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Republicans in Congress face a Matt Gaetz reckoning as Feds close in on the embattled Florida lawmaker

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Rep. Matt Gaetz a Republican of Florida, holds up a letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray at a news conference at the Capitol on December 07, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Rep. Matt Gaetz says the Justice Department investigation is not impeding his ability to legislate on Capitol Hill.Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Most Republicans are neither embracing nor condemning scandal-ridden Rep. Matt Gaetz.

Yet they may soon face a decision day — one they've been happy to avoid, since Gaetz is one of former President Donald Trump's most vocal defenders — and some Republicans are quietly preparing for the real possibility that federal officials will charge the Florida Republican with crimes.

Earlier this month, Gaetz's ex-girlfriend testified before a federal grand jury. She could be a key witness in the Justice Department's probe into whether the Gaetz violated federal sex-trafficking laws and obstructed justice. And this week The Daily Beast reported that a potential witness in the case has pleaded guilty in federal court for fraud and illegally selling the drug Adderall, and is cooperating with the Gaetz investigation.

"Big Joe" Ellicott, a former Florida shock jock with potentially key information about the sex trafficking ring involving Rep. Matt Gaetz, has pleaded guilty in federal court, The Daily Beast has learned.

Luis Alvarado, a Republican political strategist, told Insider that Gaetz has staying power because he still embodies ideals espoused by Trump. Trump, too, faced dozens of accusations of sexual assault or misconduct but still won the presidency — and is angling toward another run in 2024 while serving as the Republican Party's de facto leader.

"Matt Gaetz is still a poster boy for Trumpism," Alvarado said. "And if you deny that, then a question arises whether you're still part of that movement."

GOP leaders won't begin to more publicly distance themselves from Gaetz until he's formally charged or brought into court, predicted Republican strategist Keith Naughton.

Republicans are acutely aware of their opportunity to win big in the 2022 midterm elections and control both the House and Senate. Vocally speaking out against Gaetz could complicate their efforts to project unity and win congressional majorities that enable them to stall President Joe Biden's agenda in 2023 and 2024.

GOP leaders haven't called on Gaetz to resign or stripped him of his committee assignments.

kevin mccarthy
Political strategists say Republican leaders still stand by Gaetz. Above, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

And Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who is expected to be the next Speaker of the House if Republicans gain a majority, said in April 2020 that those things would happen only if the accusations against Gaetz proved to be true.

McCarthy's office did not respond to questions from Insider about whether leadership still stood by that position today. Other GOP leadership offices also ignored questions about what might cause Republican leaders to discipline Gaetz or ask him to resign — whether it be a bombshell interview, charges, an indictment, or a criminal conviction of some sort.

No charges against Gaetz have been filed, and he has repeatedly denied that he had sex with a minor, paid for sex, or obstructed justice. Charges have been brought against Stephen Alford, a Florida developer who tried to extort Gaetz's family over the matter. Joel Greenberg, a former associate of Gaetz, is expected to go before a judge in March to be sentenced after pleading guilty to several charges.

Gaetz, who won his 2020 election by more than 30 percentage points, is seeking reelection to his congressional seat in November 2022. He had nearly $1.5 million in his campaign account as of September 30, according to federal records.

Some Republicans are quietly pulling back

But signs are emerging that the Department of Justice investigation is affecting Gaetz's ability to function as a congressman — including his policy-making and relationships with colleagues.

Some Republicans, who have never much cared for Gaetz since he entered Congress in 2018, have been privately sneering at him in the months since his legal woes began, Insider previously reported.

Other Republicans have given donations from Gaetz's campaign committee, called Friends of Matt Gaetz, to charity, according to Federal Election Commission records.

Among them is Republican Rep. John Katko of New York, who donated $2,000 to a Syracuse-based charity called In My Father's Kitchen in April, and later announced he would not seek reelection in 2022.

Additionally, campaign-disclosure records show GOP Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania gave $2,000 to the Bucks County Fraternal Order of Police, and David Valadao of California gave $4,000 to Marjaree Mason Center, a Fresno-based organization that supports domestic-violence victims.

The lawmakers' offices did not respond to Insider's request for comment on why they didn't accept the donations from Gaetz.

As long as it looks like Republican leadership is still standing behind Gaetz, the impending investigation won't impact the lawmaker's ability to get political donations for his reelection campaign, Naughton said.

"You've got to have something really sweeping at the leadership level for it to really have an impact," he said.

Gaetz, to some degree, has become marginalized on the policy front. Take cannabis reform, an issue on which Gaetz has been a congressional leader.

In November, for the first time in history, a group of House Republicans, led by Rep. Nancy Mace of South Carolina, unveiled a bill to legalize cannabis.

But missing from the list of sponsors was Gaetz, who has long bucked his party to support legalization, going back to his time as a state representative in the Florida House. He even helped to convince GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis to urge the Florida legislature to lift a state ban on smokable medical cannabis.

Asked about Gaetz's omission from the bill, a cannabis-industry source who spoke on condition of anonymity cited the DOJ investigation.

"It has been more difficult for him to lead legislative efforts because of the associated issues," the person said.

It shows that while Gaetz still has friends in Congress, even his allies are quietly isolating him — or at least not going out of their way to work with him.

Rep. Matt Gaetz
A former associate of Rep. Matt Gaetz, above, has pleaded guilty to several charges including sex trafficking.US House of Representatives

Insider asked Gaetz last week whether he thought the Justice Department investigation was impeding his work on Capitol Hill.

