May 18, 2021

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The G.O.P.’s Matt Gaetz Problem

5 min read

How did Representative Matt Gaetz get into so much trouble? There are so many allegations surrounding the Florida Republican and the carnival-like crowd of characters around him that it’s hard to know where to begin. One place might be with a letter, signed by “a very concerned student” and sent, in the fall of 2019, to a private school in Florida, accusing a music teacher there of sexually abusing a child. A Facebook account supposedly belonging to “a very concerned teacher” made similar charges. According to federal prosecutors, the accusations were fiction, and the author of both was a man named Joel Greenberg. He was then the tax collector of Seminole County, and he regularly partied with Gaetz.

Illustration by João Fazenda

The ensuing investigation uncovered a wide array of questionable and, prosecutors allege, illegal activities. Greenberg has been indicted on dozens of counts, from stalking the music teacher to perpetrating an embezzlement scheme involving cryptocurrency to the trafficking for sex of a girl who was younger than eighteen. Investigators are reportedly focussing on whether Gaetz paid a seventeen-year-old girl—perhaps the same girl—to travel across state lines for sex. A related question is whether he or Greenberg used various apps to pay women for sex. (Gaetz has denied the allegations; he also said that he was “not a monk, and certainly not a criminal.”) Last Thursday, prosecutors indicated that Greenberg would strike a plea deal. If he does, and if he coöperates, Gaetz should be a very concerned congressman.

It’s tempting to see the Gaetz affair as the last shudder of the era of Donald Trump, and, to an extent, that’s true. Gaetz was elected to the House in 2016, the year that Trump won the White House. The congressman became a Trump favorite; he appeared with the President at rallies and took his cues from him on social media and Fox News, both in tone and in targets. (As of last week, Trump had been relatively quiet about the investigation, but he denied a report that Gaetz had asked him for a pardon.) The G.O.P.’s Gaetz problem, though, is about more than just picking up the pieces of a failed Presidency. The political culture that Trump and Gaetz represent won’t easily be swept away, because, as much as Trump made its edges sharper, the contours were already in place. John Boehner, the former Republican Speaker of the House, in an essay for Politico adapted from his new book, describes how the 2010 election brought to Congress a cohort of Republicans whose priorities were “how to fundraise off of outrage or how they could get on Hannity that night,” and who were fixated on “conspiracies and crusades.”

Gaetz, who is thirty-eight, can be so extreme—according to press reports, he has a habit of showing members of Congress nude photos and videos of women with whom, he says, he’s had sex—that one can miss the ways he is, by today’s standards, a typical Republican. In October, 2019, during Trump’s first impeachment inquiry, Gaetz led a group of Republican representatives into a secure room at the Capitol to disrupt witness depositions. Gaetz said that he and the others were trying to prevent an attempt to “overturn the results of an American Presidential election.” When there actually was an attempt to overturn a Presidential election, with the storming of the Capitol, on January 6th, Gaetz speculated on the House floor that the insurrectionists had been “masquerading as Trump supporters and, in fact, were members of the violent terrorist group Antifa.” He voted not to certify Arizona’s and Pennsylvania’s Electoral College results, but, then, so did more than a hundred and twenty other congressional Republicans, including the House Minority Leader, Kevin McCarthy.

In the current political mill of money and Trumpism, many senior Republicans give the impression that they have all but stopped caring about whom they are dealing with. In “Firebrand,” a book that Gaetz published last year, he recounts how he petitioned McCarthy to put him on the Armed Services Committee. He claims that McCarthy asked if he could raise seventy-five thousand dollars, in the next ten days, for the National Republican Congressional Committee. After consulting with some Florida supporters, Gaetz writes, he delivered a hundred and fifty thousand: “twice the ask.” He got the Armed Services seat, and one on the Judiciary Committee. (He is also a member of the Congressional Blockchain Caucus.) McCarthy has said that Gaetz would lose those assignments if the allegations against him are borne out. The House Ethics Committee is now investigating, too.

Gaetz, meanwhile, has asserted that the allegations were concocted in an attempt to extort twenty-five million dollars from him and his father, a former president of the Florida Senate, who became rich from a chain of hospices. The Gaetzes were, apparently, approached earlier this year by two men trying to get funding for a freelance operation to locate Robert Levinson, a former F.B.I. agent who, in 2007, disappeared while on a C.I.A. mission in Iran. It’s a bizarre vignette and, as it occurred after the federal investigation was well under way, hardly clears up the matter. More broadly, Gaetz, in an op-ed in the Washington Examiner, said that he was targeted after he took on “the establishment; the FBI; the Biden Justice Department; the Cheney political dynasty; even the Justice Department under Trump.” Representative Liz Cheney, of Wyoming, voted to impeach Trump in January; two weeks later, Gaetz held an anti-Cheney rally in Cheyenne, and told the crowd, “We are in a battle for the soul of the Republican Party, and I intend to win it.”

Maybe he will, or maybe, if he is brought down in this scandal, that battle will be won by another of the growing cast of deep-state-decrying Republicans. Not all of them will face questions, as Gaetz does, about a reported trip to the Bahamas with a hand surgeon who is also a marijuana entrepreneur and a former Orlando-airport board member (a trip that allegedly involved paid escorts)—a further aspect of the Florida mess. They might, instead, be among the representatives who pushed past metal detectors in the House after January 6th, outraged that they couldn’t enter the floor carrying guns.

One person who has come to Gaetz’s defense is Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, of Georgia, who jumps from one conspiracy theory to the next. She tweeted that the allegations are “a deep state attack and media smear fest.” This past weekend, Greene and Gaetz were the headline speakers at the conference of Women for America First, a pro-Trump group. “I’m not going anywhere,” Gaetz said. They are all waiting for Trumpism’s next chapter. ♦

Amy Davidson Sorkin
2021-04-11 06:00:00

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