‘A 10ft pole is not long enough’: Matt Gaetz isolated in sex-trafficking scandal

By The Guardian Staff

The Florida Republican congressman Matt Gaetz appears increasingly politically isolated amid a spiralling scandal over a federal sex-trafficking investigation. Even for Donald Trump, one Republican political operative said, “a 10ft pole is not long enough”.

Federal prosecutors are reportedly examining whether Gaetz and a political ally facing sex trafficking allegations may have paid underage girls or offered them gifts in exchange for sex.

Few Republicans have rushed to offer any kind of support to Gaetz, a three-term conservative provocateur known for support of Trump, high-volume attacks, sometimes against those in his own party, and frequent media appearances.

The Associated Press reported that several lawmakers and aides who spoke on condition of anonymity said Gaetz’s prospects for remaining in Congress were complicated by his unpopularity in his own party.

The Daily Beast, meanwhile, reported that advisers were pleading with the former president to keep quiet. Trump was reported to have said the affair seemed “really bad”, though he also thought the allegations could be a “smear” against Gaetz.

“I don’t hope for anybody to be guilty of anything but it sounds like [Gaetz has] got a lot of explaining to do,” Barry Bennett, a longtime Republican operative and former Trump adviser, told the website.

“People underestimate Donald Trump’s political ear … For something like this, a 10ft pole is not long enough. The former president should stay as far away from this as possible.”

Fox News has also stayed quiet since Gaetz appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight hours after the news broke and appeared to draw the host into the scandal. As Vox reported, the Gaetz affair was not mentioned on the rightwing network on Thursday, or on Friday until the news anchor Brett Baier covered the allegations on his evening show.

Gaetz has been a familiar presence on Fox News, according to Mediate appearing on the channel 18 times in March. Shortly before news of the allegations against him broke, he was reported to be considering retiring from Congress in order to pursue a media career.

Any such plans are now under threat. The scrutiny of Gaetz reportedly stems from a justice department investigation of Joel Greenberg, a former Florida tax collector indicted last year and accused of a number of federal crimes. He has pleaded not guilty.

In addition, CNN has reported that Gaetz allegedly showed nude photos of women he slept with to colleagues on the floor of the House of Representatives.

Republican leaders have largely been silent. But Gaetz’s spokesman, Luke Ball, has resigned.

Part of the investigation is examining whether Gaetz, 38, had sex with a 17-year-old and other underage girls and violated federal sex trafficking laws, sources told the AP, adding that federal agents suspect Greenberg may have enticed the girls and introduced some to Gaetz. Investigators are reported to be examining whether the two men had sex with the same girls.

Details of the investigation were first reported by the New York Times, which also said Gaetz took ecstasy, an illegal drug, before having sex.

Gaetz has said: “No part of the allegations against me are true.”

Among rare lawmakers to express support for Gaetz is the freshman Georgia representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, another rising figure propelled by media appearances and baseless conspiracy theories.

House minority leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters the accusations against Gaetz were “serious”. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic 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 investigation into Gaetz has been extant since at least summer 2020 and has reportedly reached the highest levels of the justice department. Investigators have interviewed several witnesses and have been scrutinizing travel and financial records.

Greenberg was the elected tax collector in Seminole county near Orlando when he resigned last June after his arrest on charges including stalking a political opponent, trafficking a minor for sex and illegally using a state database to create fake drivers licenses and other ID cards.

Since then, the case has ballooned to more than 30 charges, including wire fraud and charges involving efforts to divert at least $400,000 from the tax collectors office into cryptocurrency for Greenberg’s own use. Other charges accuse him of attempting to fraudulently obtain coronavirus relief funds.

The justice department has a separate investigation into the extortion allegations, the AP reported. Gaetz has said his family has been cooperating with the FBI.

This article was amended on 4 April 2021 to clarify that Gaetz appeared on a Fox News show shortly after the New York Times story broke.

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