"No," he said. "Actually, I was just talking to Mr. Cicilline about legislation."

Mr. Cicilline is Rep. David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat, who confirmed to Insider that Gaetz had "approached me about an idea he had" on antitrust legislation.

"He's been a very active member of the antitrust subcommittee and has supported our antitrust package," Cicilline said. "So he's been, you know, very serious."

As for the Justice Department investigation, Cicilline said: "I don't know anything about that. He's currently a member of Congress serving on that committee. I interact with him in that regard."

Gaetz essentially says the same thing about his situation.

"I don't know what I don't know," he said. "But I'm focused on the work here."

Gaetz has been the lead sponsor on seven bills so far in this congressional session. The one with the largest number of co-sponsors — 19 — would cancel a Washington, D.C., rule forcing customers to show businesses proof that they've received COVID-19 vaccinations. He has co-sponsored 213 other bills.

On Monday, Gaetz was one of two Republicans among 27 House members who signed a letter asking Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat of California, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican of California, to swiftly consider legislation that would ban members of Congress from trading individual stocks.

Gaetz told Insider he couldn't recall whether anyone asked him to co-sponsor the GOP cannabis bill. He instead pointed out that he was the only Republican co-sponsor of the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, or MORE Act, which he called "far more ambitious in its restorative justice" provisions.

The MORE Act passed the House in December 2020 thanks to overwhelming Democratic support, but wasn't taken up by the Senate, which remains opposed to legalization.

Rep. Mace's communications director, Barbara Boland, told Insider that "Gaetz didn't ask to sign on" to the GOP legislation. Mace previously indicated to Forbes that she wanted to return a donation from Gaetz's campaign committee. She has also gotten into Twitter spats with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a close ally of Gaetz.

Gaetz still has a few allies in Congress

Gaetz's policy backlash hasn't reached the level faced by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, a Democrat often at odds with her party's political orthodoxy, who was censured on Saturday by the Arizona Democratic Party after she wouldn't support abolishing the Senate filibuster to advance Democrat-backed voting-rights legislation.

Sinema also recently lost endorsements from abortion-rights groups EMILY's List and NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Gaetz has been on the opposite end of the abortion debate, consistently voting in favor of limits on the procedure, earning him endorsements from the National Right to Life Committee.

Laura Echevarria, spokeswoman for National Right to Life, told Insider that it was too early in the campaign season for endorsements, which happen in the summer. But she added that the group's decision for any candidate would be based on his or her voting record on abortion versus other factors.

Recent history has shown that some House members have staying power in Congress despite their scandals. But their colleagues can reach a breaking point when the issues cross into the legal system.

Former Rep. Blake Farenthold, a Republican of Texas, faced various sex scandals over the course of seven years before former House Speaker Paul Ryan pressured him in 2018 to resign over a sexual-harassment case.

Others, such as former Rep. Mark Foley, a Republican of Florida who sent sexually explicit messages to congressional pages, resigned just days after accusers came out publicly. Then-Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert told reporters he would have demanded Foley be expelled from Congress if he didn't resign. (Hastert himself would later serve prison time for crimes connected to molesting teenage boys.)

In 2017, Pelosi worked with the Congressional Black Caucus to pressure former Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, to resign after he was publicly accused of sexual harassment.

But Democrats weren't immediately in lockstep on the issue. The second-in-command Democrat, then Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, said at the time that the investigation should be allowed to move forward but agreed that Conyers made the right move by stepping down from his role as ranking member.

'I trust Matt Gaetz'

The same outcry hasn't yet come to a head from congressional Republicans monitoring Gaetz's drama.

And Gaetz's defenders continue to stand by him and dispute that the investigation is affecting his work on Capitol Hill.

Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, praised Gaetz's contribution to the panel and his work riling up conservatives.

Jordan told Insider that the investigation "certainly hasn't changed his ability to go around the country and talk to conservative voters."

"I trust Matt Gaetz," Jordan said. "What else do you want me to say?"

Since last summer, Gaetz has been on a "Freedom Tour" with Greene, holding rallies to bash COVID restrictions and falsely promote the idea that Trump won his 2020 reelection bid.

Greene told Insider that she and Gaetz don't talk about the Justice Department investigation and that "it just doesn't look like there is anything there," because no women had come out publicly.

"In my honest opinion I don't think it's affecting him at all," she said. "He has such massive support in his district."

"Matt's strong," Greene added. "He's doing fine."

Trump, who still has a stronghold on the GOP, doesn't appear to have distanced himself from Gaetz either. A Twitter photo shows Trump posing with Gaetz and his wife, Ginger Luckey, as they rang in the New Year at Mar-a-Lago.

One former Justice Department official who spoke with Insider on condition of anonymity predicted that if Gaetz ends up getting charged with human trafficking, Trump would likely turn the charges back on Democrats — perhaps by bringing up rape accusations against former President Bill Clinton or the large campaign contributions, mostly to Democrats, made by disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein, who was convicted of sex trafficking underage girls.

"Gaetz is almost as toxic as Marjorie Taylor Greene," the person said. "However, Trump's associates are often slimy or controversial and it doesn't seem to impact his supporters."

This story originally ran on January 24 and has been updated to include the most recent development on the case.

Read the original article on Business Insider