Matt Gaetz was looking for a scandal.
It was March 25, and the Florida congressman responded to a tweet from the billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, who had asked no one in particular, “If there’s ever a scandal about me, *please* call it Elongate.”
“I want Gaetzgate,” the Florida Republican tweeted.
On Tuesday, Gaetz got exactly that, as reports surfaced that the 38-year old congressman is under investigation for possible sex trafficking.
The Justice Department is investigating whether Gaetz had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl and violated federal laws against sex trafficking in the process, The New York Times reported Tuesday.
Not long after, “Gaetzgate” was trending on Twitter. And former Trump White House and GOP officials who loathe the loquacious and pugilistic Gaetz were gloating.
One former senior Trump White House aide was on multiple text chains with former colleagues gossiping about the deluge of news about Gaetz’s legal predicament.
The former Trump aides aren’t necessarily happy to see the three-term lawmaker in trouble, but they “feel a little vindicated,” the former White House staffer told Insider. “He’s the meanest person in politics.”
A former congressional aide said GOP leaders could soon be rid of the self-styled provocateur without having to get their hands dirty.
“Republican leadership will likely watch him completely implode in a matter of days without having to do a thing,” the observer told Insider. Stripping him of committee assignments or taking other punitive steps “would require more action from the Justice Department.”
Gaetz rose to prominence doing cable TV hits during the Trump era, and he’s been chattered about for years as a possible Florida GOP gubernatorial candidate or even a White House contender in the style of Trump. He frequently bragged about his relationship with the Republican president and regularly rode on Air Force One. Gaetz even got engaged in December at Mar-a-Lago, the South Florida private club where Trump now lives.
Still, White House aides weren’t enamored by Gaetz, and staffers tried to filter or block his influence on Trump, who in 2018 deemed Gaetz “one of the finest and most talented people in Congress.”
“Good riddance,” said another former Trump White House aide. “It sounds like he let whatever BS power he thought he had go to his head and he thought himself above the law.”
Gaetz denied any wrong-doing in an official statement pointing fingers all over the place.
“Over the past several weeks, my family and I have been victims of an organized criminal extortion involving a former DOJ official seeking $25 million while threatening to smear my name,” Gaetz said in a release that touches on mic’d up family members, leaks to the New York Times, and calls to broadcast the evidence against him.
“I demand the DOJ immediately release the tapes, made at their direction, which implicate their former colleague in crimes against me based on false allegations,” Gaetz said.
Legal experts told Insider that DOJ will have to build a solid case against Gaetz in order to charge him with violating federal sex trafficking laws. Under current laws, it is illegal for individuals under 18 to be coerced and travel across state lines in order to engage in illegal sexual activity.
Individuals found guilty of these crimes could face at least 10 years in jail or get a life sentence.
Gaetz boards Air Force One on March 9, 2020.
Capitol Hill chatter
The news about Gaetz reverberated across national GOP circles Tuesday evening, lighting up phone screens as the schadenfreude accumulated.
“The congressman is one of those that came to Washington to make an impression for fame and fortune rather than accomplishing anything in Washington for his constituents,” said a national Republican campaign consultant who plays in Florida politics.
“Matt is going to have a popularity problem now, and may just fade into obscurity. No one will want to associate with him until there’s a resolution — which probably won’t be favorable,” the Republican consultant added.
GOP sources were chattering about the Times’ story on Capitol Hill, too, where Gaetz has a reputation as a conservative firebrand.
“He’s not in the legislative business. He’s just out there to blow shit up and get on TV,” one Republican US House staffer told Insider.
“National Republicans are concerned and are carefully monitoring the situation,” a senior Republican Party strategist also told Insider.
A former House GOP staffer heard from Republican leadership aides on Tuesday night who disputed the allegations against Gaetz.
“They didn’t believe he would be that stupid,” the former staffer told Insider. That person added that Gaetz has a reputation as a “showboat,” with very few allies in the House. “He’s a blight on the conference.”
Doug Heye, a one-time House leadership aide turned GOP strategist, urged caution.
“We need to know more,” Heye said of the still-developing story — bemoaning that politics has become “so weaponized” and “tribalized” that people are prejudged “merely because of what side of the aisle they’re on.”
Chris Ruddy, CEO of Newsmax, a Trump friend, and Mar-a-Lago member, didn’t immediately return Insider messages seeking comment about whether Gaetz might still land a position with the news network. Axios first reported Gaetz’s ruminations about landing at the network earlier Tuesday, about eight hours before the Times’ story published.
‘I will pray for him’
In Florida, Republicans acted cautiously to the Gaetz news.
“I’m an Episcopal priest now,” said Allison DeFoor, a former a county sheriff and vice chair of the Florida GOP. “I will pray for him. That’s all I can do.”
“There’s been no word about this in the local scene,” said Jim Anders, the vice chairman of the Walton County Republican Club that includes Gaetz’s Florida Panhandle district.
“He’s been working hard to promote the area. This other thing is a big surprise to me,” added Anders. He recalled hearing Gaetz speak at a local GOP event in February where the congressman publicly introduced his fiancee to the audience.
Suzanne Harris, a Florida activist who has used Gaetz as an attorney, defended the congressman when asked about the allegations in the Times’ story.
“I’ve known Matt since he graduated from high school, I guess,” she said. “I don’t have any intention of talking to you or telling you anything. I can tell you I no more believe this bulls— than I can fly to the moon and I think everyone is going to be totally embarrassed when this thing is over.”
‘I’ve never turned tricks for Washington PACs’
In addition to becoming a cable news celebrity, Gaetz has become a powerful fundraiser.
He raised nearly $6 million for his campaign during the 2020 election — more than three times what it generated during the 2017-2018 cycle, according to Federal Election Commission records.
Gaetz’s campaign committee entered this year with more than $1.6 million in reserve.
From July through December, Gaetz’s campaign committee has spent $64,402 on unspecified “legal consulting” fees with Washington, DC-based law firm Venable LLP, FEC records show.
The political action committee of defense contractor L3Harris was one of two PACs to contribute the maximum $10,000 to Gaetz’s congressional campaign during the 2019-2020 election cycle, according to FEC records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Jim Burke, a spokesman for L3Harris, said the company had no immediate comment on Gaetz.
A representative for US Sugar, whose PAC also contributed $10,000 last cycle, could not immediately be reached for comment. Defense contractor Lockheed Martin, the PAC of which contributed $4,500 last cycle, also could not immediately be reached.
Gaetz swore off PAC contributions in early 2020, saying at the time: “I’ve never turned tricks for Washington PACs, but as of today, I’m done picking up their money in the nightstand.”