The Florida congressman’s less-than-sterling reputation among his colleagues has many Republicans questioning the wisdom of jumping to his defense.
After Rep. Matt Gaetz accused a Florida lawyer of a $25 million extortion scheme to make sex trafficking allegations disappear, Republicans on and off Capitol Hill on Wednesday largely kept their mouths shut.
Gaetz—the Trump-loving, Fox News-grinning, 38-year-old Florida Republican—has a less-than-sterling reputation among his congressional colleagues. More than a half-dozen lawmakers have spoken to these reporters about his love of alcohol and illegal drugs, as well as his proclivity for younger women. It’s well-known among Republican lawmakers that Gaetz was dating a college student—one over the age of consent—in 2018. She came to Washington as an intern.
In response to these allegations and a question about whether he had ever had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old while in Congress, Gaetz told The Daily Beast late Wednesday night:
“The last time I had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old, I was 17. As for the Hill, I know I have many enemies and few friends. My support generally lies outside of Washington, D.C., and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
As for his few friends in Washington, The Daily Beast found that to be true. One former GOP staffer said Wednesday that their office had an informal rule to not allow their member to appear next to Gaetz during TV hits, fearful of the inevitable scandal that would come out one day.
On Tuesday, it might finally have dropped.
According to The New York Times, Gaetz is under investigation by the Justice Department for potentially having a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl. While Gaetz has denied the existence of a 17-year-old lover, he’s been less offended about the suggestion that he’s dated women much younger than him while in Congress. And he’s openly admitted that he’s paid for flights and hotels for women to visit him.
“I’ve been, you know, generous as a partner,” Gaetz said Tuesday.
Now, Gaetz may be finding generosity in short supply among his colleagues. Only two House Republicans jumped to his defense on Wednesday: Judiciary Committee ranking Republican Jim Jordan (R-OH), who himself has been accused of turning a blind eye to sexual assault; and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), who has repeatedly boosted the QAnon conspiracy theory accusing Democrats of abusing children.
While Greene compared the Gaetz allegations to a “witch hunt” and the “conspiracy theories and lies like Trump/Russia collusion,” Jordan was more muted. “I believe Matt Gaetz,” he said in a statement to CNN.
GOP aides noted to The Daily Beast that Jordan has been one of Gaetz’s closest allies in Congress—and the most he would offer was that tepid statement and his support for Gaetz staying on the Judiciary Committee.
More importantly, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) wasn’t exactly jumping to Gaetz’s corner.
McCarthy said on Fox News that he wanted to wait for the facts before meting out any punishment, like removing Gaetz from committees, but the GOP leader also offered that, “If it comes out to be true, yes, we would remove him.”
“Those are serious implications,” McCarthy said.
It was not surprising to some observers that the wagons didn’t circle around Gaetz in the explosive 24 hours after the scandal, even as the congressman produced documents that lent some weight to his extortion claims. “I don’t think a lot of people are going to go out of their way to defend him, especially with this outlandish-sounding defense,” one GOP staffer said. “I don’t think you’ll find a lot of people who are desperate to keep him involved in Republican politics.”
The cartoonishly scandalous perception of Gaetz is so commonplace that sometimes it’s visible, literally, in the halls of Congress. A Hill source sent The Daily Beast a photo of a trash bin outside Gaetz’s office as lawmakers cleared out their offices at the end of a recent session. At the top of the heap was an empty Costco-size box of “Bareskin” Trojan condoms.
While he’s openly courted a number of women in Washington, Gaetz has not exactly made it a priority to court fellow lawmakers since arriving in Congress in 2017. He even wears his reluctance to win friends and influence GOP lawmakers as a badge of honor.
“I don’t really socialize with my colleagues,” Gaetz said in a 2019 profile in BuzzFeed News.
One person he does actively socialize with is the 45th president. He proved quick to defend Donald Trump at nearly every opportunity, yes, but even quicker to criticize his GOP colleagues for insufficient Trump support. At the same time, he’s also run afoul of Trump: he was reportedly “iced out” of the White House in 2020 when he backed a resolution curbing the president’s ability to wage war with Iran, after Democrats said they would give Gaetz a vote on one of his amendments if he would support the overall war powers bill.
The rift was short-lived, however, as Trump looked for Capitol Hill allies during the early days of the COVID crisis and Gaetz was more than happy to defend the president.
His desire to be on TV most days of the week has shown lawmakers what Matt Gaetz’s primary goal is in Congress: the promotion of Matt Gaetz. He rarely partners with colleagues on bills and has yet to see any legislation he authored become law. Constant rumors about his ambition to seek higher office in Florida—or even Alabama—underscored the perception he didn’t prioritize the job.
Four years into his House career, Gaetz’s theatrics have put off Democrats and Republicans alike. His visit to Wyoming in February to host a rally condemning House GOP Conference Chair Liz Cheney (R-WY) for her vote to impeach Trump rubbed many the wrong way, even if they opposed Cheney’s vote.
“Even the Republican Party doesn’t like him very much,” said a Republican operative familiar with the Florida congressional delegation.
Still, Gaetz does have allies—they’re just less interested in defending him at the moment than they are in attacking the media.
Reached by phone on Wednesday, Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and GOP presidential candidate, said he thinks the New York Times is a “joke” and has no confidence in their reporting. Huckabee was an early backer of Gaetz’s—he hosted a fundraiser for the congressman in 2018 at his beach home not far from the congressman’s hometown—and is reportedly close with his family.
“He said it didn’t happen,” Huckabee told The Daily Beast. “Until proven otherwise, I think he deserves the same consideration of the presumption of innocence and due process as anybody else.”
Back home in Gaetz’s deep red Florida district, the story is also landing with a skeptical audience. John Roberts, the chair of the Escambia County Republican Party, said he doubted any reporting from the Times and other mainstream media after the Trump era. “Republicans aren’t here saying, ‘Oh dear what’s happening,’” Roberts told The Daily Beast. “Everyone’s like, ‘Oh, another smear job.’”
But even Roberts—who leads the GOP organization in the largest county in the district where Gaetz and his father, former state Sen. Don Gaetz, have been fixtures for decades—claimed he did not personally know the congressman, saying he has talked with him “a few times briefly.”
“We’ve been very supportive of him politically. I’m just very skeptical of this whole thing,” Roberts said.
The most deafening silence, though, is that of another Florida resident: the former president.
Gaetz is perhaps Trump’s biggest defender in Congress. In February, Gaetz offered to resign his office if it meant he got the opportunity to defend the ex-president at his impeachment trial. And a story where the New York Times attacks a GOP politician—when that politician is actually the victim—almost seems made for Trump.
But so far, the ex-president has remained on the sidelines, waiting to see what comes out next. So has his son, Don Jr., who is an influential Gaetz ally, too. He has tweeted numerous times since Tuesday evening, but offered no defense of the congressman.
As much as Trump would probably like to slam the media for allegedly inaccurate and irresponsible reporting, it appears he’s unwilling to attach his name to Gaetz right now the way that Gaetz has attached his name to Trump’s.