has not been charged with any crimes, released a statement saying his family had been targeted by extortionists, and his father wore a wire at the insistence of the FBI.
People familiar with the matter told the Post that Gaetz’s wealthy father, Don Gaetz, received a text message and document from two men who said if he gave them money to help with the search for Levinson, Matt Gaetz would be seen as a hero and his legal troubles would likely go away. Levinson disappeared from Iran’s Kish Island in 2007 while trying to get information on the country’s nuclear program, and was last seen alive in a 2010 hostage video. His family has said the U.S. government told them they believe Levinson is dead.
When Don Gaetz received these messages, the DOJ investigation into his son was not known publicly. It isn’t clear how the men learned about the investigation, and they do not appear to have any direct connection with the investigation. People with knowledge of the matter told the Post it will be hard to prove this was an extortion attempt because the men did not threaten to expose Gaetz’s DOJ investigation if the family did not give them money.
Matt Gaetz appeared on Fox News Tuesday night and accused a lawyer named David McGee of being involved in this effort. McGee has represented the Levinson family for years, and on Tuesday night he said Don Gaetz called him and they had a “pleasant conversation” about “the trouble his son was in.” McGee denied being involved in any extortion attempt, and his law firm on Wednesday called the allegation “false and defamatory.” Catherine Garcia
One more Gaetz story from ABC News: In investigation of Rep. Gaetz’s alleged sexual relationship with minor, feds looking beyond Florida, sources say.
Sources told ABC News the investigation has been going on for months and began during the Trump administration. Former Attorney General Bill Barr was briefed on the investigation’s progress several times, the sources said.
One source told ABC News that federal authorities have already interviewed multiple witnesses as part of their probe.
Gaetz has reportedly told confidants he is considering retiring from Congress and possibly joining the right-wing media outlet Newsmax, according to an Axios report earlier Tuesday.
Yet within the last several weeks Gaetz started reaching out to prominent attorneys, according to one source. The source said that one of the attorneys Gaetz asked to represent him was Washington attorney Bill Burck, who represented Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus and Don McGahn during the Mueller probe. Burck turned down the case, according to a person familiar with the decision.
So this story keeps getting curiouser and curiouser. One interesting point is that apparently Gaetz is very unpopular with Republicans and they are rooting for him to go down in flames. A few more links to check out:
Jeff Stein at Spy Talk: Gaetz ‘Extortion’ Figure’s Levinson Obsession.
The Daily Beast: The Creepy, Disturbing Case That Ensnared Matt Gaetz.
Ben Jacobs at New York Magazine: Matt Gaetz Gets a Scandal As Wild As Him.
The Daily Beast: Republicans Have Been Waiting for a Matt Gaetz Scandal to Break.
The Hill: Fox has no interest in hiring Matt Gaetz.
I’ll be keeping an eye on this story, because it’s still so confusing to me. I guess we’ll be learning more soon. So what’s on your mind today? As always, this is an open thread.