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The Closer You Look, the Worse it Gaetz
This Trump MIni-Me from Florida is being investigated for being a bad person. But more importantly, he is also a bad congressman
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In this September 2016 campaign flyer, Matt Gaetz was already on the Trump train. Photo credit: Baboonx/Wikimedia Commons.
A conservative politician should know he is in trouble when the National Review thinks his days are numbered. “Congressman Matt Gaetz,” mused Isaac Schor of the National Review last week, as if rolling the words around on his tongue. “One way or another, it seems the pairing of that title and that name is not long for this world.”
So bad for the brand when these things become national news.
Believe it or not, the Gaetz investigation has been bubbling along since the final, wheezing months of the Trump administration. It’s a lesson in flagrant violations of human dignity: the case has surfaced not only the possible trafficking of a 17-year-old girl but Gaetz’s habit of flashing the pictures of naked women he kept on his phone to House colleagues.
The unfolding Gaetz scandal is a good example of how perilous it can be to reverse the appropriate, God-given roles of penis and brain if you act like Donald Trump but aren’t actually Donald Trump. No one throws Trump under the bus lightly. Gaetz, however, appears to have been offered up by a certain Joel Greenberg, a central Florida tax collector indicted last summer on multiple charges, including “sex trafficking of a child and financially supporting people in exchange for sex, at least one of whom was an underage girl.”
Gaetz is best known to the public, up to now, for his more successful performances as Donald Trump’s Mini-Me. His activities have included endangering national security, mocking measures to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, hanging out with the Proud Boys, claiming that the Democratic party was behind the urban violence protesting the death of George Floyd in summer 2020 (causing one Democrat, during Gaetz’s speech, to point to his own skull and twirl his finger, the universal symbol for “cuckoo bananas”), and dumping on Liz Cheney (R-WY).
Throughout his time in Congress, Gaetz, according to CNN, has also been well-known on Capitol Hill for bragging about his sex life and showing his colleagues dirty pictures, sometimes on the House floor. According to two sources, Gaetz showed colleagues nude pictures of women he claimed to have slept with, including “a naked woman with a hula hoop.”
To make sure we are on the same page here: if any of the pictures in Gaetz’s possession were of underage women, and if he did transport a minor across state lines for sex, we are talking about federal charges too.
But the potential state-level charges are bad too. Sex with a minor, even if consensual, and paying for sex with anybody except your spouse (you have to wonder who in the Sunshine State except perhaps Trump himself is paying their spouses for sex) are both crimes in Florida.
Although the investigation has been going on for months, most of us became aware of Gaetz’s allegedly felonious behavior last week when a clip of the congressman telling Fox News’s Tucker Carlson that he was the object of a deep state conspiracy circulated on Twitter. Gaetz was clearly trying to “get ahead of the story” and, in a tangled move, tried to rope Carlson in to buttress his claim that the investigation was baseless and Greenberg not a running buddy but a disappointed blackmailer.
“You and I went to dinner about two years ago, your wife was there, and I brought a friend of mine, you’ll remember her,” Gaetz told Tucker Carlson, connecting that friend to an ongoing Justice Department investigation of the lawmaker.
He alleged that the woman had been “threatened” by the FBI and told “she could face trouble” if she didn’t confess to authorities that Gaetz was involved in a “pay-for-play scheme.”
“I don’t remember the woman you are speaking of or the context at all, honestly,” Carlson cut in to say, visibly stunned.
It’s was a bit like watching a fraternity cheating scandal unravel. Look at Tucker Carlson’s face (if you have watched The Morning Show, you will also imagine a producer shrieking in his ear), which should have a thought bubble over it that says “whoa, dude.” Later, the normally voluble Carlson seemed to have temporarily lost his ability to process a coherent thought. “That was one of the weirdest interviews I’ve ever conducted,” he said.
Could this disaster, which no competent political media professional would have greenlighted, be why Gaetz’s comms director, Luke Ball, resigned?
Or maybe this was just the last straw, since not Matt Gaetz is not only Trumpian in his style and sexual habits, but he is also, much like the former President, one of the laziest lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
A look at a few of the online tools that allow us to track individual Representatives and Senators tell the story. For example, Congress.gov tells us that, since Gaetz, a former state legislator, arrived in Washington to represent FL-1 ( a chunk of the Panhandle that includes Pensacola and Eglin Air Force Bases) in 2017, he has sponsored exactly 27 bills; and he has sponsored none in the first three months of 2021.
