Soon after Matt Gaetz was first elected to Congress in 2016, his focus became clear. It wasn’t any of his official responsibilities, according to a former staffer in his D.C. office — it was going on TV. “Nothing beat out going on Fox,” the staffer recently recalled.
This wasn’t just simple vainglory. It represented Gaetz’s fundamental political philosophy: “If you aren’t making news, you aren’t governing.” This approach to politics hasn’t made him many friends in Washington or imbued him with the air of gravitas that ambitious politicians once craved. But as scandal has swirled around him, it has served as something of a shield.
The son of a former president of the Florida state senate who made a fortune in the hospice industry, Gaetz was first elected to the Florida state legislature at age 28. He never made a secret of the fact that his personal life was as libertine as his politics are libertarian: He boasted in his memoir about answering a phone call from Donald Trump mid-coitus and allegedly created a sex game rating his conquests while serving in the statehouse. Gaetz has denied this. After three terms there, he won the open congressional seat in his deep-red district in the Florida Panhandle.
Once he got to Capitol Hill, he quickly became a cable-news fixture as he worked his way into Trump’s good graces through his ceaseless cheerleading on Fox News. But Gaetz didn’t attract coverage simply through his constant presence as a TV pundit; he drew media attention for his heterodox libertarian views on drugs and foreign policy, in addition to a social-media presence that crossed the line into sheer thirstiness for female public figures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Tiffany Trump. And, of course, Gaetz was always available to talk about his policy views or social-media posts for any television booker who asked.
Gaetz also attracted media attention through the type of inflammatory controversies that are par for the course since Trump, ranging from threatening Michael Cohen on Twitter the night prior to his testimony against Trump before the House Oversight Committee to inviting Charles Johnson, a notorious far-right troll who has denied the Holocaust, to be his guest at the State of the Union address. This year, Gaetz didn’t just criticize Liz Cheney for voting to impeach Trump in January — he flew to Wyoming to campaign against her in an event that was amply covered in right-wing media.
He joked to Intelligencer in March that he was both one of the least popular members of the House Republican Conference and among those you would most want to hang out with. Gaetz, who is now engaged, never made a secret of his active social life. In an op-ed he published in the Washington Examiner this week, Gaetz led off by admitting that he was “not a monk.” Later in the piece, he managed to offer both an affirmative defense and a humblebrag about his high-school social life: “I, as an adult man, have not slept with a 17-year-old.” Needless to say, this is not boilerplate language from a crisis-PR handbook.
Gaetz’s unusual appearance on Fox News the night the allegations broke didn’t help either, when he suggested that Tucker Carlson knew a woman involved. “You and I went to dinner about two years ago; your wife was there, and I brought a friend of mine. You’ll remember her,” Gaetz said. Carlson denied any memory of it and later described his exchange with Gaetz as “one of the weirdest interviews I’ve ever conducted.”
Republicans don’t know what to expect from further investigation of Gaetz’s personal life, and they have offered him a muted defense. Only a handful of members of Congress have come to his aid, including Trumpist firebrands like Jim Jordan of Ohio and Marjorie Taylor Greene. Even Trump himself took a week to issue a tepid statement, which noted, “It must also be remembered that he has totally denied the accusations against him.” (Johnson did come to his defense in a room on Clubhouse.)
The allegations only get worse the deeper one dives. Eyebrows have been raised about Gaetz’s lobbying for a pardon during the lame-duck period of the Trump administration, when the outgoing president was freely discussing pardons and handing them out like Tic Tacs. One former White House aide told Intelligencer that Gaetz had been particularly avid in lobbying for pardons for a range of people, including former Trump fixer Roger Stone. Gaetz made the case for pardons in television hits as well, arguing for blanket pardons of anyone even vaguely connected to Trump, up to and including reality-television personality Joe Exotic. The result leaves it hard to gauge how much this was a canny ploy to surreptitiously obtain a pardon or just Gaetz being Gaetz.
Another increasingly bizarre subplot involves an American hostage in Iran and the guy who drew the comic strip “Dilbert.” Gaetz’s father was approached about the federal investigation into his son by Bob Kent, a former Air Force intelligence officer who claimed that — for a $25 million payoff to help free Bob Levinson, a U.S. hostage presumed to have died in Iran — he and an associate could make the federal investigation against Gaetz go away. A former Trump-administration official told Intelligencer that Kent had been paid $75,000 by the State Department in an effort to rescue Levinson, which went nowhere. (The State Department declined to comment.) At the same time that Gaetz’s father was being approached, an official at the Israeli Consulate in New York reportedly plugged the hostage scheme to Scott Adams, the creator of “Dilbert” and a MAGA influencer who is an ardent Gaetz fan.
For most politicians, it’s generally accepted that allegations of being with sex workers while doing drugs would be a career ender. As would sharing nude photos of women he had been with on the floor of the House of Representatives — to say nothing of the possibility that Gaetz has sex-trafficked a 17-year-old girl, which could put him in federal prison. So far, it has barely dented him. (Although a potential plea deal from Joel Greenberg, the local elected official whose indictment sparked the investigation into Gaetz, could make things much worse). It’s not just that Gaetz has avoided the types of hypocrisies that normally ensnare politicians in sex scandals — he made a vocal defense of a Democratic colleague whose “throuple” became tabloid fodder and voted against a bill cracking down on revenge porn while in the Florida statehouse — but that he makes no pretense of being a conventional politician. There is no dutiful scraping toward the pieties of being a member of the legislative branch. After all, not only is being a congressional representative more boring than being a cable-news pundit, it’s often less powerful as well.