Politics

The Weird Florida Roots of the Matt Gaetz Scandal

Matt Gaetz with a gold curtain behind him.
Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz on Capitol Hill on July 29. Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

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Jeff Weiner writes for the Orlando Sentinel, and we asked him to come on Monday’s episode of What Next to explain what exactly is happening with Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz. Last week, it was reported that Gaetz is under investigation for sex trafficking. But before we get into all that, Jeff Weiner says, you have to understand who Matt Gaetz is. Weiner might not want to spell it out in an article about the congressman, but he says most people would agree: Matt Gaetz is a troll. “I’m not even sure that he would object to that term, to be honest,” Weiner says.

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There’s plenty of evidence to back up the claim. There’s the time, toward the beginning of the pandemic, when Gaetz wore a gas mask on the House floor. He also stormed a classified impeachment hearing in a secured room. And there have been whispers for a long time that there was something more to Matt Gaetz’s trollish behavior, especially when it comes to how he treats women. Reports are emerging that he was known for showing off racy pictures of women he’d been with and that he and other Republicans in the Florida Legislature played a game in which they earned points for sleeping with women.

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The investigation into Gaetz’s behavior now is about whether he’s been sleeping with a teenage girl, bringing her across state lines, and paying for sex. Gaetz’s troll persona seemed to be working out so far, but it may have caught up to him. “From what we’ve seen from him, there really are no boundaries,” says Weiner. “I don’t think that Matt Gaetz was expecting consequences to arrive for him.”

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On Monday’s episode of What Next, we looked at the how Gaetz found himself under investigation. It turns out this scandal is even weirder than you think. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Harris: So you’ve made a pretty good case that for a long time Matt Gaetz has been a provocateur in the world of Republican politics and involved in some alleged activities that are pretty unsavory. But the current crisis he’s going through, it actually doesn’t center on any of this stuff. It relates more to his relationship with this one guy, Joel Greenberg. So I wonder if you can explain a little bit who Joel Greenberg is.

Jeff Weiner: That sound you heard is me taking a very deep breath. There is a lot to say about Joel Greenberg. It’s difficult to know where to start. What I will say right off the jump is that Joel Greenberg, locally, is very similar as a figure to Matt Gaetz, nationally.

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Greenberg exploded onto the scene locally in 2016 when he ran for tax collector, which may sound boring; it’s not a very flashy office. But it’s extremely powerful. You basically are the one, as it sounds, collecting taxes, determining the tax valuation of properties. Millions of dollars passed through the office, which Greenberg would very much take advantage of later in his career. But Greenberg rode into office as an anti-corruption, anti-cronyism candidate who was going to clean up the office, which in retrospect is somewhat ironic.

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Tax collector doesn’t seem like one of those offices that you might normally pay attention to. Was there a moment when you and your colleagues thought, “We’ve got to start looking at what’s going on over there”?

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He started carrying a badge—like, a law enforcement looking badge—that said tax collector on it. This is not something that every tax collector gets; it’s something that he made for himself. One day he used it to pull somebody over, a woman who was allegedly speeding. According to him, he turned on a flashing light on his dashboard and pulled her over, flashed his tax collector badge, and started lecturing this woman about her speeding.

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So he was cosplaying as a cop.

That’s how I would describe it. The local prosecuting office reviewed it and decided that that there was not actually a violation of the law, even though it is illegal obviously to pretend to be a police officer. The woman who was pulled over by him certainly feels like he was cosplaying as a cop and spoke to us again this week about how outraged she still is that he was not charged for doing this. I’ve covered a lot of pretend police officers. It generally is a pretty alarming behavior. It generally is not something that someone does once and never again.

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That was where I was like, “We have to pay really close attention to this guy.” And pretty much any direction that scandal could go, it tended to follow Joel Greenberg. The other thing that tended to follow Joel Greenberg were influential Republicans of the MAGA variety. Matt Gaetz probably is the most prominent of those.

The thing that was odd about [their friendship] is that the Panhandle [where Gaetz is from] is very far from central Florida. Joel Greenberg was the tax collector in Seminole County, which is right outside of Orlando. That’s a four-hour drive to Matt Gaetz’s district. So it’s not like these guys were hanging out because they lived near each other and had the same you mentalities. Matt Gaetz and Joel Greenberg would be seen about town in Seminole County eating dinner together, out at bars together or whatever. And it’s like, why is Matt Gaetz even here?

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This wasn’t a secret. They were posting selfies.

Joel Greenberg is a prolific selfie poster and very much seems to relish posting photos with people like Matt Gaetz. So, they documented this stuff extensively.

Matt Gaetz was on the Joel Greenberg bandwagon very quickly. Within six months of Joel Greenberg taking office, Matt Gaetz was already giving radio interviews where he would talk about Greenberg potentially running for Congress in the next election cycle. These were guys who very quickly became supporters of each other, and it lasted until very recently. Joel Greenberg was indicted for the first time in June of last year, and earlier that month, he launched his reelection campaign and Matt Gaetz was the first donor.

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Since June, the list of indictments against Joel Greenberg has just gotten longer and longer. Originally, federal prosecutors were investigating him for stalking a political opponent. Greenberg allegedly used fake Twitter accounts to accuse the man, a teacher, of molesting a child and favoring white supremacy. But when the feds traced a digital breadcrumb trail to Greenberg’s home, they found more to investigate, starting with a pile of fake IDs in Greenberg’s car. 

