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WaterGaetz? Florida U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz under federal investigation

Gaetz, a staunch defender of former President Donald Trump, denies sexual relationship with 17-year-old girl, alleges blackmail scheme

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

FloridaWASHINGTON (CFP) — In what is quickly becoming one of the year’s most bizarre political stories, Florida Republican U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz is denying allegations that he had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl but acknowledges he is under federal investigation for possible sex trafficking charges, as first reported by The New York Times.

gaetz

Gaetz discusses allegations on Fox News

As headlines began to trumpet news of the investigation, Gaetz struck back by accusing a Florida attorney of trying to use the allegations to extort $25 million from his family, which the attorney denies, and then tried to drag Fox News host Tucker Carlson into the narrative, which Carlson rebuffed.

“That was one of the weirdest interviews I’ve ever conducted,” Carlson said after inviting Gaetz to appear on his March 29 show to offer his side of the story. “I don’t think that clarified much, but it certainly showed that this is a deeply interesting story.”

Watch video of Carlson’s interview with Gaetz at end of the story.

To add another twist to the story, the investigation of Gaetz was reportedly triggered by a federal investigation into Joel Greenberg, the former Seminole County, Florida tax collector indicted on a slew of charges, including stalking, identity theft, and child sex trafficking.

While the nature of Greenberg’s relationship with Gaetz remains unclear, the two men were photographed together outside the White House in 2019.

Greenberg also posted a picture on social media of himself and Gaetz with longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone, who was convicted on felony charges in Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election but later pardoned by Trump.

Adding to the swirl around Gaetz is a report in Axios that he is considering leaving Congress to take a job with Newsmax, a conservative news outlet. Gaetz confirmed to the Daily Beast that he has had conversations “about life after Congress,” although he said he has not been pursuing any specific job offers.

The New York Times, citing “three people briefed on the matter,” reported that the Justice Department has been investigating Gaetz over whether he had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl and paid for her to travel with him, which could have violated federal sex trafficking laws.

Federal law makes it a crime to induce a minor to cross state lines to engage in sexual activity in exchange for money.

The investigation was opened in 2020 in the final months of the Trump administration, and top Justice Department officials, including then-Attorney General William Barr, were briefed on the investigation, according to the newspaper.

Gaetz denied he had a relationship with an underage girl and told the Times that “I have a suspicion that someone is trying to recategorize my generosity to ex-girlfriends as something more untoward.”

He told Carlson that “providing for flights and hotel rooms for people that you’re dating who are of legal age is not a crime. ” He then tried to remind Carlson that he and his wife had dined two years ago with Gaetz and a woman who is being pursued as a witness in the investigation, whom Gatez claimed is being threatened with prosecution unless she cooperates.

“I don’t remember the woman you are speaking of or the context at all, honestly,” a puzzled Carlson replied. (It was unclear if the woman referenced by Gaetz was the same person whose alleged relationship with Gaetz is the focus of the probe, although at another point he said the 17-year-old “did not exist.”)

Gaetz also alleged that David McGee, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice in Pensacola, Florida, is behind a scheme to use the sex trafficking allegations to extort $25 million from his family and that his father, Don Gaetz, a former Florida Senate president, wore a wire as part of an FBI investigation in the alleged blackmail attempt.

Gaetz has demanded that the FBI release the wiretap recordings to back up his claim. He also claimed that he had been told that McGee could arrange a pardon from President Joe Biden to protect him from the sex trafficking charges.

Speaking to the Washington Post, McGee denied the blackmail allegations, saying he had nothing to do with the investigation into Gaetz. McGee said he had talked to Don Gaetz, describing their exchange as “a pleasant conversation of a dad concerned about his son and the trouble his son was in.”

McGee also told the Post that he welcomed release of any FBI recordings of those conversations: “There is nothing on that tape that is untoward.”

Gaetz, 38, has represented the Florida Panhandle in Congress since 2017, after serving six years in the state legislature.

Last June, he disclosed that he had been providing a home for a teenage Cuban immigrant, the brother of a former girlfriend, whom he considered to be his son, although he had not legally adopted the boy.

In December, he announced his engagement to his girlfriend, Ginger Luckey.

