Can Matt Gaetz survive a real world scandal?

The Florida congressman promulgates govern-by-media tactics

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The music blares, sparks fly from the pyrotechnics show, and the star walks out, pumping his fist and soaking in the cheers of the adoring crowd. A WWE wrestling event? No, it’s Congressman Matt Gaetz at AMERICAFEST, a Turning Point USA conference in December in Phoenix, Arizona. Gaetz was not there to deliver a substantive policy speech, educate the crowd about the dangers of inflationary spending or warn about Russia’s geopolitical machinations in Ukraine. Instead, the thirty-nine-year-old MAGA firebrand delivered the goods his audience expected. Populist attacks on “Big Pharma”; mockery of Democrats — Biden,…

The music blares, sparks fly from the pyrotechnics show, and the star walks out, pumping his fist and soaking in the cheers of the adoring crowd. A WWE wrestling event? No, it’s Congressman Matt Gaetz at AMERICAFEST, a Turning Point USA conference in December in Phoenix, Arizona. Gaetz was not there to deliver a substantive policy speech, educate the crowd about the dangers of inflationary spending or warn about Russia’s geopolitical machinations in Ukraine. Instead, the thirty-nine-year-old MAGA firebrand delivered the goods his audience expected. Populist attacks on “Big Pharma”; mockery of Democrats — Biden, he says, spends most days “wandering around the Rose Garden like some sort of nursing home, memory care-ward escapee” — and “establishment” Republicans; and praise for other members of the MAGA caucus in the House, such as Reps. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina and Lauren Boebert of Colorado.

And, of course, Gaetz offered a panegyric for former President Donald Trump. Gaetz went so far as to say Republicans, should they take back control of the House of Representatives, ought to make Trump the speaker, if only to troll Nancy Pelosi. Gaetz’s hailing of Trump is not surprising. He struck the tone of a loyal sycophant during his campaign for Florida’s 1st District in 2016, the same year Trump prevailed in his bid for the White House, and he sang the same tune after his election to the House.

Like many other House freshmen of 2016, Republican and Democratic alike, Gaetz established himself as an expert in the art of political tomfoolery. While the average American could pick Matt Damon out of a lineup easier than Gaetz, the brash and pugnacious congressman is a star in the political world. In his five-year House career, Gaetz has published a book, been the subject of an HBO documentary (The Swamp), launched a podcast, built a Twitter following of over a million and made numerous appearances on Fox News — all without attaching his name to a single piece of significant legislation.

It doesn’t matter to Gaetz in the slightest that, when it comes to the inverse ratio of social-media fame to actual lawmaking, he might be the AOC of the right. “If you aren’t making news, you aren’t governing,” Gaetz opines in his autobiography, the aptly named Firebrand. He enjoys confrontation, and typically creates it in high-profile situations like committee hearings, when he knows his antics will make for a viral clip or cable coverage.

People used to run for office to serve their constituents and craft legislation. But Congress is now about petty squabbling, passing partisan laws via reconciliation, fighting over the debt ceiling and haggling over pork-packed omnibus spending. Meanwhile, the combination of social media and cable news has turned the Capitol into a platform, and a generation of media-smart performers arrived. For many young members, the allure of going to Washington, DC to become a star within a minuscule universe, and cashing out into a lucrative post-Congressional career, now takes center stage. Look no further than the career switch of Rep. Devin Nunes of California. Should the GOP regain control of the House in 2022, Nunes had the backing of leadership to chair the powerful Ways and Means committee, where all tax policy originates. However, Nunes has chosen instead to resign and enlist as the CEO of Donald Trump’s new media company.

Gaetz is a product of his environment, but his penchant for politics runs in the blood. His grandfather, Jerry Gaetz, was a mayor and state legislator who gave a speech at the 1964 Republican National Convention endorsing Barry Goldwater. Moments after finishing the speech and walking off stage, the elder Gaetz died of a heart attack at the age of fifty. When Don Gaetz, Matt’s father, ran for Okaloosa County school superintendent, Matt wore “Gaetz for Superintendent” t-shirts to school nearly every day. The kicker? The principal was his father’s primary opponent.

