“People Mischaracterize My Personal Life”: Matt Gaetz’s Love Affair With the Public Eye Comes Crashing Down, for Now

by nyljaouadi1
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When I first met Matt Gaetz in his Longworth House office in March of last year, he reflected on his freshman orientation. After rattling off a string of notable resumes of Republican members of his class, he said, “I felt a little like, How do you compare my experience litigating cases in Okaloosa County, Florida, to what these other very impressive people have done with their lives? So at the time, I was perhaps feeling like I wasn’t too interesting.” Then with a grin, he added, “But we have managed to get it right since then.” Whether Gaetz was interesting or notorious at the time depended upon who you asked. But he certainly had achieved something. After all, I was there for a reason. 

The plan for the day was to sit down with the congressman for a formal interview and then be his shadow at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. My pitch to Gaetz’s team was that I was interested in his policy views. Not, as Gaetz characterized past profiles of himself, “Okay, well, how do you go from being a boring freshman member of Congress, North Florida lawyer to being on television all the time and being a voice for the party?” He had recently broken with Donald Trump on one issue, voting “yes” on a House resolution to prevent future military action against Iran without congressional approval. And on a number of other issues—such as marijuana legalization and climate change—Gaetz doesn’t toe the party line. But a more nuanced pitch for my piece would have been how being on television all the time and his emergence as one of Trump’s most prominent and vociferous defenders gave Gaetz the license to color outside the traditional GOP policy lines. 

After years of Gaetz’s omnipresence on Fox News as a Trump loyalist, it takes some mental gymnastics to wrap one’s head around the memory that he initially supported Jeb Bush in the 2016 Republican presidential primary. But with erstwhile lawmakers like Jeff Flake relegated to political purgatory, serving as object lessons in the dangers of breaking with Trump, Gaetz showed the power of hitching one’s political aspirations to the man who had become the new face of the Republican Party. “I’m a different kind of Republican, and I think we are in a time of political realignment made possible by the Trump presidency,” he told me. “I am inspired by that movement and informed by it, and I view the Trump presidency not as a condition to be managed, but as an opportunity to be seized.” Gaetz was not the only Republican playing this game. He was just the best at it. But the question now for Gaetz, as a ballooning sex scandal swirls around him and with Trump out of office, is whether the rules of the game have changed. And not just for Gaetz, but for all the Trump acolytes. 

The scandal surrounding the Florida congressman—dubbed Gaetzgate, thanks to the man himself—has rapidly unfurled since The New York Times reported the existence of an ongoing Justice Department investigation, which began under Trump and former attorney general William Barr, into whether Gaetz had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old and paid for her to cross state lines. The inquiry reportedly stemmed from a broader probe into the actions of a Gaetz associate, Joel Greenberg, who was indicted on 33 counts and is expected to strike a plea deal with the DOJ. A number of threads have spun out since the first Times report: accusations on his character and behavior, including allegations that Gaetz showed other lawmakers nude photos on the House floor of women he said he slept with, and that Gaetz used websites such as Seeking Arrangement to connect with young women, coordinated by Greenberg. Gaetz for his part has denied that he slept with anyone underage and has insisted that he never paid for sex. He has said that he and his family are the victims of an extortion plot to purportedly rescue an American who went missing in Iran in 2007. 

“My personal life is and always has been conducted on my own time and my own dime. Consensual adult relationships are not illegal. Although I’m sure some partisan crooks in Merrick Garland’s Justice Department want to pervert the truth and the law to go after me, I will not be intimidated or extorted,” Gaetz wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Examiner. “You’ll see more ‘drip, drip, drip’ of leaks into the media from the corrupt Justice Department and others. When you do, ask yourself why. They aren’t coming for me—they are coming for you. I’m just in the way.” 

Like Trump, Gaetz’s milieu is the media. A regular refrain from him is “stagecraft is statecraft.” And his book Firebrand lays out a view that a prominent profile is more powerful than a leadership position. “It’s impossible to get canceled if you’re on every channel,” he wrote, dismissing criticism from former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan that he appeared on television too much. “Politics, they say, is show business for ugly people. The real question is who writes the scripts and produces the acts. You are governed by the theater geeks from high school, who went on to make it big booking guests on the talk shows,” Gaetz writes. “Ignore them and they’ll ignore you, and you’ll go nowhere fast. The hairdressers and makeup ladies and cameramen pick our presidents. As well they should. They are closer to the viewers and therefore the voters.” 

Gaetz is a natural showman. And with a reality-television star in the Oval Office, the Trump-era—defined by performative politics—was made for him. His focus on appearance was present throughout the day I spent with him. My first in-person glimpse of the congressman was him applying concealer in front of a large mirror in his office. Later, in a greenroom at CPAC, he would express glee at a Dyson hairdryer, which he told his chief of staff, Jillian Lane Wyant, “changed my life.” He also shared that he originally planned to sport a bright green tie for his speech at the conference, but at the behest of Wyant, opted for a subtler option. As we strolled throughout the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in Fort Washington, Maryland, Gaetz was constantly bombarded with selfie requests—not one of which I saw him turn down. And he was under no disillusion as to where his popularity stemmed from: his die-hard support for Trump. “I think that a lot of people who watch Fox News daily were familiar with me last year,” he said. “I think this year, as a consequence of impeachment…a few more folks seemed to recognize me.” Once, after my day spent with Gaetz, he joked that we should talk about my television appearances. He had a few pointers. And honestly, I probably could have benefited from them had I taken him up on the offer. 

By establishing himself as a no-holds-barred Trump ally—one willing to defend the seemingly indefensible—through his television appearances, Gaetz was able to ingratiate himself with the president. “It used to be the case in Washington that only your leadership in the Congress could help you establish your relationship with the president, or could get you a flight on Air Force One, or could get you a meeting in the Oval Office,” Gaetz told me. But Trump was different, and the premium he placed on loyalty allowed Gaetz to jump the line. “The president’s big into buddy checks,” said Gaetz. “He calls up his buddies and seeks their feedback, reaction, insight on a variety of issues.”

It was Gaetz’s relationship with Trump that, in many ways, gave him the cover to break with his party and even attack members on his side of the aisle, Wyoming congresswoman Liz Cheney perhaps the greatest example of this proclivity. Why not attack a warmonger’s daughter when you are catching rides on Air Force One? In his book, Gaetz posits that Trump—a thrice-married, documented adulterer—made room for a bachelor like Gaetz on Capitol Hill. “We’ve got a president now who doesn’t care for puritanical grandstanding or moralistic preening. He is a lot more direct, even visceral, open, and realistic about his likes and dislikes, so overall, this is a good time to be a fun-loving politician instead of a stick-in-the-mud,” Gaetz writes. “I have an active social life, and it’s probably easier in the era of Trump. We’ve had ‘perfect family man’ presidents before, after all, and many of those men sold out our country, even if their wives were happy the whole time. If politicians’ family lives aren’t what really matter to the voters, maybe that’s a good thing. I’m a representative, not a monk.” 

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