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4 Southern U.S. House members break party ranks on bill to remove marijuana penalties

3 Southern Republicans vote in favor, 1 Democrat against removing marijuana from list of controlled substances

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

WASHINGTON (CFP) — On a nearly party-line vote, the U.S. House approved landmark legislation Friday to remove federal criminal penalties for marijuana and erase past convictions for cannabus-related offenses.

Three Southern Republicans broke ranks with most of their party to support the measure — U.S. Reps. Matt Gaetz and Brian Mast of Florida and Denver Riggleman of Virginia. One Southern Democrat, U.S. Rep. Henry Cueller of Texas, was among just six Democrats who voted against the bill.

Gaetz speaks in favor of bill on House floor (From C-Span via Twitter)

While the bill is not expected to advance in the Senate, Friday’s 222-to-164 vote in represents a sea change in political attitudes toward marijuana, which will soon be legal for medical use in 36 states and for adult recreational use in 15.

Gaetz, the only Republican co-sponsor of the measure, gave a full-throated oration in favor of the bill on the House floor.

“The federal government has lied to the people of this country about marijuana for a generation,” Gaetz said. “We have seen a generation, particularly of black and brown youth, locked up for offenses that should not have resulted in any incarceration whatsoever.”

Noting that marijuana liberalization passed in every state where it was on the ballot in November, Gaetz said “the only thing that I know of that’s more popular than getting out of the war on drugs is getting out of the war in Afghanistan.”

In November, Mississippi voters approved a medical marijuana initiative, the last Southern state to approve medical cannabus use. However, no Southern state yet allows adult recreational use of marijuana.

Since 1970, marijuana has been categorized as a schedule one drug, in the same category as cocaine and heroin, which precludes medical use. The federal prohibition has created significant problems for people growing and selling marijuana in states where sale is authorized, including preventing them from using banks.

The new law would deschedule the drug, provide a process for people convicted of marijuana offenses to expunge their records, and impose a tax on marijuana sales. States would still be allowed to impose their own regulations.

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Florida Primary: U.S. Rep. Ross Spano ousted, as far-right candidate wins GOP nod in Palm Beach

In Pinellas County, conservative TV personality Anna Paulina Luna easily defeats establishment pick in GOP U.S. House primary

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

TALLAHASSEE (CFP) — Freshman Republican U.S. Rep. Ross Spano has lost his bid for re-election amid a criminal investigation into his 2018 campaign, while Republicans in Palm Beach County have picked far-right provocateur Laura Loomer — banned from social media for her strident anti-Muslim comments — as their U.S. House nominee, drawing praise from President Donald Trump.

Also in Tuesday’s primary, Kat Cammack won the GOP nomination for the seat being given up by her former boss, U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho, in North-Central Florida, while State Rep. Byron Donalds of Naples appears to have taken a step toward adding a rare African American face to House Republican ranks.

Meanwhile, in Pinellas County, conservative TV personality Anna Paulina Luna defeated the pick of the Republican establishment, Amanda Makki, for the right to take on Democratic U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist in what may be the GOP’s best chance to flip a Florida seat in 2020.

U.S. Rep. Ross Spano, R-Florida

In the 15th District (I-4 Corridor between Tampa and Orlando), with all of the precincts reporting, Spano trailed Lakeland City Commissioner Scott Franklin by less than 1,600 votes.

During the campaign, Franklin hammered Spano over an ongoing federal criminal investigation into illegal loans made to his 2018 campaign. The congressman has admitted his campaign violated campaign finance laws but denies any criminal wrongdoing.

Franklin will now face the Democratic primary winner, Alan Cohn, a former investigative journalist, although Democrats’ hopes of flipping the Republican-learning seat probably dimmed with Spano’s demise.

In the 3rd District (Gainesville and North-Central Florida), where Yoho is retiring, 10 Republicans were competing to fill his seat.

Cammack, former Yoho aide from Gainesville, took 25% to edge out Judson Sapp, a businessman from Green Cove Springs, at 20%.

Because Florida does not have primary runoffs, the first-place finisher in Tuesday’s crowded primary won the nomination with a plurality and will be favored in November in the Republican-leaning district, which is mostly rural but includes the University of Florida.

