WASHINGTON — Matt Gaetz was so taken with the politics and showmanship of Donald Trump that he made a point of proposing to his fiancee in December at Trump's Florida resort and boasted afterward that the former president insisted on hosting the wedding.
By then, the GOP establishment had shown itself eager to overlook behavior by the Trump protégé, who invited a Holocaust denier to the State of the Union address, reportedly bragged of sexual conquests to House colleagues, and amplified incendiary conspiracy theories over social media. It was too risky to freeze out the Fox News darling and Trump loyalist from Florida, who didn't hesitate to use his celebrity status with the GOP base to settle scores.
Now, Gaetz, 38, is being investigated as a part of a federal sex trafficking probe involving a 17-year-old, according to people familiar with the case. The details at the center of the inquiry would send most lawmakers running out of public view and into a bunker with a team of lawyers.
They have sent Gaetz running to the Trump playbook.
Gaetz is pushing its limits like no politician before him, not even Trump, who alleged deep-state conspiracies and smeared his accusers to inoculate himself against charges of serial sexual misconduct and lawlessness. The Gaetz drama has become an inflection point for the GOP — testing whether the party can extricate itself from the most troublesome Trump hangers-on, or if the former president has created an effective template for their durability.
The investigation into Gaetz, according to people familiar with it, began during the Trump administration, with sign-off from former Attorney General William Barr. It is linked to the sex trafficking indictment of former Seminole County, Florida, tax collector Joel Greenberg, who is accused of meeting women through websites that connected them with men willing to provide gifts, lavish dinners and travel in exchange for sex. Among Greenberg's alleged sex trafficking victims is an underage teenage girl, according to the indictment.
Investigators suspect that Greenberg introduced women to Gaetz, who had sex with them, according to people familiar with the probe. Federal authorities are investigating whether Gaetz had sex with a 17-year-old girl and gave anything of value to her, such as gifts, hotels stays, travel or allowances, those sources said.
Authorities are also investigating whether Gaetz paid for sex with other women who they believe had been recruited by Greenberg, people familiar with the case said. Greenberg has pleaded guilty and is being held while awaiting trial. Anthony Coley, a Justice Department spokesman, declined to comment.
Gaetz, whose office did not respond to requests for comment, denies it all. He says the investigation is part of a deep-state scheme to sideline a vocal conservative.
"Bizarre claims are being made about me shortly after I decided to take on the most powerful institutions in the Beltway: the establishment; the FBI; the Biden Justice Department; the Cheney political dynasty; even the Justice Department under Trump," Gaetz wrote in an op-ed posted by the Washington Examiner on Monday.