Was there any actual extortion in the "extortion plot" against Matt Gaetz?

A follow-up to John’s post from last night. The Washington Post story he wrote about had basic details of the alleged blackmail attempt against Gaetz but this Washington Examiner write-up has more — including images of some of the emails and documents that were sent to Gaetz and his father by the alleged extorters.

I think it’s reasonable for the two of them to have read between the lines and assumed they were being blackmailed. But unless the Examiner left something important out, there’s no explicit threat to damage Gaetz in any way if he didn’t fork over a $25 million “loan.” Can you get to “beyond a reasonable doubt” with a jury in federal court without that explicit threat?

Gaetz says his father Don was contacted two weeks ago by a former Air Force officer named Bob Kent who’s been working on somehow rescuing Robert Levinson, the detained FBI agent, from Iran. Levinson might be dead; Kent seems to think he’s alive and is, supposedly, trying to scrape together the money he’d need to mount an operation to free him. Which sounds insane, although as you’ll see, it’s not the most insane part. Regardless, Kent *did* seem to know somehow that Matt Gaetz was in hot water with the DOJ and offered Don a “a plan that can make [Matt’s] future legal and political problems go away.” The plan was to free Levinson and let Gaetz take credit for it, making him a national hero:

The Project Homecoming document states that Gaetz is “under investigation by the FBI for various public corruption and public integrity issues” and alleges that the FBI is aware of photos depicting Gaetz in a “sexual orgy with underage prostitutes.”

“In exchange for the funds being arranged, and upon the release of Mr. Levinson, the team that delivers Mr. Levinson to the President of The United States shall strongly advocate that President Biden issue a Presidential Pardon, or instruct the Department of Justice to terminate any and all investigations involving Congressman Gaetz,” the document reads.

It also implied that the White House has some knowledge of the plan: “The team has been assured by the President that he will strongly consider such matters because he considers the release of Robert Levinson a matter of National Urgency.” The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

That’s the truly insane part. Under no circumstances is Joe Biden pardoning one of the loudest-and-proudest MAGA congressmen in America, especially for something as heinous as sex crimes involving minors. And the idea that some team of commandos in touch with Biden would even approach a Trumpy politician like Gaetz to fund the operation, sharing details of it with him, instead of asking a liberal fatcat is absurd beyond belief.

So who can fault the Gaetzes for listening to this cockamamie story and concluding that there is no “Project Homecoming,” that it was just a ruse concocted by Kent and his partners to thinly disguise an attempt to shake down the family? By communicating that they knew Gaetz was being investigated for something embarrassing, Kent et al. necessarily implied that they could damage him by revealing the information.

But that’s all they did. There was no threat as far as I can tell to actually reveal the existence of the DOJ’s Gaetz investigation. There’s no “or else” appended to any of the requests for $25 million. The idea was simply that Gaetz could earn himself a ton of glory by funding the Levinson rescue operation. The resulting public gratitude would, supposedly, make it impossible for the DOJ to indict him or would leave Biden with no choice except to pardon him. That’s all there was to it as far as we know.

Where’s the blackmail there? The federal blackmail statute says:

Whoever, under a threat of informing, or as a consideration for not informing, against any violation of any law of the United States, demands or receives any money or other valuable thing, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both.

Again, though, Kent seemingly never threatened to inform anyone of Gaetz’s legal predicament. You can infer that he might have if the Gaetzes had turned down his offer, but is an inference enough in court?

The federal extortion statute says, in part:

Whoever, with intent to extort from any person, firm, association, or corporation, any money or other thing of value, transmits in interstate or foreign commerce any communication containing any threat to injure the property or reputation of the addressee or of another or the reputation of a deceased person or any threat to accuse the addressee or any other person of a crime, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.

Same problem here. There’s no explicit threat to injure Gaetz’s reputation. Maybe there would have been one if Matt Gaetz hadn’t spilled the beans about the alleged extortion plot on Tuesday night, spoiling the meeting his father was supposed to have with one of Kent’s associates on Wednesday. But as things stand, could the feds get a conviction on this set of facts? Someone sent a letter to the Gaetz family requesting a huge sum of money and mentioning that they know something damaging about the congressman — and yet they never suggested they would disclose it. Certainly blackmail-ish! But blackmail?

Whether Gaetz ends up being charged or not, his reputation may have already taken enough of a hit as to make him unfit for anything *except* government work. In response to reports that cable news networks were interested in him as a host after Congress, Fox said, “No one with any level of authority has had conversations with Matt Gaetz for any of our platforms and we have no interest in hiring him.” That disdainful part at the end is a surprise, as he’s on the network often and would doubtless be well received by the audience. The Daily Beast has a report today about Gaetz’s colleagues in Congress whispering about his personal behavior and wondering for ages when a scandal would eventually blow up on him, with one former Republican staffer claiming that his boss wouldn’t appear next to Gaetz in TV segments for fear that the footage might be used against him someday. Maybe Fox and other righty media organs have heard whispers too and have decided to keep their distance despite knowing that he’d be a draw. No one wants to be left holding the bag if/when something extremely embarrassing pops.