If I go into the tax collector’s office for a new driver’s license and I hand in my old one, they would throw it in a basket and then they would destroy it later. But what Joel Greenberg would do, according to the authorities, is take the IDs out of the basket and then he would use them to make fake IDs for himself. So the federal authorities find these IDs in his car, and obviously that leads to a second indictment against him for identity theft.

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Why does he need fake IDs?

That’s a really good question. At this point, I think it’s safe to say that it is tied to the third indictment that came against him, which was the sex trafficking allegation.

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So in that charge, what authorities said had happened was that Joel Greenberg had been involved in trafficking—potentially across state lines—a girl between the ages of 14 and 17 for the purposes of commercial sex and in doing so had basically created an identifying document for that girl. So it appears to be the case that Greenberg was using his office as tax collector to create false identities potentially for this girl.

This is how Congressman Gaetz gets into hot water. The investigation into Greenberg turned up a video of Gaetz and Greenberg entering the tax collector’s office after hours and messing with that basket of discarded IDs. It’s no smoking gun, but it raises a lot of questions. 

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Joel Greenberg would often enter his office after hours, and on one such occasion on a Saturday in April of 2018, according to a source who spoke to us, he was seen entering the office with Matt Gaetz, interacting with the baskets where these discarded IDs were kept, and then entering the back room of the office. Matt Gaetz was present for all of this. Multiple reports have since indicated that that is one of the inciting incidents in the investigation that’s going on into Gaetz right now. The New York Times reported this week that the same girl who Joel Greenberg is accused formally of trafficking is the one that Matt Gaetz is suspected of trafficking.

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We don’t have them caught red handed. We have connections and allegations, right? And Gaetz would push back pretty aggressively and say, “I didn’t do this.”

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We don’t have any firm evidence of sex trafficking. We also don’t know necessarily what the feds have gathered as part of their investigation. It’s been reported this week that the 17-year-old is not the only thing that that Gaetz is being investigated for. There’s this expansive behavior that he and Greenberg were allegedly involved in, where they were soliciting sex for money with women, including through these websites for “sugar daddies,” potentially paying women to travel across state lines for the purposes of sex. Matt Gaetz, it should be said, has denied every allegation against him, every hint of scandal. He insists that he never has had sex with anyone for money that he’s never interacted with or even encountered this alleged 17-year-old, that basically this is all bogus and false.

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Last Tuesday, Gaetz showed up on Tucker Carlson’s show to defend himself. He alleged that he was actually the victim of an extortion plot and that he was working with the FBI to take his tormentors down. 

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Watching that, it struck me as fairly familiar of a certain kind of politician, of which Gaetz is one, who is enmeshed in some kind of controversy and is trying to, rather than defend the behavior, find some way to make the people potentially accusing him into the villains. By claiming, truly or falsely, that he was working with federal authorities, he was trying to go beyond saying that the allegations against him weren’t true, but trying to say that, in fact, he was the white knight, he was the one who was working with the authorities to bring the bad guys to justice.

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As much as that may have seemed unconvincing to me and you, and potentially to others, I will say that to people who are inclined to believe Gaetz and to be on his side, it’s a pretty persuasive and helpful argument. I instantly was getting emails from people being like, “You said that Matt Gaetz was linked to this sex investigation. And I turn on Fox News and I find out that actually he’s being extorted. How dare you? You should be ashamed.”

Well, the Trump doctrine is to hang on, concede nothing, and just keep it pushing. Is Matt Gaetz going to be able to do that?

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That doctrine has been tested again and again, and honestly, it’s worked many times, as we’ve all seen. The problem here for Matt Gaetz is that, whether or not he’s able to convince the people who are amenable to hearing the Trump doctrine that he’s still one of the good guys, I don’t think federal prosecutors are going to go for that. I really think that probably his political fate is very much tied to his legal fate.

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Joel Greenberg is scheduled to stand trial in June. Does that give you any timeline here about what might happen next with Gaetz?

I don’t necessary expect that trial date to stick. He just was indicted again this past week on allegations related to embezzlement from his office and also having essentially created shell companies to steal COVID relief funds, which is an entirely separate allegation against him that we had gotten into.

He’s the gift that keeps on giving.

It’s the headache that keeps kind of throbbing.

This investigation seems like one or two people’s very big mess, but I wonder if you think there are any larger implications here either for the GOP in Florida or nationally, Trump loyalists, or whether you really think this is just about two guys doing a ton of sketchy stuff?

I definitely don’t think it’s about two guys only, even in the New York Times report about the sex allegations that are being investigated, there was a mention of another Republican official who allegedly had sex with one of these women. So we’re certainly on the lookout here for other people who may be involved in this. Implications for the national GOP? I guess one of the main ones would be that Matt Gaetz is one of the most visible figures of the Trump wing of the Republican Party. He’s somebody who’s constantly making media appearances. He’s somebody who’s very much seen as part of the future of that wing of the Republican Party. I think that people definitely expected him to continue his ascent in national politics. So, whatever harm this scandal has done to him, and certainly if he winds up being charged, that would have an effect on the direction of the national party almost by necessity, just because of what a visible figure he had become for a certain branch of the party. And the potential for him not having that authority and influence anymore would itself be very significant.

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