Gaetz, on the ropes, finds few friends in GOP
In four years on Capitol Hill, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) has experienced a meteoric rise to national prominence — one fueled by a close alliance with former President Trump, a penchant for political theatrics and a no-apologies brand of conservatism that’s made him a darling of the right-wing cable outlets.
Yet this week, facing a federal investigation into allegations of a sexual relationship with an underage girl, Gaetz is finding himself in an unusual spot: on the ropes and virtually alone.
Few of Gaetz’s GOP colleagues are coming to the defense of the third-term Floridian following a New York Times report that the Department of Justice (DOJ) is investigating allegations of sexual misconduct with — and interstate trafficking of — a minor roughly two years ago. And a number of Republicans, while warning against jumping to premature conclusions about Gaetz’s conduct, also suggested they wouldn’t miss him if he were gone.
“I don’t know anything about this situation other than to say he has certainly made enemies and painted a bull’s-eye on his back,” said one Republican lawmaker, who requested anonymity to speak freely on a sensitive topic. “This appears to be a self-inflicted wound.”
Gaetz has vehemently denied he had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old-girl — the central allegation of the Justice Department probe, which was launched under the Trump administration. Gaetz contends that he and his family have been targeted by a former DOJ official in an extortion scheme seeking millions of dollars to have the allegations vanish.
In a series of tweets, statements and media interviews Tuesday evening, he maintained that his popular brand of conservatism has made him the target of a smear campaign involving a teenager who “doesn’t exist.”
“The New York Times is running a story that I have traveled with a 17-year-old woman, and that is verifiably false,” Gaetz said in an interview with Tucker Carlson, the conservative Fox News personality.
“People can look at my travel records and see that that is not the case,” he added. “What is happening is an extortion of me and my family involving a former Department of Justice official.”
Don Gaetz, the congressman’s father and a former head of the Florida state Senate, supported the details of his son’s narrative, telling Politico on Wednesday that he is cooperating with the FBI in a separate extortion investigation, one that’s led him to wear a wire in recent meetings with the alleged extortionists.
Yet the former DOJ official, identified by the younger Gaetz as David McGee, has been equally adamant that the extortion allegations were concocted by Gaetz to draw attention away from the probe into the congressman’s own conduct.
“It is completely false,” McGee told The Washington Post. “It’s a blatant attempt to distract from the fact that he’s under investigation for sex trafficking of minors.”
Given the gravity of the charges — and the peculiar nature of Gaetz’s cable news defense — Republican lawmakers are treading carefully into the saga, and many appear not quite ready to take Gaetz at his word. Some have warned of strong repercussions if the allegations prove to be true. And others said Gaetz’s unusual denial has left them with more questions than answers while raising red flags about his defense.
“My personal view is there are a lot of holes in his story and his denial wasn’t really a denial. ‘I never traveled with an underage woman’ isn’t exactly a denial of relations with an underage woman,” a second Republican lawmaker said.
“That said, until charges are filed, I don’t think [punitive] action is warranted,” the lawmaker continued. “As disgusting as the allegations are, [they’re] still just allegations, and we haven’t heard from the accuser. If charges are filed, immediately remove [him] from committees or whatever precedent says from the Chris Collins issue when he was charged. Basically, if this is true, Matt’s done, and we need to make that clear.”
A third GOP lawmaker characterized the allegations as unsurprising, given Gaetz’s reputation for volatility, while casting skepticism over whether Gaetz will seek reelection next Congress.
“Everyone already knew Gaetz was a ticking time bomb and his days in the House were numbered, but this story is more bizarre than expected,” the lawmaker said.
“If he’s indicted, the precedent is set for him to be removed from his committees like Duncan Hunter and others. If not, no one expects him to be a member of the House in a year anyways.”
Still other Republicans said they saw the Carlson interview as a way to divert the public glare away from the crux of the investigation.
“His bizarre display on Tucker is an attempt to muddy the issues,” another member said.
First elected to Congress in 2016, Gaetz rose quickly to national prominence as a stalwart ally of Trump.
Gaetz had steadily defended Trump’s uneven efforts to tackle COVID-19, wearing a gas mask on the House floor in the early stage of the pandemic — a gesture that was widely denounced as downplaying the importance of the safety protocols adopted to curb the virus’s spread.
Gaetz was also a ringleader of the Republicans’ effort to overturn Trump’s defeat at the polls in 2020, adopting the former president’s false claim that the election was “stolen” by a widespread conspiracy of Democratic fraudsters who flipped the contest to President Biden. No such fraud was found in any state, and scores of courts across the country rejected challenges to the electoral tally.
Still, Gaetz was among the nearly 140 House Republicans who voted to overturn the Electoral College results on Jan. 6, just hours after a mob of violent Trump supporters stormed the Capitol in an effort to block Biden’s ascension. When Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), the third-ranking House Republican, later voted with Democrats to impeach Trump for inciting the rampage, Gaetz flew to her home state and hosted a rally calling for her ouster.
Such theatrics have endeared Gaetz to conservatives around the country, who are drawn to his pugnacious style, but also made him a lightning rod criticism. The public disapproval came largely from the left, but the new DOJ investigation has revealed something else: His antics have also aggravated a sizable number of his own GOP colleagues, leaving him now with few allies outside of the far-right faction of the party.
That list of conservative allies rallying to Gaetz’s defense includes former Trump lawyer Jenna Ellis, Katrina Pierson, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and House Judiciary Committee ranking member Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who told CNN he believes Gaetz’s denial and thinks he should remain on the committee.
Yet multiple Republican sources noted that despite Gaetz’s allegiance to Trump, the former president and the majority of those in his orbit have largely been quiet on the matter.
“I think it speaks volumes that ‘Trump World’ isn’t jumping to his defense. I can’t say concretely, but his interview with Tucker did him no favors,” one former Trump aide told The Hill.
“No one named Trump is out defending him — that’s a pretty big sign,” the former Trump aide added.
The news of the allegations facing Gaetz has put GOP leaders in a tough position. For weeks, they’ve been pressing Democratic leaders to remove Rep. Eric Swalwell from the Intelligence Committee following revelations that the California Democrat had been in contact years ago with a Chinese woman suspected of spying for Beijing. The FBI had briefed Swalwell and leaders from both parties of the threat in 2015 but found no evidence of his wrongdoing. Swalwell has said he immediately cut ties with the woman, who had quickly returned to China.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) on Wednesday acknowledged the gravity of the Gaetz allegations but argued that the three-term Floridian also has a right to defend himself from charges he denies. Unless evidence emerges revealing Gaetz’s guilt, McCarthy suggested, he should keep his committee assignments.
“Those are serious implications. If it comes out to be true, yes, we would remove him if that’s the case,” McCarthy told Fox News. “But right now, Matt Gaetz says that it’s not true and we don’t have any information. So let’s get all the information.”
Democrats on the Judiciary Committee have a decidedly different view, and some are already calling for Gaetz’s removal from the powerful panel.
“Dear @GOPLeader: You don’t seem to get it. If it’s true Rep Matt Gaetz engaged in sex trafficking, he needs to resign and be prosecuted,” tweeted Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.).
“In the meantime, you can’t have Gaetz sitting on the Congressional Committee that has oversight over the Department that is investigating him,” he added.