In the Democratic primary, Adam Christensen, a Gainesville businessman, held a lead of less than 700 votes over Tom Wells, a physicist who has been endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America and groups affiliated with Vermont U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders

Another Republican free-for-all took place in the 19th District (Fort Myers, Naples and Southwest Florida), where U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney is retiring and nine Republicans were running.

Donalds took 23%, less than 800 votes ahead of the second-place finisher, State House Majority Leader Dane Eagle from Cape Coral. Casey Askar, a Iraqi immigrant businessman from Naples who put $3 million of his own money into the campaign, finished a close third.

The 19th District is heavily Republican, which will make Donalds, who is African American, the prohibitive favorite in November. Currently, there is only one black Republican in the House, U.S. Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, who is not seeking re-election.

In the 13th District (Pinellas County), Luna took 36% to 29% for Makki, a well-connected former congressional aide and Washington lobbyist who had the backing of House Republican leaders and raised $1.2 million for the race.

But Luna, a staunch defender of Trump on TV, excited the Republican grassroots to raise nearly $1 million and surge from behind, with an endorsement from firebrand Florida U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz.

Crist is one of only two Florida Democrats whose seat is expected to be possibly competitive in 2020, although he won re-election by 15 points in 2018.

The other GOP target is U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy in the 7th District (Orlando and its northern suburbs), where Leo Valentin, an Orlando radiologist, held a 700-vote lead over Richard Goble, a mortgage broker from Lake Mary, with all precincts reporting.

In the 21st District (Palm Beach County), Loomer took 42% to beat five other Republicans for the nomination to face Democratic U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel in November after raising more than $1 million, outpacing even the incumbent.

While Loomer appears to have little chance against Frankel in the heavily Democratic district,, she will be yet another fringe nominee for Republican leaders to defend, after victories by adherents of the QAnon conspiracy theory in Georgia and Colorado.

Loomer, who describes herself as a “nationalist” but eschews the “alt-right” label, has been banned from a variety of social media sites — and even Uber and PayPal — for anti-Muslim rhetoric, describing herself on Twitter as a #ProudIslamophobe and calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country.

Among her particular targets are the only two Muslim women in Congress, U.S. Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.

Loomer has also drawn attention to herself for outlandish publicity stunts, including heckling reporters at the Conservative Political Action conference (which got her banned from the event); asking Chelsea Clinton at a book signing to autograph a book for a woman who alleges that the Clinton’s father, the former president, raped her; and interrupting the assassination scene in a performance of Shakespeare’s “Julius Ceasar” in Central Park, shouting “this is violence against Donald Trump.”

She has also spread conspiracy theories, including that Omar had married her brother and that some school shootings were staged and survivors coached to talk to the media.

Despite that questionable pedigree, Loomer’s campaign has drawn support from Gaetz, Trump confidante Roger Stone, U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, and Fox News personality Jeanine Pirro.

Trump, who had retweeted a fundraising solicitation sent on Loomer’s behalf, praised her win: “Great going Laura. You have a great chance against a Pelosi puppet!”

The president’s Mar-a-Lago estate, which is now his permanent residence, is in the 21st District.

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Florida Primary: GOP U.S. Rep. Ross Spano fights for seat, as bevy of Republicans scramble in open districts

Far-right provocateur Laura Loomer may create another headache for GOP leaders with win in Palm Beach County U.S. House district

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

TALLAHASSEE (CFP) — Voters across the Sunshine State head to the polls Tuesday for in-person voting in a primary that features a number of competitive races for U.S. House party nominations and an effort by far-right provocateur Laura Loomer to capture a GOP U.S. House nomination in Palm Beach County.

Tuesday’s primary includes races for U.S. House, state legislature and local offices; no U.S. Senate seats or statewide offices are up in this cycle. Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. local time.

The only incumbent in significant danger Tuesday is Republican U.S. Rep. Ross Spano, who is being challenged for his party’s nomination in the 15th District (I-4 Corridor between Tampa and Orlando) by Lakeland City Commissioner Scott Franklin amid a federal criminal investigation into illegal loans made to his 2018 campaign. Spano has admitted his campaign violated campaign finance laws but denies any criminal wrongdoing.

In the 3rd District (Gainesville and North-Central Florida), where U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho is retiring, 10 Republicans and three Democrats are scrambling for their party’s nominations.

The Republican field includes Kat Cammack, a former Yoho aide from Gainesville; former Gainesville City Commissioner Todd Chase; Clay County Commissioner Gavin Rollins; and two personally wealthy candidates who have largely self-financed their campaigns, James St. George, a physician from Fleming Island, and Judson Sapp, a businessman from Green Cove Springs.

Because Florida does not have primary runoffs, the first-place finisher in Tuesday’s crowded primary will win the nomination with a plurality and will be favored in November in the Republican-leaning district, which is mostly rural but includes the University of Florida.

The Democratic race in the 3rd District is between Adam Christensen, a Gainesville businessman; Phil Dodds, a software designer from Alachua who ran for the seat in 2012; and Tom Wells, a physicist who has been endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America and groups affiliated with Vermont U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders.

Another Republican free-for-all is taking place in the 19th District (Fort Myers, Naples and Southwest Florida), where U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney is retiring and nine Republicans are running.

The fundraising race in the primary has been led by two wealthy candidates who have dipped into their own funds for their campaigns: Casey Askar, a Iraqi immigrant businessman and former Marine from Naples who has loaned his campaign $3 million, and Wiliiam Figlesthaler, a urologist from Naples who has loaned his campaign nearly $2 million.

But State Rep. Byron Donalds of Naples has raised more then $1 million from donors and snagged endorsements from the National Rifle Association, the conservative Club for Growth, and the campaign arm of the House Freedom Caucus. Two other elected officials are also in the race: State House Majority Leader Dane Eagle from Cape Coral and Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson.

The 19th District is heavily Republican, which will make the primary winner the prohibitive favorite in November. However, Democrat David Holden, a Naples financial adviser who was the party’s nominee for the seat in 2018, has raised $230,000 for the race and looks poised to get a chance at a rematch. He lost to Rooney by 25 points in 2018.

In the 13th District (Pinellas County), five Republicans are competing for the right to take on Democratic U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist in what may be the GOP’s best chance to flip a Florida seat in 2020.

The race has become a contest between House Republicans leaders, who are backing Amanda Makki, a well-connected former congressional aide and Washington lobbyist, and Anna Paulina Luna, a conservative television personality and staunch defender of President Donald Trump who has the backing of Florida U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz and has tapped the conservative grassroots to raise almost $1 million for the race.

Complicating their path is George Buck, a former college professor and emergency response consultant who was the party’s nominee for the seat in 2018, losing to Crist by 15 points. He has raised more than $1 million.

Buck made headlines during the campaign when he said he would push for a constitutional amendment that would prevent foreign-born U.S. citizens from serving in Congress — a restriction that would directly affect Makki, who was born in Iran.

Makki has also come under fire for her work as a policy analyst for Alaska U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski, who has been one of the few Republican senators to distance herself from Trump. Trump’s son, Donald Jr., also publicly criticized Makki for using a photograph of the two of them together in her promotional materials, even though he has not endorsed her.

Crist is one of only two Florida Democrats whose seat is expected to be possibly competitive in 2020. The other is U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy in the 7th District (Orlando and its northern suburbs), where the Republican race is between Richard Goble, a mortgage broker from Lake Mary; Leo Valentin, an Orlando radiologist; and Yukong Zhao, a Chinese immigrant and energy executive from Orlando. Murphy won by 15 points in 2018

In the 21st District (Palm Beach County), Loomer is facing five other Republicans for the nomination to face Democratic U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel in November and has raised more than $1 million, outpacing even Frankel.

While the GOP winner will have little chance against Frankel in the heavily Democratic district, where no Republican even bothered to oppose her in 2018, Loomer would be yet another fringe nominee for Republican leaders to defend, after victories by adherents of the QAnon conspiracy theory in Georgia and Colorado.

Loomer, who describes herself as a “nationalist” but eschews the “alt-right” label, has been banned from a variety of social media sites — and even Uber and PayPal — for anti-Muslim rhetoric, describing herself on Twitter as a #ProudIslamophobe and calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country. Among her particular targets are the only two Muslim women in Congress, U.S. Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.

Loomer has also drawn attention to herself for outlandish publicity stunts, including heckling reporters at the Conservative Political Action conference (which got her banned from the event); asking Chelsea Clinton at a book signing to autograph a book for a woman who alleges that the Clinton’s father, the former president, raped her; and interrupting the assassination scene in  performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Cesear in Central Park, shouting “this is violence against Donald Trump.”

