Congressman Matt Gaetz, facing accusations of a sexual relationship with an underage girl, should at a minimum be removed from the House Judiciary Committee if the claims are true, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday.
Pelosi also said the House Ethics Committee should consider the allegations against the Florida Republican.
Gaetz, who has been one of former President Donald Trump's closest allies since coming to Congress in 2017, has.
Asked directly if Gaetz should resign from Congress or lose his committee seat, Pelosi didn't specifically address the more severe step.
"If in fact these allegations are true, of course being removed from the Judiciary Committee is the least that could be done," Pelosi told reporters. She added, "From what we've heard so far, this would be a matter for the Ethics Committee."
The Ethics panel, made up of five members from each party, can recommend punishments ranging from a reprimand, or formal rebuke, to expulsion, which is rare partly because lawmakers often resign first. The full House would have to approve such actions, with expulsion requiring a two-thirds majority.
Pelosi's comments fell short of the swift removal from the Judiciary Committee sought by at least one Democratic lawmaker. Congressman Ted Lieu of California argued in a tweet that "you can't have Gaetz sitting on the Congressional Committee that has oversight over the Department that is investigating him."
The The New York Times reported this week that Justice Department investigators are looking into whether Gaetz "violated federal sex trafficking laws." Gaetz has denied the allegation that he had an inappropriate sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl and paid for her to travel with him.
On Tuesday, Gaetz appeared on Fox News' "Tucker Carlson Tonight," where he claimed he was the victim of an attempted extortion. He denied the relationship to Carlson and in a separate statement. "The person doesn't exist. I have not had a relationship with a 17-year-old," Gaetz told Carlson. "That is totally false." He also told Carlson, "Providing for flights and hotel rooms for people that you're dating who are of legal age is not a crime."
Gaetz also alleged that a former Justice Department official — whom he named on television — was trying to extort him and his family out of $25 million in exchange for "making horrible sex trafficking allegations against me go away."
The Justice Department has also been examining whether Gaetz has had relationships with other underage girls, the people said. Investigators are trying to determine whether Gaetz violated federal sex trafficking laws, said the people, who were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The New York Times reported on Thursday evening that the Justice Department was investigating Gaetz's connection to Joel Greenberg, a former tax collector who was indicted last year on a federal sex trafficking charge and other crimes. Investigators are looking into whether Greenberg introduced Gaetz to women who were recruited online for sex and received cash payments.
Gaetz has denied allegations that he has ever paid women for sex.
"Matt Gaetz refutes all the disgusting allegations completely," Gaetz's office said in a statement to the Times. Gaetz's office announced Friday that his press secretary had "parted ways" with Gaetz.
Gaetz has so far received little vocal support from his fellow Republicans. Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan is one of the few who is standing by him. "I believe Matt Gaetz," he told CNN reporter Ryan Nobles. "He should not be removed from the Judiciary Committee."
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said Wednesday that the accusations were "serious" and that if proven to be true, Gaetz would be removed from committees. He is also sits on the Armed Services Committee.
"The allegations against me are FALSE," Gaetz tweeted Thursday. He also repeated his assertion that the charges are related to an alleged attempt to extort his family.