The Department of Justice (DOJ) said in March 2021 that it was investigating Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., 39, for allegations of having a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl. The public had every reason to expect the investigation would destroy the Florida flamethrower’s career. Gaetz had been “seriously considering” not running for re-election, according to Axios, and was instead seeking a job at the conservative network Newsmax. In early April, GOP officials told Politico that Gaetz was known for his “reckless” lifestyle and that many saw him as “a grenade whose pin had already been pulled.”
Even Gaetz’s ostensible followers on the far right – some of whom were well-versed in the art of denial when it came to sexual assault allegations – resisted jumping to his defense.
While Gaetz has kept his seat in Congress and all of his committee assignments, it’s unknown whether the congressman will stay a rising Republican star, gradually slip into persona non grata, or suffer a public explosion as the FBI investigation continues.
Gaetz, a former Florida state senator, first entered the national political scene in 2016, when he won 69 percent of the vote to represent Florida’s 1st congressional district. Within months of taking office, the conservative firebrand had already established himself as one of Donald Trump’s most devoted attack dogs, garnering headlines for his harsh verbal crusades against anyone who questioned the former president’s behavior.
Gaetz presented a resolution in November 2017 urging former Special Counsel Robert Mueller to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, describing the investigation as an attempted “coup d’etat” rife with bias. The following year, he brought a Holocaust denier to the State of the Union address and led a group of 30 House Republicans to “crash” a private Mueller deposition. Gaetz would later ventriloquize Trump’s unfounded allegation that the presidential election was “stolen” by widespread fraud in 2020. And after the lie’s violent conclusion on January 6, the Florida lawmaker continuously minimized it, alleging that Antifa may have sparked the Capitol brawl.
Unlike many GOP operatives who operate in the shadows, Gaetz has done a lot of his work in the open. Over the last five years, the congressman has made regular appearances on Fox News, Newsmax, and One America News Network, touting his right-wing antics to the largest possible audience. “Virtually everything Gaetz has done in Congress,” a Mother Jones profile put, “has been designed for maximum publicity.”
Gaetz embraced this ethos on the day the DOJ’s sex trafficking probe was first made public. The Republican congressman refuted any allegations of having sexual intercourse with a juvenile in an interview with Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson, claiming that they were part of a sophisticated extortion operation orchestrated by a former DOJ officer against him and his father.
Since then, Gaetz has focused on his re-election campaign. In May, the Florida conservative teamed up with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., to start the “America First Tour,” a statewide speaking tour aimed at energizing their supporters and boosting campaign funds. However, it doesn’t appear that Gaetz has been able to avoid the DOJ’s investigation in terms of funding.
Gaetz’s fundraising haul began off strong in the first quarter, bringing in $1.8 million – more than he spent during that time. However, donations decreased to $1.4 million in the second quarter, just after the DOJ’s sex trafficking probe was made public, and Gaetz’s campaign had to spend a million more than it raised. (Greene, his campaign partner, raised over $4.5 million within the same time frame.)
Furthermore, Gaetz’s relationship with the Trump administration may be deteriorating.
The congressman was reportedly denied a meeting with Trump in April due to advice from the former president’s advisors. In a speech to GOP donors later that month, Trump reportedly left Gaetz’s name out of a list of his loyalists.
The GOP House leadership has remained largely silent on the DOJ investigation, despite the fact that some of Gaetz’s colleagues have donated campaign money to various charities.
The new year may provide new opportunities for Gaetz, whose political rise has halted since the investigation. His relationship with the GOP, though, is likely to be recoverable as long as no charges are filed.
“The Gaetz scandal will be another test to see how far Republicans are willing to go to protect their own,” Julian Zelizer of CNN wrote. “After Trump, it’s clear the Republican Party seems willing to defend just about anyone in the name of power. Gaetz’s political future rests not on the morality of his actions, but how much power he can bring to the party.”