Matt Gaetz Reportedly Investigated for Possible Trafficking of Teen Girl as He Says He Is Victim of Extortion
Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz is responding to new reports that he is under federal investigation for possible sex trafficking of a 17-year-old girl — a claim he denies, insisting to multiple news outlets that the case is "rooted in an extortion effort" against him.
News of the investigation first broke on Tuesday, when The New York Times published a story describing how, according to three sources, the 38-year-old Republican was "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."
Gaetz and the teen allegedly had encounters about two years ago though it was unclear how they met, according to the Times.
For more on the sex trafficking allegations against Rep. Matt Gaetz, listen below to the episode of PEOPLE Every Day.
The paper cited two sources that said the investigation was opened in the final months of Donald Trump's administration, under then-Attorney General Bill Barr. The Times added, citing sources, that "senior Justice Department officials in Washington — including some appointed by Mr. Trump — were notified of the investigation."
The Wall Street Journal published a report soon after, citing its own sources who described Gaetz being under the same federal investigation.
Federal law enforcement officials have not publicly commented and often note that policy usually bars them from discuss ongoing work. Gaetz adamantly denies wrongdoing.
Though many details of the probe remain unclear, sources told the Times that it stems from a separate investigation into Joel Greenberg, an ex-GOP official from Seminole County, Florida, who was indicted on a range of charges, including sex trafficking of a child, in 2020. He pleaded not guilty.
Greenberg and Gaetz have been photographed together in the past.
"I only know that it has to do with women," Gaetz told the Times of his knowledge of the investigation. "I have a suspicion that someone is trying to recategorize my generosity to ex-girlfriends as something more untoward."
Gaetz said that the allegations were false and that, according to his lawyers, he believed he was the subject of the federal investigation rather than the target, which is a more serious designation.
The whole thing, he maintained, traced back to a former Department of Justice employee who he claimed had attempted to extort him and his family to make the case go away.
Gaetz's office did not respond to PEOPLE's repeated requests for comment.
Hours after the Times report was published, the Florida lawmaker denied that he had "traveled with a 17-year-old woman" and elaborated on his claims of blackmail in an unusual appearance on Fox News — one host Tucker Carlson deemed "one of the weirdest interviews I've ever conducted."
"The New York Times is running a story that I have traveled with a 17-year-old woman and that is verifiably false," Gaetz told Carlson. "People can look at my travel records and see that is not the case. What is happening is an extortion of me and my family involving a former Department of Justice official."
Detailing his version of this intricate plot, Gaetz continued:
"On March 16, my father got a text message demanding a meeting wherein a person demanded $25 million in exchange for making horrible sex trafficking allegations against me go away. Our family was so troubled by that, we went to the local FBI. And the FBI and the Department of Justice were so concerned about this attempted extortion of a member of Congress that they asked my dad to wear a wire, which he did, with the former Department of Justice official."
Speaking with Politico on Tuesday, Gaetz's father said that he had worked with the FBI and had worn a wire.
Gaetz told Carlson that he was now demanding any such recordings made by both the DOJ and FBI should be released as they would "prove [his] innocence."
Perhaps the most eyebrow-raising exchange in the Fox News interview came when Gaetz made things personal, attempting to draw a comparison between his situation and previous allegations against Carlson.
"I'm not the only person on screen right now who's been falsely accused of a terrible sex act. You were accused of something that you did not do. And so you know what this feels like," Gaetz said.
In response, Carlson said, "You just referred to a mentally ill viewer who accused me of a sex crime 20 years ago and of course it was not true, I had never met the person."
Elsewhere in the interview, Gaetz suggested to Carlson that they had in fact previously had dinner with a woman who was allegedly involved in the FBI investigation.
"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," Gaetz told Carlson, adding that this friend was later "threatened" by the FBI and "told that if she wouldn't cop to the fact that somehow I was involved in some pay-for-play scheme, that she would face trouble."
"I don't remember the woman you are speaking of or the context at all, honestly," Carlson said.
Gaetz further claimed that the leak of the sex trafficking inquiry to the Times was actually meant to thwart the FBI's investigation into the extortion plot.
He named the former Department of Justice official whom he claimed was involved, saying that David McGee offered him a pardon in exchange for $25 million.
McGee, a former federal prosecutor who now works as an attorney at a firm in Florida, quickly denied the claims. He told The Washington Post: "It is completely false. It's a blatant attempt to distract from the fact that he's under investigation for sex trafficking of minors. I have no connection with that case at all, other than one of a thousand people who have heard the rumors."
The attorney added that Gaetz's father — former Florida state Sen. Don Gaetz — did contact him but would not tell the Post what the conversation entailed. (McGee did not immediately respond to PEOPLE's requests for comment. )
The FBI declined to comment to PEOPLE when asked about the existence of either investigation. A spokesperson for the Department of Justice did not respond to questions.
The Times' Katie Benner — one of the journalists who first reported that Gaetz was being investigated — clarified on CNN Tuesday night that the probe into the Republican's alleged relationship with a teenage girl has been going on for more than six months.
"Keep in mind, when this investigation was opened, it was opened under the Justice Department under William P. Barr, who had last February told all prosecutors that if anyone investigated was a member of Congress, somebody running for office, anybody high-profile, that investigation had to be signed off on by their supervisor, the head of the criminal division and briefed to Bill Barr himself," Benner said. "I think it is really unlikely that Bill Barr would have investigated one of President Trump's biggest allies as part of an extortion plot."
Benner added on CNN that the Times does have reporting that "last week, somebody had heard about this investigation and did use the information to try and get money out of Congressman Gaetz's father."
"I don't think that what Congressman Gaetz is saying about extortion actually undermines that he himself is under investigation," Benner said.
First elected to Congress in 2016 after serving in the Florida House of Representatives, Gaetz has made a name for himself as a pro-Trump provocateur — with headline-grabbing stunts a key part of his political brand. He likewise supported Trump's call to overturn the 2020 election.
A fierce ally of the former president's since the 2016 election, Gaetz once told GQ of Trump, "He knows who I am, and he doesn't want to screw me."
Though the two made several appearances together during his term, Trump repeatedly botched Gaetz's name at a 2020 Florida rally, mistakenly calling him "Rick Gates," the name of a former Trump aide who was convicted after making false statements related to Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The possible sex trafficking case against Gaetz was reported not long after Axios published a story that the lawmaker was mulling an early retirement from Congress in order to take a job as an on-air personality at Newsmax, a conservative cable news network.
Newsmax tells PEOPLE that it "doesn't comment on possible talent negotiations or plans the network may have underway."