/No defense: Gaetz finds few Republican allies amid investigation

No defense: Gaetz finds few Republican allies amid investigation



Rep. Matt Gaetz delivers remarks during a House Judiciary Committee markup.

Rep. Matt Gaetz delivers remarks during a House Judiciary Committee markup. | Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

TALLAHASSEE — Embattled Rep. Matt Gaetz and his close friend, now-indicted former Seminole County Tax Collector Joel Greenberg, sent a voicemail nearly two years ago to female Florida state Rep. Anna Eskamani where Greenberg relays to her how both men wanted to praise her for “lovely qualities.”

“We think you are the future of the Democratic Party in Florida,” Gaetz (R-Fla.) can be heard saying on the voicemail.

Eskamani, a progressive Democrat who is considering a run for governor, dug up the voicemail this week and provided it to POLITICO when news surfaced that Gaetz is under investigation for potential trafficking of a 17-year-old girl. Eskamani has been a rising star among Florida Democrats who has been willing to call out members of her own party, and that combativeness had earned the praise of conservatives such as Gaetz.

“It was creepier than I remembered,” said Eskamani, 30, who added “it made me incredibly uncomfortable and I did not call or text back.”

Eskamani first interacted with Greenberg in 2018 after she got into a Twitter battle with him for comments he made on social media about Muslims. It led to the two elected officials eventually meeting, which she described on social media this week as an awkward encounter.

News of the voicemail comes at a time when Greenberg — who is in custody on charges including sex trafficking, identity theft, bribery and wire fraud — is facing more than two dozen public corruption and sex trafficking-related charges, an investigation that has swept up Gaetz. Gaetz, 38, meanwhile, says he has done nothing wrong and that the allegations are tied to an extortion plot to get money from his wealthy family.

Gaetz is the subject of a U.S. Justice Department probe into whether he trafficked a 17-year-old girl. The New York Times reported Thursday that the federal probe is focused on payments made to women who were given money for sex. Gaetz’s office told the newspaper he “refutes all the disgusting allegations completely.”

But as Gaetz mounts a vigorous public defense, he is finding few allies among Florida Republicans, a testament to his reputation that even before he became a near-constant presence on Fox News he relished slinging verbal barbs and getting into rhetorical fistfights with opponents, regardless of party affiliation.

Before going to Congress in 2016, Gaetz served in the Florida House for six years, a time when he built a deep bench of political allies and enemies from both political parties. Since riding President Donald Trump’s coattails to national prominence, his shadow over his old political stomping grounds has only grown as he built a connection with Trump’s loyal political base.

But despite those deep ties to Tallahassee and growing political clout, many of the state’s Republicans do not know what to make of the damning allegations facing Gaetz and are steering clear of providing early political cover.

Most notable is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who has seen a burst of popularity among conservatives and is seen as a rising contender for president in 2024 should Trump forgo another run. DeSantis and Gaetz became friends while DeSantis served in Congress and he tapped Gaetz to help him with his transition team after he was elected governor in 2018.

“This is an ongoing Department of Justice investigation. We have no comment,” DeSantis spokesperson Meredith Beatric said. DeSantis has had two press conferences outside of Tallahassee since the Gaetz news broke, but was not asked about it at either.

Florida’s U.S. Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, both Republicans, have remained silent as well. The decision by Scott to sidestep the controversy is not surprising given that the former governor and Gaetz — along with his father and former Florida Senate President Don Gaetz — have had an adversarial relationship at times. Scott was instrumental in denying the presidency of the University of West Florida to Don Gaetz after he left office.

One Republican elected official, who did not want to comment publicly about the younger Gaetz, said few people are leaping to his defense because the congressman has not been loyal to other Republicans over the years, citing switching allegiances and endorsements.

His outreach to Eskamani falls in that category. Gaetz’s voicemail to the then-freshman in the Florida House, on paper would itself seem strange, but Gaetz has long praised her on Twitter. Though Gaetz has branded himself as a staunch conservative, he has admired firebrand politicians who buck their party leadership, something Eskamani has a reputation for doing.

“Great meeting @AnnaForFlorida yesterday,” Gaetz tweeted in December 2018. “Though we disagree on how to get there, she wants the best for Florida. It’s easy to see why her campaign in Central Florida was so energetic.”

In June 2019, less than a month before he and Greenberg sent the voicemail message, Gaetz praised Eskamani on Twitter as a reformer. “U do want safer streets. I watch ur work closely. While we have different (frequently opposite views, I admire you have the heart of a reformer & U sincerely work 4 your constituents & values — not special interests,” Gaetz tweeted. Eskamani never returned the overtures on Twitter and has taken to the platform in recent days to call for him to resign.

Roger Stone, himself a longtime ally of Trump who knows Gaetz, did come to the defense of the congressman on Parler and called the allegations a “smear” intended to “destroy” the up-and-coming conservative leader.

State Rep. Alex Andrade, a Pensacola Republican and friend of Gaetz viewed as a potential successor to his northwest Florida congressional seat, also has stayed by his side.

“I’ve no reason not to believe Congressman Gaetz,” Andrade said in an interview Thursday before the latest Times story was published.

Another conservative Republican and fellow firebrand — State Rep. Anthony Sabatini — also quickly leaped to Gaetz’s defense when news of the investigation broke. He tweeted earlier this week that “DOJ and the Media is a shady group of lying creeps—we’ve seen this movie before.”

Sabatini, who is running for Congress in 2022 against incumbent Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.) but could switch to a newly-created seat, amplified that in a message to POLITICO.

“Anybody can be named in an ‘investigation’—at any time, for any reason, without any evidence,” Sabatini said. “Also DOJ has lost the trust of the American people.”

And on Tuesday, before further details were revealed, Joe Gruters, the Republican Party of Florida chair, tweeted to Gaetz that he should “Stay strong and fight on!”

Other Florida Republicans who have been subjected to Gaetz’s caustic criticism, often directed over social media, have refrained from piling on while the news stories about his behavior mount. But they’re not defending him either.

“I’m not someone to jump on someone’s political grave,” said state Rep. Chris Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who got into an epic January 2020 Twitter battle with Gaetz where he accused the former state House member of creating a game where participants got points based on whether they slept with an aide, a lobbyist or another legislator.

“Obviously I’m not fan of Matt Gaetz,” said Latvala, the son of a state senator who clashed with Matt Gaetz’s father. “I hope the allegations are false. Because if they are true it means there is a 17-year-old who is a victim. There’s a lot Matt Gaetz has done in his time I don’t agree with. This most recent allegation under investigation is quite sad.”

State Senate President Wilton Simpson, who Gaetz mocked earlier this year as a potential Republican candidate for state agriculture commissioner, said “I have no thoughts” when first asked about the news regarding Gaetz, although he then added, “Hopefully it didn’t happen.”

Matt Dixon contributed to this report.

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