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Image: Matt Gaetz
Rep. Matt Gaetz speaks during a House Judiciary Committee markup of the articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump, on Capitol Hill in Washington on Dec. 12, 2019.Alex Brandon / AP

Why the scandal surrounding the GOP's Matt Gaetz is so very odd

Gaetz 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.


There was quite a bit of chatter in political circles yesterday about Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and his political future, but for reasons that would soon change. The scuttlebutt began in the morning with an Axios report about the Florida Republican privately telling confidants that he was considering resigning from Congress and pursing a media job.

This was an interesting story in its own right, which generated some compelling commentary about the unfortunate overlap between far-right members of Congress and conservative media outlets.

But by early evening, the conversation surrounding Gaetz took a dramatic turn with the publication of this New York Times report.

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.

According to the article, the investigation into the Florida Republican began last year, in the Trump administration's final months, while Bill Barr was attorney general. "Given Mr. Gaetz's national profile," the Times added, "senior Justice Department officials in Washington -- including some appointed by Mr. Trump -- were notified of the investigation, the people said."

There's quite a bit to this, so let's unpack where things stand by way of a Q&A.

Who's Matt Gaetz?

If you don't know the name, you probably know the face. The 38-year-old Republican, currently in his third term representing his ruby-red district in the Florida panhandle, positioned himself as one of Donald Trump's most flamboyant and high-profile congressional allies.

Is he really facing a criminal investigation?

By all appearances, the investigation is real, though its status is unclear. Gaetz acknowledged on the record in an interview with Axios that he was "a subject of an investigation regarding sexual conduct with women."

How did this investigation begin in the first place?

According to the New York Times' reporting, the congressman's controversy stems from a broader investigation into one of Gaetz's political allies: Joel Greenberg, a former local elected official in the Orlando area. Greenberg, an almost comically scandalous figure, has been indicted on a variety of crimes, "including sex trafficking of a child and financially supporting people in exchange for sex, at least one of whom was an underage girl."

What has Gaetz said about his controversy?

While politicians facing investigations generally say very little on the advice of counsel, Gaetz has been quite loquacious since late yesterday afternoon. The GOP lawmaker told Axios, for example, "The allegations of sexual misconduct against me are false," though he went on to say, "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 also published a series of tweets in the early evening, describing an "organized criminal extortion" scheme involving a former Justice Department official. According to Gaetz's Twitter thread, which included a denial about the latest allegations, he and his family have been working with the FBI to catch those responsible for the extortion scheme. "The planted leak to the FBI tonight was intended to thwart that investigation," the congressman added.

What is a "planted leak to the FBI"?

I haven't the foggiest idea.

If Gaetz and his family are really cooperating with the FBI as part of some kind of legitimate sting operation, why would he be talking about it on Twitter?

Your guess is as good as mine.

Is it possible that this extortion scheme is real?

At this point, anything's possible, though the timeline is highly relevant: the Justice Department began its investigation into Gaetz last year. The congressman seems to be claiming that someone found out about the investigation and tried to extort him. It's hard to say with any confidence whether or not that happened, but either way, it doesn't appear to change the fact that federal law enforcement pursued a probe about his alleged misconduct.

Who is this person Gaetz is accusing?

On Fox News last night, the congressman pointed a finger at David McGee, a former Justice Department official who's now in private practice. McGee told the Daily Beast last night that any reports of extortion involving him or his firm are "completely, totally false." McGee added, "This is a blatant attempt to distract from the fact that Matt Gaetz is apparently about to be indicted for sex trafficking underage girls."

What else has Gaetz said?

In his Fox News appearance last night -- which host Tucker Carlson said was "one of the weirdest interviews" of his media career -- the Florida congressman also strenuously denied that there are pictures of him "with child prostitutes." That was also odd since there didn't appear to be any such public allegations.

Anything else?

In 2017, less than a year into Gaetz's first term on Capitol Hill, Congress voted on a proposal to increase law-enforcement funding to combat child sex trafficking. Out of 535 members of Congress, across the House and Senate, literally only one lawmaker -- Florida's Matt Gaetz -- voted against the bill.

I won't pretend to know what will happen next in this controversy, but it seems unlikely to be a one-day story.