Don Gaetz eventually made it to the Florida state senate in 2006, where he served for ten years, serving as senate president for two years. Matt is not a chip off the old block. While Don garnered a reputation as a tough legislator, he worked with Democrats when necessary. He was, then, the kind of old-school “surrender monkey” Republican his son rails against daily. It turned out to be an effective strategy, as Don managed to get a dozen pieces of legislation passed in his first year.

Matt is the champion of a reality-show host turned reality-show president, and a promulgator of govern-by-media tactics. He views politics through the lens of entertainment. He craves the spotlight and uses it to his advantage. According to Forbes, he appeared on Fox News nearly 180 times between 2017 and early 2021. A former Fox News employee tells me that when Gaetz began appearing on primetime shows, he showed up with a woman on his arm, having come straight to the studio from dinner. This person said Gaetz never introduced the women — all young, beautiful and “dressed to the nines” — and the studio team never saw the same woman more than once, even when Gaetz appeared on the air several times in the same week. That tracks with the CNN report accusing Gaetz of being fond of showing nude photos of women he had supposedly slept with to his House colleagues.

Whatever Gaetz’s private proclivities, his boldness extended to his role as a member of the House Judiciary and Armed Services committees. Whether it was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the head of the FBI, Al Sharpton or other committee members, Gaetz appeared to revel in back-and-forth spats. During the inquiry phase of Trump’s first impeachment, Gaetz peppered legal experts about their political leanings and donations to Democratic politicians.

Unfortunately for Gaetz, his fearlessness often extends into outright buffoonery. On October 23, 2019, Gaetz and thirty other House GOP members jostled their way into a secure meeting room known as a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) at the Capitol and crashed a deposition led by Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Gaetz tweeted: “BREAKING: I led over 30 of my colleagues into the SCIF where Adam Schiff is holding secret impeachment depositions. Still inside – more details to come.”

SCIFs are essentially spy-proof — just so long as long as everyone adheres to a strict set of security protocols. Marching into a SCIF with a phone and then tweeting are two big no-nos. Perhaps sensing that his actions could get him into trouble, Gaetz followed up that tweet with “Tweet from staff,” as if to give himself some cover. He later claimed the stunt brought attention to the “secret” impeachment hearings held by the Democrats, though he was well aware that Republican members of the Intelligence Committee were in the room at the time.

The documentary filmmakers Daniel DiMauro and Morgan Pehme capture a range of Gaetz’s antics in their documentary, The Swamp. The film covers the DC adventures of Republican Reps. Ken Buck of Colorado and Thomas Massie of Kentucky, and the Harvard professor and government reform advocate Lawrence Lessig. But it’s Gaetz who’s the real star, in part because his loyalty to Donald Trump shades into adulation. He has a direct line to Trump, and when Trump praises him for some antics he has caught on television, Gaetz practically blushes in front of the cameras.

Gaetz became a staunch defender of Donald Trump’s election conspiracy theories. Gaetz has never explicitly used the word “stolen” or claimed Trump actually “won.” Instead, Gaetz stuck to the playbook, dissembling about fraud and railing against mail-in voting due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In December 2020, Gaetz (and 125 of his colleagues) signed an amicus brief supporting a Texas lawsuit that sought to set aside electoral votes in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Gaetz promised to vote against certifying the election: “We’re going to OBJECT to electors from states that didn’t run clean elections.” As recently as October 2021, when asked if Joe Biden won the 2020 election, Gaetz would only say, “I acknowledge he is the president.”

“I grew up in the house Jim Carrey lived in The Truman Show,” Gaetz writes in Firebrand. “I know that all the world’s a stage, especially when we all have cameras with phones.” Released in 1998, The Truman Show tells the story of Truman Burbank who, unbeknownst to him, lives on a giant soundstage. All the people around him are actors, and the public tune in to watch Truman “live” his life. The film’s deeper message — the world doesn’t revolve around us even when we think it does — was lost on Gaetz. And that may come back to haunt him.

In early 2021, the spotlight on Gaetz intensified but the plotline was no longer political. The New York Times reported that the Department of Justice had opened an investigation into potential violations of federal sex-trafficking laws. The Times reported Gaetz allegedly had a sexual relationship with a seventeen-year-old girl and had paid for her to travel with him. These actions could have violated federal statutes that make it illegal to induce someone under eighteen to travel over state lines to engage in sex in exchange for money or other things of value.

