DORAL — On the same day the U.S. House Ethics Committee announced it was investigating his conduct, U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz spoke to a conference of fierce supporters at the Trump National Doral resort, vowing he would fight allegations against him, which he claimed were part of a “deep state” smear campaign to silence him.
“The smears against me range from distortions of my personal life, to wild — and I mean, wild — conspiracy theories,” said the 38-year-old congressman from Northwest Florida. “I won’t be intimidated by a lying media, and I won’t be extorted by a former DOJ [Department of Justice] official and the crooks he is working with. The truth will prevail.”
Gaetz’s speech Friday evening at the “Save America Summit,” part of a four-day conference with a slate of right-wing speakers discussing topics like “election integrity,” was one of his first public appearances since The New York Times reported a week ago that Gaetz was being investigated by the FBI over an alleged sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl, in exchange for payments. Gaetz became entangled with the federal investigation, sources told the Times, as part of an inquiry into Seminole County’s former tax collector, Joel Greenberg, who was indicted last year on a slew of federal charges, including sex trafficking a minor and identity theft.
Gaetz, who has not been charged with a crime, has previously acknowledged there is an ongoing investigation but has repeatedly denied them and claimed they are part of an extortion scheme against his family by a former Department of Justice official.
“I’m built for the battle, and I’m not going anywhere,” added Gaetz, who is a well-known conservative firebrand and close ally of former President Donald Trump.
The event was organized by Women for America First, the same group that held the now-infamous “Save America Rally” in Washington on Jan. 6. That rally preceded the march on the U.S. Capitol that ended with the death of five people, injuries to many others and saw hundreds of people breaching the building while Congress was in session. Among the issues the group advances is the baseless claim that there was widespread voter fraud and other irregularities during the 2020 election that led to an elaborate “steal.”
A self-described champion of women
During a 15-minute speech, Gaetz referenced the support he has received from friends, strangers, and political allies including Trump and Republican Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Jim Jordan. He described himself as a champion of women, speaking at length about several women he’s hired and who became an essential part of his time in Congress — even when others advised him he was not doing the right thing.
“It’s just how I was raised,” Gaetz said. “I have seen the potential unlocked with so many brilliant, patriotic women that I have had the chance to work with.”
Many of the attendees at Friday’s event said they don’t believe the allegations against Gaetz are true, either because they don’t trust the stories or because they “just know,” and believe they’re part of a pattern to silence allies of Trump and other conservative voices in Congress. Monika Page, a 72-year-old attendee from Colorado, told the Miami Herald the news stories remind her of the sexual assault allegations that surfaced ahead of the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
“I do not believe what he’s been accused of. I believe that is just to discredit him, to try to get him to be quiet, which is not going to work,” said Page. “I’m totally behind Matt, I support him.”
Meanwhile, the investigation announced by the Ethics Committee, which is led by Broward Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch, only has jurisdiction over sitting members of Congress, and the Committee can defer their investigation to the Department of Justice if criminal activity is suspected.
“The Committee is aware of public allegations that Representative Matt Gaetz may have engaged in sexual misconduct and/or illicit drug use, shared inappropriate images or videos on the House floor, misused state identification records, converted campaign funds to personal use, and/or accepted a bribe, improper gratuity, or impermissible gift, in violation of House Rules, laws, or other standards of conduct,” the committee wrote in a release made public on Friday afternoon. “The Committee...has begun an investigation and will gather additional information regarding the allegations.”
If Gaetz resigns or is voted out of office, the Ethics Committee no longer has the ability to investigate his conduct. The Committee typically operates slowly and does not divulge details of an investigation until a final decision is reached.
“The Committee notes that the mere fact that it is investigating these allegations, and publicly disclosing its review, does not itself indicate that any violation has occurred, or reflect any judgment on behalf of the Committee,” the Ethics Committee said in itsstatement.
And for now, that is enough for most of Gaetz’s defenders. But even among his most fervent supporters, a few cling to a shred of doubt, wondering fearing there’s a sliver of a chance that the allegations will prove to be true.
“He’s one of the No. 1 speakers who speaks out against the Democrat Party.... so it didn’t surprise me when something came out against him, but I’m hoping it’s not true,” said Cathy Sampson, 58, who was visiting from Nevada. “It would really shock me if it turned out to be true. I would actually be heartbroken.”
McClatchy DC reporter Alex Daugherty contributed to this report.