Amid Sex Trafficking Probe, Matt Gaetz Shows Up in Arizona For a Border Diatribe

U.S. Congressman Matt Gaetz speaks with supporters at an "An Address to Young Americans" event, featuring President Donald Trump, hosted by Students for Trump and Turning Point Action at Dream City Church in Phoenix in June 2020.
U.S. Congressman Matt Gaetz speaks with supporters at an "An Address to Young Americans" event, featuring President Donald Trump, hosted by Students for Trump and Turning Point Action at Dream City Church in Phoenix in June 2020. Gage Skidmore

Controversial, embattled Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz is going native.

The third-term U.S. congressman touched down in Phoenix not long ago, donning an Arizona State University Sun Devils cap and following the state’s GOP kingpins to the U.S.-Mexico border for a screed about the dangers of illegal immigration.

Gaetz accompanied Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb and Arizona Congressman Andy Biggs, who represents Mesa, Chandler, Gilbert, and Queen Creek, for a stroll through the rugged Sonoran Desert.

“The coyotes bring the hard drugs. They’re nasty,” Lamb said on the excursion. “This is immoral, what they’re doing.”

Pinal County does not border Mexico, but sheriffs there have long complained, sometimes falsely, sometimes not, about violent smugglers using their county as a pass-through to traffic drugs and people. This latest stunt has echoes of former Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu and his 2010 "danged fence" appearance on the border with Senator John McCain, who needed to tack right for an election run.

This time, the three amigos — Lamb, Biggs, and Gaetz — took the opportunity to shoot an amateur documentary titled Firebrand at the Border. The project was bankrolled by Gaetz despite the fact he comes from a place that's 1,800 miles away and nowhere near an international boundary.

In the short film, Sheriff Lamb roots through brittlebush plants and appears to discover a campsite littered with carpet shoes — soft booties that silence footsteps and leave no footprints — along with tattered backpacks and sundries.

“Make no mistake, [coyotes] have zero value for human life,” Lamb said in the video posted to Twitter on Thursday morning. “They're trafficking poison. That fentanyl is poison in our communities.”

The charismatic lawman who calls himself “the American Sheriff” tapped Gaetz to help document the unrest.

It’s a polarizing selection for the role of celebrity guest star.

Gaetz has been the subject of a federal probe since March 2021. He’s accused of sex trafficking, soliciting prostitution, and having a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl. He's accused of being the kind of thing his hero, the last president, would call a "bad hombre."

“The last time I had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old, I was 17,” Gaetz said last April.

With unflinching determination in the face of an epic scandal, Gaetz announced his bid for re-election on Saturday.

Cushioned by conspiracy theories and Trump-esque rallying cries, Republican loyalty to the longtime Florida lawmaker is unwavering despite a falling out among fellow GOP leaders on Capitol Hill.

Sheriff Lamb is among the faithful.

Sure, they’re both ultra-conservative, conspiracy theory-pone “build the wall” candidates who deny the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, but Gaetz and Lamb have one notable thing in common.

They’re famous.

“Why is the sheriff of Arizona’s fifth-largest county a national star?” wonders Barrett Marson, a conservative political strategist based in Phoenix. “And what is it with sheriffs from Florence that makes them such stars? To me, that is a fascinating study.”

In May, Florida Republican Joel Greenberg pleaded guilty to his own charges of sex trafficking in connection with the Gaetz scandal. In January, Gaetz’s ex-girlfriend brought the U.S. Department of Justice closer to an indictment when she testified against him in court.

One of former President Donald Trump’s brashest supporters in the House, Gaetz has taken a special interest in the Grand Canyon State.

He was one of 121 House Republicans who chose to decertify the 2020 Electoral College votes in Arizona, a state Trump lost by just 10,500 votes.

In a letter to Joseph V. Cuffari, the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general, Gaetz also bolstered Lamb’s claims that President Joe Biden is undermining the power of municipal law enforcement agencies to prosecute undocumented visitors.

“It is now apparent that under President Biden’s Administration, the Department of Homeland Security has ceased cooperating with local law enforcement agencies in deporting criminal illegal aliens,” Gaetz, Biggs, and Texas Republican Louie Gohmert wrote in July last year.

“Many Americans have been killed by dangerous illegal aliens who should never have been in this country, much less permitted to remain,” the letter continued.

In Firebrand at the Border, Gaetz and Biggs follow Lamb down a dubious rant about the “Biden Border Crisis.”

But it’s not just immigration from Mexico that disquiets Lamb, whose persona and self-imposed sobriquet borrow heavily from former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a.k.a. “America’s toughest sheriff.”

He’s fervently against illegal immigration from the Middle East, which he asserts is a burgeoning problem at Arizona’s southern border.

In a bizarre twist, Lamb said he was especially concerned about immigrants from the super-wealthy micronation of Bahrain, an island in the Persian Gulf.

“What is a guy from Bahrain doing at the first house you get to in the middle of the desert?” Lamb asked. “Easily they could be bringing Middle Easterners up, dropping them off there, and getting them into our communities.”

The sheriff's stance on insurrectionists is more lenient than how he regards people from the Middle East.

Lamb called the rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, "very loving, Christian people."

During the attack, he delivered an incendiary speech in Phoenix, spewing a number of right-wing conspiracy theories including those about former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Biden's son, Hunter.

"I don't know how loud we have to get before they start to listen to us," Phoenix New Times reported him saying that day.

Lamb and the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to numerous requests for comment from New Times.

He might be too preoccupied with filmmaking.

The second installment of Firebrand at the Border is coming soon.

In the meantime, Lamb’s advice for landowners in Southern Arizona is simple — shoot and ask questions later.

Grinning, he told his fellow Republicans, “You can use force … deadly force.”

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Elias Weiss is a staff writer at the Phoenix New Times. A native of Charlotte, North Carolina, he reported first for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and was editor of the Chatham Star-Tribune in Southern Virginia, where he covered politics and law. In 2020, the Virginia Press Association awarded him first place in the categories of Government Writing and Breaking News Writing for non-daily newspapers statewide.
Contact: Elias Weiss