She has also spread conspiracy theories, including that Omar had married her brother and that some school shootings were staged and survivors coached to talk to the media.

Despite that questionable pedigree, Loomer’s campaign has drawn support from Gaetz, Trump confidante Roger Stone, U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, and Fox News personality Jeanine Pirro. Trump retweeted a fundraising solicitation sent on Loomer’s behalf, although he has not endorsed her.

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2 Southern U.S. House Democrats in GOP-targeted seats support impeachment in Judiciary Committee

U.S. Reps. Lucy McBath of Georgia and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell vote to remove President Trump

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

WASHINGTON (CFP) — Two Southern freshman U.S. House Democrats who are on the Republicans’ 2020 target list — Lucy McBath of Georgia and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell of Florida — voted with their party Thursday in favor of articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump that were approved by the House Judiciary Committee.

The committee vote on articles of impeachment, after a contentious debate that stretched across three days, was the first formal legislative step in the process of trying to remove Trump from office. The full House is expected to vote next week on the articles, which accuse Trump of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

Lucy McBath (left) and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell

McBath represents the 6th District in the northwestern Atlanta suburbs that Trump narrowly carried in 2016. The president lost Mucarsel-Powell’s 26th District, which includes the southern part of metro Miami-Dade and the Florida Keys, by 16 points.

Republicans are targeting both seats in 2020.

During the debate on the impeachment articles, McBath said she was supporting them with “a heavy heart and a grieving soul.”

“I am greatly saddened by what we have learned, and I am forced to face a solemn conclusion — I believe the president abused the power of his office, putting his own interests above the needs of our nation, above the needs of the people that I love and serve,” she said.

“This is not why I came to Washington. I came to Washington because I love my country. I came to Washington full of hope, empowered by my community to serve them in Congress,” she said.

McBath also invoked the memory of her son, Jordan, whose murder in a racially charged shooting in 2012 started her down a road of activism that led her to Congress.

“I made a promise to my community that I would act. I promised that I would take that sense of protection, that love a mother has for her son, and I would use it for my community, for the American people,” she said.

McBath’s chief 2020 Republican opponent Karen Handel — whom McBath defeated in 2018 — said Americans remain “unmoved” by the “impeachment scam” and accused McBath of being “more interested in finding ways to take down President Trump than she is in finding the facts.”

“Lucy — it’s time to get back to work for GA6 and end these games,” Handel said in a Facebook post.

In her debate remarks, Mucarsel-Powell said she “did not come [to Congress] to impeach the president, but this president has violated the rule of law.”

“It is undeniable that this president has violated his oath of office, abused his power and obstructed Congress,” she said. “This is a clear and present danger to the future of our democracy.”

Mucarsel-Powell also said the issue of impeachment is “bigger than party, and the Constitution has no partisan allegiance.”

“We all agree that we cannot allow this president, or any future president, to abuse the power of the office,” she said. “We cannot accept a president who says, ‘America First,’ but really puts his own interest before the country.”

Mucarsel-Powell’s Republican opponent, Irina Vilariño, said “it saddens me that during this Christmas season, we are watching one party driven by politics and a personal agenda attempt to derail the American Presidency.”

“Unlike my opponent, I’m not interested in being a part of a political clique or spending all of my time trying to drag someone else down,” she said in a Facebook post. “I am interested in delivering common sense, practical leadership for our constituents and for our district.”

Eight other Southern Democrats on the Judiciary Committee who represent safe seats also voted for the articles of impeachment, including Steve Cohen of Tennessee; Hank Johnson of Georgia; Cedric Richmond of Louisiana; Ted Deutch and Val Demings of Florida; and Shelia Jackson Lee, Sylvia Garcia and Veronica Escobar of Texas.

All eight Republicans on the committee voted against the impeachment articles, including Doug Collins of Georgia; Martha Roby of Alabama; Matt Gaetz and Greg Steube of Florida; Ben Cline of Virginia; Mike Johnson of Louisiana; and Louie Gohmert and John Ratcliffe of Texas.

Watch McBath’s full statement in the Judiciary Committee

Watch Mucarel-Powell’s full statement in the Judiciary Committee

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