Gaetz’s trouble stems from a separate investigation involving his ex-friend Joel Greenberg, the former tax commissioner for Seminole County, Florida. In 2017, Gaetz praised Greenberg, then considering a run for Congress, as a “disrupter.” In May, Greenberg, who had been facing thirty-three federal counts (including fraud, identity theft and bribery), struck a plea deal with federal investigators and pleaded guilty to six charges, including sex-trafficking a minor, along with various corruption and fraud charges.

The deal also includes Greenberg giving “substantial assistance” to federal prosecutors. In October, the Justice Department augmented the local federal team in Florida with two Washington, DC-based prosecutors — raising the stakes over whether Gaetz engaged in trafficking the same girl as Greenberg. One of the more ominous signs for Gaetz are the Venmo transactions he and Greenberg made to three young women. Records show that Gaetz sent Greenberg $900 in two separate transactions. In one of them, the memo field said, “hit up _____” (the blank denoting a nickname for one of the recipients). Greenberg then sent the money to the three young women with the memos, “Tuition,” “school” and “school.”

Gaetz, never one to do things quietly, blasted the Times report. He initially attempted to tie the accusation to a bizarre subplot, an alleged extortion scheme involving his father, Don. When news broke of the investigation into Matt Gaetz, the Florida businessman Stephen Alford approached Don Gaetz and said that for $25 million, he could secure a pardon for his son. It’s astonishing anyone would think Alford could manage to convince Joe Biden to pardon one of Donald Trump’s most fervent supporters. This is likely why Don Gaetz went to the FBI and worked with them to secure the evidence to indict Alford on the charges.

Matt Gaetz has alleged that the sex-trafficking charges arose as a result of the extortion scheme — but this is not true. Meanwhile, he’s retained legal counsel in the face of the investigation. He didn’t go with Florida’s famous “For The People” lawyer, John Morgan. Gaetz hired a crim nal defense team that would have impressed John Gotti. He has retained Marc Fernich, a trial lawyer with a client list that includes Jeffrey Epstein, Joaquín Guzmán (aka El Chapo) and Keith Raniere, who received a 120-year sentence for running the NXIVM sex cult that branded female followers and turned them into sex slaves.

Gaetz went to one of his safe spaces — Fox News — in an attempt to rebuff the allegations against him. When he appeared on Tucker Carlson’s show last March, the interview quickly moved from uncomfortable to bizarre as Gaetz attempted to rope Carlson into the issue.

“I can say that actually 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 — and she was actually threatened by the FBI, told that if she wouldn’t cop to the fact that somehow I was involved in some pay-for-play scheme, that could face trouble,” Gaetz said. “So I do believe there are people at the Department of Justice that are trying to smear me. Providing for flights and hotel rooms for people that you’re dating who are of legal age is not a crime.”

Carlson, with a puzzled look on his face, replied, “I don’t remember the woman you’re speaking of or the context at all, honestly.” Following a commercial break at the conclusion of the segment, Carlson quipped it was “one of the weirdest interviews I’ve ever conducted.” He added, “I don’t think that clarified much… I don’t quite understand it.”

After that, and with the investigation broadening into campaign finances, Gaetz found his invites to appear on Fox News diminishing. These days, you’re more likely to find him on the Fox wannabe, Newsmax. Still, if anyone thought the threat of a federal investigation would force Gaetz to lie low, they’re mistaken. His two Twitter feeds (personal and official) are a cascade of trolling, self-promotion and deliberate provocation. So don’t look for much in the way of legislation, news from committees or district-level work. That’s how Gaetz likes and wants it.

Gaetz won’t get noticed for authoring legislation. No one will care about an obscure committee hearing. Gaetz believes his influence is media-driven — Twitter, Facebook and cable news. “The way you’re able to elevate your profile in Washington is to drive conflict because conflict is interesting,” he says in The Swamp. “And I think that the really powerful people in this town are the ones who can go on television and make an argument. And that’s power that the leadership can never take away from you.”

Time will tell.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s February 2022 World edition.