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Matt Gaetz built a devoted fan base, but has few friends in Washington

Even before the current investigation, the Florida Republican prompted plenty of eye rolls on both sides of the aisle.
Image: Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., during a hearing on Capitol Hill on July 29, 2020.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., during a hearing on Capitol Hill on July 29, 2020.Graeme Jennings / Pool via Reuters

WASHINGTON — Rep. Matt Gaetz has always openly said that he didn't go to Washington to make friends.

But after the news broke that the FBI is investigating the Florida Republican for potential sex trafficking, Gaetz found few people willing to defend him or lend credence to his claim that he's done nothing wrong but instead is being extorted and smeared.

Instead of circling the wagons and reflexively declaring “fake news” about the investigation, first reported by The New York Times and confirmed by NBC News, Republican leaders and opinion-makers are mostly staying quiet or letting Gaetz, a strong ally of former President Donald Trump, flap in the breeze.

During an interview Tuesday night in which the congressman denied any relationship with a 17-year-old woman, Fox News host Tucker Carlson wore an incredulous expression.

“That was one of the weirdest interviews I’ve ever conducted,” Carlson later said. “I don’t think that clarified much.”

Trump has so far not spoken up and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who was traveling in Iowa on Wednesday, told NBC News that he was “surprised” he hadn’t been able to reach Gaetz yet and that the allegations were "serious."

"If a member at my conference gets indicted, they will get removed from a committee," McCarthy said. "He says this is not true. And we have a newspaper report that says something else. We'll find out."

The most vocal defense has come from the likes of Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., and Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a former wrestling coach who has faced his own allegations of ignoring sexual misconduct by a doctor who treated student-athletes, which Jordan has denied.

Despite his high profile among the conservative grassroots, Gaetz has few friends on Capitol Hill, according to multiple Republican aides and operatives.

His relentless self-promoting and near-daily appearances on Fox News stand out, even by the standards of Congress, where a generous ego and a hunger for the spotlight are practically job requirements.

He proudly criticized some of his own Republican colleagues, accusing them of weakness and selling out the conservative cause.

"When I first got to Washington, the party leaders said 'Gaetz, it seems to us you're not really a team player,' and I said 'I am, but you're not my team,'" he told a crowd in his district this week, according to the Northwest Florida Daily News.

Gaetz’ relationship with his party’s leadership has been especially strained since he flew to Wyoming to lambast Rep. Liz Cheney, the third-ranking House Republican, in her home state over her vote to impeach Trump.

One former Trump campaign aide, who said Gaetz seems more interested in generating social media buzz than advancing conservative issues, said he frequently winced when the former president praised Gaetz.

Trump repeatedly lauded the “handsome” and “fantastic” Gaetz, who relished his role as Trump’s man on Capitol Hill and gatekeeper for people seeking favors.

"I only regret that I have but one political career to give to my president,” Gaetz said last month.

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.

“There was always that group of four or five male Republican members of Congress who would hang out late at the Capitol Hill Club and carouse and get into trouble. And I think everyone expected Matt would go in that trajectory,” said former Rep. David Jolly of Florida, who has since left the GOP and become a Trump critic.

The Capitol Hill Club, founded 70 years ago by a former Republican congressman, is the unofficial-official watering hole of Republican members of Congress, government officials and lobbyists.

“He kind of walked into that House seat. And that was just lighting a match to a personality that was looking for a fire,” Jolly added. “Anybody who knew Matt knew that eventually he would find controversy or controversy would find him.”

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.

Gaetz has spoken publicly about several ex-girlfriends, including the sister of a young man whom he has come to see as his son.

The 38-year-old lawmaker got engaged in December to a 26-year-old food industry analyst at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s club in Florida where the former president now lives. “He’s giving up the single life!” exclaimed Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, who happened to be in attendance.

A skilled debater with an instinct for what enrages the left and delights the right, Gaetz has a knack for chasing viral news moments.

He wore a gas mask on the House floor in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. He barged into a secure room to disrupt the House Intelligence Committee’s work on Trump’s first impeachment. And he tried to get Britney Spears to testify before Congress on her conservatorship.

Controversy sells. Gaetz raised nearly $6 million in 2020, even though he faced only token opposition in re-election to his third term, and almost two-thirds of his haul came from small, grassroots contributions.

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.