Florida Republican congressman Matt Gaetz appears increasingly politically isolated amid a spiraling scandal over a federal sex-trafficking investigation. Even for Donald Trump, one Republican political operative said, “a 10ft pole is not long enough”. Gaetz is the son of a wealthy Florida GOP powerbroker, former state Senate President Don Gaetz, who helped support and bankroll his son’s political career and is now corroborating his son’s claim that the elder Gaetz wore a wire at the behest of the FBI to foil the alleged extortion plot. The FBI has declined to comment.
A skilled debater with an instinct for what enrages the left and delights the right, Gaetz has a knack for chasing viral news moments. Gaetz has answered charges of impropriety before, including an accusation by a Florida legislator that he created a game in which young lawmakers scored points for sleeping with aides, interns, lobbyists, and other legislators. He denied the accusation.
“He kind of walked into that House seat. And that was just lighting a match to a personality that was looking for a fire,” said former Rep. David Jolly of Florida, who has since left the GOP and become a Trump critic. “Anybody who knew Matt knew that eventually, he would find controversy or controversy would find him.”
Gaetz was one of the few lawmakers in either party to defend former Rep. Katie Hill, D-Calif., after leaked nude photos showed her relationship with a campaign staffer. Hill returned the favor when Gaetz faced questions about his adoptive “son,” saying on Twitter, “I can’t stand a lot of his beliefs but he’s been there for me when others haven’t.” But the latest allegations were a bridge too far for Hill. “A 17-year-old girl is a girl, not a woman. Statutory rape is rape, not anything else,” she tweeted.
The Associated Press reported that several lawmakers and aides who spoke on condition of anonymity said Gaetz’s prospects for remaining in Congress were complicated by his unpopularity in his own party. The Daily Beast, meanwhile, reported that advisers were pleading with the former president to keep quiet. Trump was reported to have said the affair seemed “really bad”, though he also thought the allegations could be a “smear” against Gaetz.
“I don’t hope for anybody to be guilty of anything but it sounds like [Gaetz has] got a lot of explaining to do,” Barry Bennett, a longtime Republican operative and former Trump adviser, told the website.
“People underestimate Donald Trump’s political ear … For something like this, a 10ft pole is not long enough. The former president should stay as far away from this as possible.”
Welcome to a special edition of Playbook from Miami. It’s time for an update on The Gaetz Show, which just came to town.
Battling anonymous leaks that he had sex with a minor or had paid prostitutes, Rep. [B]MATT GAETZ /B appeared at Trump National Doral Miami on Friday night (where else?) and spoke to the pro-Trump Women for America First, delivering a speech aimed just as much at the crowd as the bank of TV cameras recording his stemwinder.
Basically, Gaetz did exactly what defense lawyers and establishment types in politics and media say an embattled pol shouldn’t do: He ran his mouth, and acerbically so. Gaetz swiped at the “lying media.” He decried the “smears” against him and the “distortions of my personal life … [and] wild conspiracy theories.” He pledged he “won’t be extorted by a former DOJ official and the crooks he is working with.” The alleged extortion plot is one of those odd twists that prove how Florida is stranger than fiction.
But that’s Gaetz. He isn’t an establishment type. He’s a MAGA media figure. He’s always starring in The Gaetz Show, perhaps a vestige of having grown up in the house where and while “The Truman Show” was filmed (remember: Florida is stranger than fiction).
Gaetz, 38, grew into his role as a TV figure shortly after arriving in Washington in 2017. In the seniority-based gerontocracy that is Congress, he realized that the path to political power and influence was to have President DONALD TRUMP’S ear — and the way to do that was by auditioning as Trump’s top defender on Fox News. It worked. Trump loved it and promoted him. Gaetz got a podcast (“Hot Takes with Matt Gaetz”). He penned a book (“Firebrand: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the MAGA Revolution”). He starred in an HBO documentary (“The Swamp”).
In his newfound celebrity, Gaetz styled himself into a ladies’ man, showing up to high-profile events with a number of different beautiful women. At a 2018 Republican Party of Florida Lincoln Day dinner in Orlando, he caused a stir by appearing with two dates, one of whom is a model for Monster Energy Drink and had competed decades ago in child beauty pageants against JonBenét Ramsey (remember: Florida is stranger than fiction).
Gaetz’s predilections brought him into the orbit of Seminole County Tax Collector Joel Greenberg, who now sits in federal jail and awaits trial on a 33-count indictment. He appears ready to cut a deal with prosecutors. They want Gaetz. :D:D:D
One of the charges Greenberg faces concerns sex with a 17-year-old, with whom Gaetz is suspected of also having sex. Two POLITICO sources say Gaetz had personally told them he had sexual relations with her, but only after she turned 18 in November 2017. About six months after the woman turned 18, The Daily Beast first reported, Gaetz used Venmo to send money to Greenberg and mentioned the woman’s name in the payment’s memo. POLITICO first reported this week that the woman, who did not return messages for comment, went on to work in pornography, and that Greenberg had boasted about that fact to friends. We’ve also learned that she was on a Bahamas trip, first reported by CBS, that federal prosecutors are examining as part of their investigation.
The story is developing and grows more lurid and strange by the day. It’s unlikely Gaetz will get quiet. He’s not only speaking out, he’s fundraising off of the investigation. The cash is rolling in. He needs it to pay his new lawyers. Though a lawyer himself, Gaetz believes that letting attorneys speak for you — especially if you’re innocent — often makes you look more guilty. Advice rendered in a court of law is sometimes horrible in the court of public opinion. And he’s the star of The Gaetz Show, not them. It’s what keeps everyone tuned in — that, and the fact that Florida is stranger than fiction.
THE LATEST IN GAETZ-GATE — “House Ethics Committee opens Gaetz investigation,” by Kyle Cheney and Nicholas Wu