Of Florida’s 27 delegates in the House, Gaetz was third from the bottom when introducing legislation. Only one had a cosponsor who was either a chair or ranking member of the committee that the legislation was referred to. Even though he signed on as a co-sponsor to 404 bills, he could only muster 18 cosponsors for his own legislation all year. It may not surprise you to learn that Gaetz has no leadership position on a committee or subcommittee.
To give you a sense of what Gaetz does and doesn’t do, this is the legislation he introduced last year, all but two of which seem to have been designed to reassure Donald Trump that he was singing with the choir.
H.Res.97 (02/04/2019)) “expresses the sense of the House of Representatives that the crime of lying to Congress must be prosecuted equitably without regard to politics or elections.”
H.Res.288 (04/03/2019) “recognizes the duty of the federal government to create a Green Real Deal to achieve robust, economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions reductions.”
H.Res.306 (04/10/2019) “expresses the sense of the House of Representatives that Congressman Adam Schiff should be removed from the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and that his security clearance should be revoked immediately.”
H.R.601 (01/16/2019), regulating the manufacture of cannabis for medical research
H.R.5785 (02/06/2020) allows any military veteran over the age of 99 to receive a pension, regardless of whether they are above the income threshold or not.
H.R.6386 (03/25/2020) defunded any entity “subject to control by China's government.”
H.R.6481 (04/10/2020) defunded migration and refugee pandemic assistance and reappropriated the money for policing Mexico's border.
H.R.6715 (05/05/2020) required the deportation of all undocumented people during a health emergency
H.R.7207 (06/15/2020) sought to defund the 2022 and 2024 World Cup until the United States Soccer Federation forces its players to stand for the national anthem again.
H.R. 7311 (January 24, 2020) would have prohibited the federal government from purchasing drones “manufactured in China or by an entity controlled by the Chinese government” and defunding any American company or state government that does.
No Gaetz legislation had a companion bill in the Senate (tied for worst among House sophomores.) All died in committee.
Perhaps we can best understand the sexual escapades in this framework: Gaetz is an unserious person who began his career in a state legislature (where his father also served) that was recently characterized as a “cloud of corruption.” Following the acquittal in the murder of Trayvon Martin, Gaetz proposed an amendment to expunge the records of those acquitted under the state’s infamous “stand your ground” law. Perhaps more relevant to his current dilemmas, after blocking revenge porn legislation repeatedly through nonsense tactics, Gaetz voted against it in 2015, causing a member of his own party to publicly call him an “a**h*le.”
It appears that Gaetz went to Washington to fight a culture war and stayed for the parties.
He certainly didn’t go there to work. According to GovTrack.US, Gaetz may be one of the laziest members in either party. In his 51 months in Congress, he has missed 189 of 2,261, or 8.2% roll call votes, which is slightly less than four times the lifetime median (2.1%) of members currently serving. In 2020, Gaetz missed 12.3% of roll-call votes.
What should be, perhaps, most alarming to the people who sent Gaetz to Congress is this: he doesn’t do anything for Florida. In 2017, he and former Republican Representative Ted Yoho (FL-3) were the only two members of the Florida delegation to vote against a $15 billion federal hurricane recovery package as Hurricane Irma was bearing down on Florida, with Gaetz demanding that the vote be “accompanied with reductions in entitlement spending.”
Gaetz was not above using catastrophes in his own district for political leverage. In 2018, Hurricane Michael slammed into the Panhandle. It crippled Tyndall AFB, took out thousands of homes, schools and businesses, and whole chunks of coastal roads, and caused $18.4 billion in damages. Instead of introducing legislation to help his constituents, Gaetz allowed them to suffer for over 200 days before hitching a ride on Air Force One with Marco Rubio on May 9, 2019, to urge the President to deliver aid by executive order. Why? Because, according to Politico, House Democrats would never support relief to a heavily Trump-voting district.
Yet when the Senate, with Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s support (which had been delayed because of Republicans’ refusal to include more than bare-bones aid to Puerto Rico in the legislation), sent the House a relief bull for concurrence, not a single Democrat voted against it. And 58 Republicans, including two from Florida, did.
What’s the bottom line? While Matt Gaetz may, or may not, be guilty of what he is being investigated for, he is a terrible Congressman, and for that reason alone, does not belong in Washington.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).
What I’m reading:
Peter Ramjug reports that Covid-19 vaccination among immigrants may be lagging because of Trump-era regulations, since rescinded, linking green cards to a clean bill of health. (News@Northeastern, April 5, 2021)
At Public Seminar, historian Aaron Jakes explores what the recent Suez Canal crisis reveals about global capitalism. (April 2, 2021)
You are invited: