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Trump ally Matt Gaetz under federal sex trafficking probe

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) during his Republican National

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) during his Republican National Convention speech in August. Credit: Republican National Committee via AP

Is Gaetz in trouble for 'generosity'?

Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican and close ally of former President Donald Trump, is being investigated by the Justice Department over whether he had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old and paid for her to travel with him, The New York Times reported late Tuesday afternoon, citing three people briefed on the matter.

The federal agents are examining whether Gaetz — a high-profile defender of Trump through the impeachment investigations — violated federal sex trafficking laws. The probe began during the Trump administration when the DOJ was led by Attorney General William Barr, and senior officials there, including Trump appointees, were notified about it.

Gaetz, 38, told the Times in an interview: "I have a suspicion that someone is trying to recategorize my generosity to ex-girlfriends as something more untoward." Separately, he told Axios: "I have definitely, in my single days, provided for women I've dated. You know, I've paid for flights, for hotel rooms. I’ve been, you know, generous as a partner. I think someone is trying to make that look criminal when it is not." He said he was "absolutely" confident that none of the women were underage.

Gaetz called the investigation part of a scheme by a former Justice official involving "false sex allegations" to extort him and his family for $25 million. He said his father, former state lawmaker Don Gaetz, had been cooperating with the FBI and "wearing a wire." Speaking on Tucker Carlson's Fox News show Tuesday night, the younger Gaetz named Pensacola lawyer David McGee, who was a federal prosecutor in Florida during the 1990s. McGee told the Daily Beast that any extortion allegation against him is "completely, totally false" and is an attempt by Gaetz to "distract" from his predicament.

The Times said the probe of Matt Gaetz grew out of a broader investigation into a political ally of his in Florida, Joel Greenberg, who was indicted last summer on charges including sex trafficking of a child and financially supporting people in exchange for sex. Greenberg was sent to jail this month for violating the terms of his bail. He is scheduled to go on trial in June in Orlando. Greenberg, who has since resigned his post as tax collector in Seminole County, north of Orlando, visited the White House with Gaetz in 2019, according to a photograph that Greenberg posted on Twitter.

Gaetz has remained in the former president's orbit and promoted Trump's false claims of election fraud. He has led Trump-backed efforts among far-right Republicans to oust Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming from the House GOP leadership for her January support of Trump's impeachment and calling for her defeat in a 2022 primary.

Hours before the Times posted its story, Axios reported that Gaetz has privately told confidants he's considering leaving Congress before his term is up next year — for a job at Newsmax, the right-wing network.

Deplorable migrant conditions seen

On Tuesday, the Biden administration for the first time allowed journalists inside its main Border Patrol detention facility for migrant children in Texas' Rio Grande Valley, revealing a severely overcrowded tent structure where more than 4,000 people, including children and families, were crammed into a space intended for 250, The Associated Press reported.

Children were being housed by the hundreds in eight "pods" formed by plastic dividers, each about 3,200 square feet in size. Many of the pods had more than 500 children in them, spaced closely together and many of them lying on the ground on mats and foil blankets. The youngest sleep in a separate playpen area.

Oscar Escamilla, acting executive officer of the U.S. Border Patrol in the Rio Grande Valley, said 250 to 300 kids enter daily and far fewer leave.

The Biden administration has continued expelling adults who try to cross the border under a coronavirus-related public health declaration, but changes in Mexican law have forced agents to release many parents and children into the U.S. President Joe Biden has declined to resume the Trump-era practice of expelling unaccompanied migrant children. "We're not in the business of detention. We're forced into the business because we can't turn them over to anybody," Escamilla said.

White House rips WHO report on COVID origin

The White House criticized a World Health Organization report on the origins of the coronavirus, calling it incomplete because of data and access not provided by the Chinese government to the document's authors.

Biden "believes the American people, the global community, the medical experts, the doctors, all of the people who have been working to save lives, the families who have lost loved ones, all deserve greater transparency," press secretary Jen Psaki said at her briefing Tuesday.

The U.S. and 12 other countries released a joint statement raising questions about the WHO report and calling for independent and fully transparent evaluations. Even WHO's director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, voiced frustration with the level of access China granted.

The WHO report, officially released Tuesday, concludes that the coronavirus likely spread from bats to humans via an unknown intermediate animal host. It recommends no further investigation of suspicions — vehemently denied by China’s government — that the virus escaped a biocontainment lab in the city of Wuhan, where cases of COVID-19 were first identified.

Tedros said, "Although the team has concluded that a laboratory leak is the least likely hypothesis, this requires further investigation."

Janison: Now they tell us?

Mark it as an extraordinary moment when an ex-president’s coronavirus pandemic advisers suggest that hundreds of thousands of American lives were squandered by the chaos and inaction of the administration they served, writes Newsday's Dan Janison.

The public already knew the overall situation described by leading government doctors Deborah Birx, Anthony Fauci and others in a CNN special that aired over the weekend. But that doesn't nullify the continued impact of how badly Trump and his team choked.

Birx said that in February 2020, "I wanted to make sure that we stopped saying that ‘the risk to Americans was low,’ " but in the White House, "there was a group that really believed this wasn't as a big of a deal as we were making it" and another group "that just was more fatalistic — that no matter what we did — the outcome was going to be the same."

