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‘He really jumped on the Trump train’: How a brash Matt Gaetz climbed the ranks in Trump’s Washington

Rep. Matt Gaetz, attempting to stare down a federal investigation into sex trafficking allegations, is reaching for a familiar, in-your-face strategy perfected over the last four years by the man who fueled his unconventional rise, former President Donald Trump.

Hours after news of the investigation went public, the Florida Republican went on Fox News to deny any wrongdoing and claim he was the victim of an elaborate extortion scheme. Then he wrote an op-ed declaring he “absolutely” would not resign. Gaetz’s campaign sent out fundraising pleas blaming the media for trying to take him down.

And on Friday, Gaetz is keeping plans for a longstanding speaking engagement that will unfold squarely in the public eye. It just so happens to be located at the Trump National Doral golf resort, the Miami property of the former president himself.

Gaetz’s response to the FBI investigation into whether the GOP congressman broke federal sex trafficking laws and had a relationship with a 17-year-old girl is reminiscent of the combative path that Gaetz has taken from the Florida statehouse to the US Capitol as he became one Trump’s congressional allies.

The son of a prominent Florida politician and businessman, Gaetz arrived in Washington in 2017 along with Trump and quickly focused his attention not on forging relationships in Congress and passing legislation but on building his personal brand, going on television and getting close to the new president.

“He really jumped on the Trump train and rode it all the way to the end,” said one former Gaetz aide, who agreed to speak candidly about office dynamics on the condition of anonymity. “As time went on, there was a noticeable shift of focus — more so to what can I do to get on Fox at night? … Once he had a little taste of that, he couldn’t shake it anymore, that became the focus of the office.”

It was a strategy that led to presidential Twitter shoutouts, trips on Air Force One and a regular spot in Fox News’ primetime guest lineup. But his brash style courting controversy and his reputation surrounding women turned off many of his Republican colleagues, GOP lawmakers and aides say.

Gaetz now has few GOP allies speaking out on his behalf as the federal investigation hangs over his head. Most Republicans are staying quiet.

Gaetz is close to Trump, even getting engaged in December at his Mar-a-Lago resort. But the former President, who praised Gaetz for defending him through numerous controversies and two impeachments, hasn’t been eager to reciprocate. After The New York Times, CNN and others reported this week that Gaetz sought a preemptive pardon — a spokesperson for Gaetz denied to the Times it was related to the Justice Department investigation — Trump issued a terse statement.

“Congressman Matt Gaetz has never asked me for a pardon,” Trump said. “It must also be remembered that he has totally denied the accusations against him.”

Like Trump, Gaetz has not been shy about his sexual exploits, bragging about them along with his access to the President in his book released last year. Gaetz even said he took a call from Trump while “in the throes of passion.”

“There’s nothing like watching the sunrise while kissing in a hot tub with a Secret Service perimeter protecting you,” Gaetz wrote in the book about a party at Mar-a-Lago.

While Gaetz has acknowledged his background is far from perfect, he has denied a relationship with a 17-year-old or breaking any other laws. “My lifestyle of yesteryear may be different from how I live now, but it was not and is not illegal,” Gaetz wrote in the op-ed.

‘Baby Gaetz,’ born in Hollywood, Florida

Gaetz was born in Hollywood, Florida, and grew up in the panhandle, where his childhood home had a unique distinction: It was used as the house to film the movie “The Truman Show.”

“In the mid-90s, one day some producer just shows up in a golf cart and tells my mother that they want to make a movie in this house starring Jim Carrey,” Gaetz said in the HBO documentary “The Swamp.”

Gaetz’s mother, Vicky Gaetz, is partially paralyzed after she suffered severe complications while pregnant with his sister. He told The Washington Post in 2018 it’s one reason he believes abortion should be illegal, after his mother was advised to terminate the pregnancy and did not do so.

His father, Don Gaetz, made millions in 2004 selling the hospice company that he had founded. Don Gaetz was elected to the state Senate in 2006 and would rise to Senate president in 2012 before leaving office in 2016 due to term limits.

The younger Gaetz graduated from William and Mary law school and worked as an attorney in Florida for several years before he joined his father in the state House in 2010 when he was elected to the Florida House of Representatives.

Gaetz began cementing his brash reputation in Tallahassee, where he also was given the moniker “Baby Gaetz” while working alongside his father, according to local media reports.

“If you want to live in a state where you can ride around in your Uber, with your sidearm on your side, picking your fantasy lineup, on your way to a potential cannabis treatment, that’s the type of liberty environment I want to live in,” Gaetz said at a 2016 Chamber of Commerce event.

Trump’s ‘warrior’ arrives in Washington and runs toward controversy

When former Florida Republican Rep. Jeff Miller announced he was retiring from Congress in 2016, Gaetz jumped into and won a crowded GOP primary, sending him to Congress in 2017.

