Gaetz sex probe suddenly threatens a speedy Washington rise

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FILE - In this Dec. 18, 2019, file photo Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., walks off the House floor as House of Representatives takes up articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

WASHINGTON – Compared with most congressional newbies, it didn't take Rep. Matt Gaetz long. Phone calls from the president. Rides aboard Air Force One. Hundreds of television appearances. A darling in conservative circles.

Yet barely four years after arriving in Washington as a little-known Republican state legislator from Florida’s Panhandle, the 38-year-old unblushing defender of Donald Trump is facing a possible abrupt end to his once promising career because of a federal sex-trafficking investigation.

The overwhelming reaction of Gaetz's GOP colleagues — a deafening silence. That reflects the resentments he's sparked during his breakneck rise as one of the party's celebrities and the challenge he faces to retain his seat.

Government agents are investigating if Gaetz had sex with a 17-year-old and other underage girls and violated federal sex trafficking laws, people familiar with the probe have told the AP. No charges have been filed, and Gaetz has denied the allegations.

But with new, damaging details emerging regularly, Gaetz's political arc is beginning to resemble the myth of Icarus, who plunged to earth after ignoring warnings that his waxen wings would melt if he flew too close to the sun.

The coming days will test the crisis management skills of one of the most visible members of Congress' younger generation, who critics say care more about promoting their own brand than serious legislating.

“They're here for notoriety and to perform to their base, and anything else that may come is secondary,” said Doug Heye, a Trump critic and former top GOP congressional aide. “And if you boo him that's great too, as long as you're watching.”

David Bossie, president of Citizens United, which backs conservative causes and candidates, countered that Gaetz "has been a conservative warrior, working every day to make America great again and fight for President Trump’s agenda.”