Nobody can say what might have changed if, during Trump's famous riff about "light inside the body" and injecting disinfectant, Birx hadn't held her tongue, but instead had made clear on television that the boss was delivering an erroneous message.

This is too much for the ex-president to answer in a real way, despite having nothing to lose at the polls anymore. After the doctors' interviews aired, Trump responded as he did on so many occasions with personal smears of Birx and Fauci as "self-promoters trying to reinvent history to cover for their bad instincts and faulty recommendations."

Vaccine confidence growing

A Kaiser Family Foundation survey finds growing acceptance and fading skepticism over the COVID-19 vaccines. Among American adults, 61% either have been vaccinated or want to be. Another 17% are in "wait and see" mode. Another 7% will take it "only if required," such as for airline travel, while 13% "definitely will not" get the shots.

Last December, only 34% wanted the shots and 39% took a "wait and see" stance.

The Biden administration is unveiling a program Thursday for creating a network of outside health experts and community leaders charged with building trust in the U.S.-approved vaccines, Politico reported.

Meanwhile, Biden's pleas for states to retain mask mandates to slow the spread of the disease were being largely ignored Tuesday as several Republican governors stuck with plans to drop the requirement in their states.

Plea deals for run-of-mill rioters?

Many among the hundreds charged with invading the halls of Congress on Jan. 6 are likely to get little or no jail time, according to Politico.

The news site's analysis of the U.S. Capitol riot-related cases shows that almost a quarter of the more than 230 defendants formally and publicly charged so far face only misdemeanors. With cases clogging D.C.'s federal district court, judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys in recent days have all indicated that they expect few of these "MAGA tourists" to face harsh sentences.

Although prosecutors have loaded up their charging documents with language about the insurrection's existential threat to the republic, the actions of many of the individual rioters often boiled down to trespass allegations, Politico wrote. Judges have wrestled with how aggressively to lump those cases in with those of the more sinister suspects.

The prospect of dozens of Jan. 6 rioters cutting deals for minor sentences could be hard to explain for the Biden administration, which has characterized the Capitol Hill mob as a uniquely dangerous threat. Attorney General Merrick Garland has called the prosecutions his top early priority.

Beware of dog: Major doubles down

Maybe they should rename him Nipsey. For the second time this month, Biden's 3-year-old German shepherd, Major, has been the perpetrator of a biting incident that caused personnel at the White House to seek first aid.

Major was out for a walk on the South Lawn on Monday afternoon when the latest incident occurred, according to Michael LaRosa, first lady Jill Biden’s press secretary. "Major is still adjusting to his new surroundings and he nipped someone while on a walk," LaRosa said. The nippee was seen by the White House medical unit "and then returned to work without injury," LaRosa said. CNN said the person is a National Park Service employee.

Major received training within the last two weeks, according to the White House, following the first incident, which involved a Secret Service employee. Major and the Bidens' senior dog, Champ, were sent back to Delaware, and Joe Biden later told ABC News that Major was receiving additional "training" at home. "He’s a sweet dog," said the president.

Trump to face sex accuser's suit

Trump may be forced to testify under oath now that the New York State Court of Appeals ruled that a defamation suit against him — filed by a former "Apprentice" contestant who accused him of sexual misconduct — can go forward.

Summer Zervos alleged that Trump defamed her in 2016 when he called her a liar for her sexual assault story. She accused Trump of having groped and kissed her against her will in a Los Angeles hotel room in 2007.

Trump had tried to stop the suit, arguing that as president, he was protected from legal action. Two lower courts decided against him before his lawyers appealed the case. But before the Court of Appeals heard the case, Trump left office.

Trump might be compelled to testify under oath about his responses to Zervos' claims and other accusations of sexual misconduct, The New York Times reported.

More coronavirus news

See a roundup of the latest regional pandemic developments on Long Island and beyond by Newsday's reporting staff, written by David Reich-Hale and Bart Jones. For a full list of Newsday's coronavirus stories, click here.

What else is happening:

  • The tax hike proposals Biden plans to detail in a Pittsburgh speech Wednesday include raising the corporate rate from 21% to 28%, imposing a global minimum tax on profits from foreign subsidiaries, taxing capital gains as regular income for the wealthy and restoring the top individual rate for those making more than $400,000 to the pre-Trump level of 39.6%, Axios reports.
  • Biden announced his first slate of judicial nominees — a racially diverse group including three Black women for the U.S. courts of appeals, which can be a pathway to the Supreme Court. Overall, nine of the 11 named are women.
  • Congressional Democrats and the Biden administration are planning another round of health care initiatives that could include lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 60, according to The Wall Street Journal.
  • Former Vice President Mike Pence is eyeing a potential 2024 presidential run — joining conservative organizations, writing op-eds, delivering speeches and launching an advocacy group that will focus on promoting the Trump administration’s accomplishments, The Associated Press reports. The tricky part is overcoming Trump's denunciation of Pence's refusal to help overturn the election results.
  • Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in Iowa and New Hampshire over the past week, is emerging as the most outspoken critic of Biden among former top Trump officials, The New York Times writes. His stops in primary-battleground states reinforced the belief that he's considering a 2024 run.
  • Former White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who joined Fox News less than a month ago, is moving up. She has been named a co-host of "Outnumbered," which airs weekdays at noon, putting one of the most prominent faces of the Trump administration at the heart of the network's midday lineup.

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