Gaetz said that Trump then told White House counsel Pat Cipollone, who was in the room, to tell Attorney General William Barr that Trump believed Keefe’s legal theory had merit.
When Barr learned about Gaetz’s conversation with the president, he was incensed. The attorney general called the U.S. attorney and gave him an earful, according to two people familiar with the call.
“If I ever hear of you talking to Gaetz or any other congressman about business before the Department, I am going to fucking fire your ass,” Barr told him, according to one of the people with knowledge of the call.
Gaetz said he didn’t know about any testy conversations.
“I am unaware of any discussion Barr had with Keefe,” he told POLITICO, “but I did get a message from Keefe subsequent to my meeting in the Oval wherein Keefe said he was not going to be able to discuss these matters with me, and I got the sense that the politics of the Department of Justice were such that they did not want U.S. attorneys looking for election fraud in this type of very proactive way.”
Barr declined to comment for this story. A spokesperson for Trump also declined to comment. A DOJ spokesperson declined to comment.
Trump won Florida handily in the 2020 race.
Keefe, like almost every other U.S. attorney appointed by Trump, was asked to resign by the Biden administration and left office on Feb. 28. Keefe said in a statement: “It is not appropriate for me to comment on details related to my previous service as a U.S. Attorney. I stand by the decisions I made and the actions I took in honoring and enforcing the laws of this nation during my public service.”
Gaetz is reportedly being investigated for whether he engaged in sex trafficking. He has not been charged with a crime, and no women have publicly accused him of sexual misconduct in the three weeks since the New York Times first reported on the investigation. He has denied any wrongdoing.
At the time of Keefe and Gaetz’s attempted investigation, the issue of voting rights, especially in Florida and other swing states, was a top national political story. Republicans have long raised concerns about voter fraud hurting the legitimacy of elections, even though numerous studies have shown that there are very few actual cases. Voting rights advocates, meanwhile, engaged in a wide-ranging effort to help people convicted of felonies who’d completed their prison sentences register to vote.
A landmark amendment passed in 2019 restored voting rights to people in this category — some experts have estimated it could have let up to 1.4 million people vote in Florida who couldn’t previously, as ProPublica reported. But because of a state law and a court ruling, those people also had to pay any outstanding fines, restitution and fees before being able to vote — what has been called a 21st century poll tax. Former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg offered to help pay down the fees, and Florida’s Republican attorney general asked the FBI to investigate if the move broke any voting laws.