Matt Gaetz Tells Supporters He Is a Victim of Leaks and Lies

Representative Matt Gaetz, the Florida Republican who is the focus of a Justice Department inquiry over whether he broke sex trafficking laws, maintained his innocence on Friday and insisted he was the victim of “the leaks and the lies” of his critics.

The remarks came during Mr. Gaetz’s first major public appearance since The New York Times reported last week that investigators were said to be examining his involvement with women who were recruited online for sex and given cash payments, as well as whether Mr. Gaetz had sex with a 17-year-old. The investigation developed from an inquiry into a former Florida tax official and friend of Mr. Gaetz, Joel Greenberg.

“They lie about me because I tell the truth about them, and I’m not gonna stop,” Mr. Gaetz said at an event hosted at former President Donald J. Trump’s private club, Trump National Doral Miami, by the group Women for America First. “So when you see the leaks and the lies and the falsehoods and the smears, when you see the anonymous sources and insiders forecasting my demise, know this: They aren’t really coming for me. They’re coming for you. I’m just in the way.”

Mr. Gaetz, 38 and a high-profile supporter of Mr. Trump, has repeatedly denied that he had improper contact with a 17-year-old or that he paid for sex.

Mr. Greenberg’s lawyer and a prosecutor indicated this week that he was likely to plead guilty in coming days to federal charges, signaling that he may be willing to cooperate as a witness against Mr. Gaetz, potentially reducing his own jail time while broadening the congressman’s legal exposure.

Throughout 2019 and 2020, Mr. Greenberg recruited women on websites that connect people who go on dates in exchange for gifts, money and travel, after which he had sex with them, people familiar with the encounters have said. Mr. Greenberg introduced the women to Mr. Gaetz, who also was said to have had sex with them.

Mobile app receipts have shown payments from both men to one of the women, and a payment from Mr. Greenberg to a second woman. The women told their friends that the payments were for sex with the men, two people familiar with the conversations have said.

In his remarks on Friday, delivered against a sunlit backdrop of palm tree silhouettes and a line of billowing American flags, Mr. Gaetz repeatedly tried to cast himself as a populist force in the mold of Mr. Trump. He also made statements similar to ones Mr. Trump has used to denounce investigations into his own conduct.

“I know this: Firebrands don’t retreat, especially when the battle for the soul of our country calls,” he said. “Big government, big tech, big business, big media — they’d all breathe a sigh of relief if I were no longer in the Congress fighting for you.”

He continued: “The smears against me range from distortions of my personal life to wild — and I mean wild — conspiracy theories. I won’t be intimidated by a lying media,” and he added, “The truth will prevail.”

The largely maskless crowd of about 50 people, seated at tables as they dined from a buffet, cheered and clamored as the congressman took the stage. Roughly two dozen others watched from a second-floor balcony above.

Women for America First also helped organize the rally near the White House on Jan. 6 where then-President Trump incited supporters to protest Congress’ certification of the election results, culminating in the deadly riot at the Capitol.

Mr. Gaetz’s 15-minute speech came after the House Ethics Committee announced on Friday that it had opened an investigation into a range of charges against Mr. Gaetz, including not just the sex-trafficking allegations but also suspicions that he misused campaign funds and shared graphic images of women with other lawmakers on the House floor.

A number of current and former congressional officials have described to The Times and other news outlets occasions when Mr. Gaetz smelled of marijuana on the House floor or shared videos and images of women with whom he claimed to be having sex.

Mr. Gaetz announced on Friday that he had hired two lawyers — Marc Mukasey and Isabelle Kirshner — to represent him. Mr. Mukasey has represented Mr. Trump, and Ms. Kirshner represented Eric T. Schneiderman, the former New York attorney general.

Also on Friday, a lobbyist in Florida close to Mr. Gaetz, Chris Dorworth, announced that he had resigned from his Trump-allied company, Ballard Partners. Mr. Dorworth is said to have discussed with Mr. Gaetz the possibility of running a sham candidate in a State Senate race last year to peel votes from an ally’s rival. Mr. Dorworth said on Twitter that he did not want the ongoing news coverage to be a distraction from the company’s work.

In a tweet of his own, Mr. Gaetz called the report about the conversation “total nonsense.”

“Like so many falsehoods said about me, there will never be evidence of this because it didn’t happen,” he added.

Nicholas Fandos contributed reporting.

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