As the investigation surrounding Trump and Russia unfolded during Gaetz’ first year in office, Gaetz was part of a group of vocal Republicans attacking then-special counsel Robert Mueller, winning his good graces with Trump.

Gaetz also made a concerted effort to get on television, another key avenue to reach Trump.

“Speaker of the House Paul Ryan once knocked me for going on TV too much, without considering that maybe his own failures as a leader stemmed from spending too much time in think tanks instead of in the green rooms where guests wait to appear on TV, and are thereby connected to the dinnertime of real Americans,” Gaetz wrote in his book.

Gaetz courted controversy in numerous ways, earning him notoriety in the House — along with television appearances in conservative media.

In 2018, he was criticized after he invited a conservative troll with a history of Holocaust denial to the State of the Union.

A year later, Gaetz threatened Trump’s former fixer Michael Cohen ahead of his 2019 House testimony, tweeting, “Do your wife & father-in-law know about your girlfriends? Maybe tonight would be a good time for that chat.”

He was admonished by the House Ethics Committee and investigated and cleared by the Florida Bar over the tweet, which he deleted and apologized for.

During the House’s first impeachment inquiry, Gaetz led a band of Republicans in a stunt to “storm” the House Intelligence secure committee spaces where the impeachment interviews were being held. And last year, Gaetz wore a gas mask on the House floor to vote on a coronavirus funding package.

Gaetz is better known for his stunts than legislating, but one vote has attracted renewed attention in the wake of the DOJ investigation. In 2017, Gaetz was the only member of Congress to vote against an anti-human trafficking bill, legislation that Trump signed into law. Defending his vote against the legislation at the time, Gaetz said in a Facebook video he was opposed to the parts of the legislation that called for more federal involvement, and that his vote was not about human trafficking.

Gaetz’s antics have won him praise from Trump, although Trump was briefly angry with Gaetz last year over his support of an Iran war powers resolution to curb the President’s power.

“They are our warriors,” Trump said of Gaetz and other House members at a September 2020 rally in Jupiter, Florida. “You see what they do? They have to fight Pelosi, Schumer, they have to fight all these characters. And they do very well in the fights. We want them on our side.”

‘He understands the nature of the Republican Party’

Behind the scenes in the House, Gaetz didn’t make many friends in the House Republican conference, while the backbench congressman became one of the most regular lawmakers to appear on Fox News, going around the traditional power structures on Capitol Hill.

Gaetz’s also gained a reputation in the House involving his relationships with women, including showing pictures of nude women he said he slept with to his colleagues, sources told CNN.

The staff of then-House Speaker Paul Ryan had a meeting with Gaetz in his first term to remind him about acting professionally while in Congress, according to two sources. One source said the conversation wasn’t tied to a specific incident. A Gaetz spokesperson denied the meeting took place.

Gaetz has been more than willing to take on his party leaders — particularly those who cross Trump.

He echoed Trump’s lies about the 2020 election being stolen and even defended Trump in the hours after the deadly January 6 insurrection at the Capitol. When House GOP Conference Chair Liz Cheney of Wyoming voted to impeach Trump in January, Gaetz didn’t just criticize her — he traveled to Wyoming to hold a rally denouncing her.

Gaetz’s defenders argue he represents Republican voters better than party leaders.

“He understands the nature of the Republican Party, loves the base of the Republican Party, he listens to them,” said Florida state Rep. Anthony Sabatini, a congressional candidate who did not overlap with Gaetz in the Florida statehouse but has become friends with him. “And I find that very commendable because most of the politicians don’t listen to the people.”

Coming to an embattled Democrat’s defense

Gaetz has often sparred with Democrats, including a notable 2020 exchange with former Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana at a hearing following the death of George Floyd. “Are you suggesting that you’re certain that none of us have nonwhite children? Because you reflect on your Black son, and you say none of us could understand” Gaetz said.

A day later, Gaetz, who is unmarried, tweeted that he had raised a 19-year-old adult son, Nestor, the brother of an ex-girlfriend who immigrated from Cuba when he was 12.

But Gaetz also came to the defense of an embattled Democrat, then-Rep. Katie Hill of California, when she resigned in 2019 over a relationship with a campaign staffer, when nude photos of her were leaked without her consent.

“This is absurd,” Gaetz tweeted in response to the House Ethics Committee opening up an investigation. “Who among us would look perfect if every ex leaked every photo/text?”

This week, as the Gaetz allegations unfolded in public view, Hill wrote an op-ed noting that Gaetz was one of the few lawmakers to stand up for her. “At one of the darkest moments of my life, when I was feeling more alone than I ever had, Matt stood up for me — and that really mattered,” she wrote.

But Hill also wrote that Gaetz had “engaged in the very practice he’d defended me from” by reportedly sharing images of nude women, and he should be held responsible if the allegations against him are proven.

“If there is even a fraction of truth to these reports,” Hill wrote, “he should resign immediately.”

Article Topic Follows: National Politics

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