As the Florida Congressman defends himself against sexual misconduct allegations, Donald Trump and other party leaders appear to be keeping their distance.
BY ERIC LUTZ
APRIL 6, 2021
Matt Gaetz is drowning in political scandal—and there’s nobody around to throw him a life preserver. The Florida congressman, who is under investigation for sex trafficking of a minor, has vehemently denied the allegations swirling around him, casting the inquiry into his conduct and reports of other illicit or unbecoming behavior as an attempt to silence an outspoken supporter of Donald Trump and critic of “the swamp.” “They aren’t coming for me,” Gaetz wrote in a Washington Examiner op-ed Monday. “They are coming for you. I’m just in the way.” That self-aggrandizement might not be particularly convincing—not outside the MAGA bubble, at least—but for Gaetz it may be necessary: Short on allies to vouch for him, he has become his own loudest defender.
Gaetz had few friends in Washington in the first place: He was a bombastic advocate for Trump, but wasn’t taken entirely seriously within the former president’s circle. He’s commanded a large national profile, thanks to his talent for finding cameras and standing in front of them, but has done nothing concrete with it, having never written a bill that has been passed into law in the four-plus years he’s been in Congress. He’s made some fans among the MAGA faithful, but to everyone else—including most of his colleagues, apparently—he’s regarded as little more than a self-promoting asshole.
“I don’t think a lot of people are going to go out of their way to defend him,” a GOP staffer told the Daily Beast last week. “I don’t think you’ll find a lot of people who are desperate to keep him involved in Republican politics.”
This is obviously not to say that the GOP isn’t willing to tolerate toxic, utterly useless creeps with delusions of grandeur. But only Donald Trump gets a blank check to do whatever he wants; for everyone else, there are limits to the depravity. Gaetz may be learning that lesson the hard way now. Immediately after news of the investigation broke in the New York Times, he went on Tucker Carlson in an effort to defend himself—only to find the Fox News host as baffled as anybody by the Florida Republican’s bizarre efforts to explain away the inquiry that was opened up by Trump’s Department of Justice. “If you just saw our Matt Gaetz interview,” Carlson said afterward, “that was one of the weirdest interviews I have ever conducted.”
On Capitol Hill, Gaetz has found support from right-wing Representatives Jim Jordan and Marjorie Taylor Greene. But the backing of the guy who allegedlyturned a blind eye to the sexual abuse of wrestlers at Ohio State and the lady best known for her devotion to conspiracy theories and for harassing a school shooting survivor? That would seem to hurt his cause more than help it. The top House Republican, Kevin McCarthy, called the allegations “serious” and said he’d strip Gaetz of his assignments if they are proven true, and his fellow GOP lawmakers have largely avoided saying anything in his defense. Even Trumpworld has been mostly silent on the allegations. Part of that is because his efforts to explain them away have been so strange, the contours of the supposed conspiracy against him so ill-defined, that no one has wanted to rally behind him. “He hasn’t done a single thing to make people comfortable to defend him,” a Trump confidante toldPolitico Tuesday. But another part is that he wasn’t particularly well-thought-of in the first place, with his own aides routinely sending “embarrassing videos” of him to other GOP operatives, according to Politico, and many in Trump’s orbit regarding him as a hanger-on more interested in self-promotion than in the former president. “Anyone that has ever spent 10 minutes with the guy,” a Trump campaign aide told the outlet, “would realize he’s an unserious person.”
Even those who had been friends of his seem to be turning on him. On Friday, his communications director and longtime aide, Luke Ball, resigned his post as the political crisis deepened. And on Monday, former Democratic Representative Katie Hill, who forged an unlikely friendship with Gaetz while in Congress and was defended by the Republican when nude photos of her were leaked without her consent, wrote in an essay for Vanity Fair that he should step down if there is “even a fraction of truth to these reports.”
“Some of these actions are criminal and some of them should be,” Hill wrote, referring to the potential sex trafficking, as well as reports that he showed colleagues on the House floor nude photos of women he claimed to have slept with. “All are morally reprehensible and unacceptable for a lawmaker.”
With few prominent figures in the media, Congress, or conservative politics interested in coming to his defense, Gaetz is running out of places to turn—and Trump, the man he’s built his political identity around defending, has not yet returned the favor, apparently following the advice of aides to keep himself out of the mounting scandal. That could change, and Trump could defend Gaetz over his alleged sexual misconduct as he defended Brett Kavanaugh back in the day. But Gaetz can’t count on it: With Trump, the loyalty flows just one way, and the embattled congressman’s four years of allegiance is no guarantee he’ll have Trump by his side in his moment of need.
Of course, the Gaetz scandal isn’t that he’s unpopular; it’s that he at the very least seems to have engaged in conduct unsuitable for a lawmaker, and quite possibly committed crimes. But those two things—his behavior and his status as a pariah—are clearly related to one another, contrary to his fevered claims that he’s the target of political attacks by a corrupt system that regards him as a threat. Gaetz remains defiant for now, vowing in his op-ed not to resign and casting himself as a “gladiator” fighting a “battle for America’s future” who will not be bowed. But it’s hard to play both the hero and the victim simultaneously, and, as one former official from the last administration told the Washington Post Tuesday: “It only works for Donald Trump.”