Last week, Rep. Matt Gaetz warned on Fox News—where he has recently appeared almost nightly—that Justice Department officials could “go to jail” over the contents of a much-hyped memo pushed by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA). Gaetz said the Nunes memo contains “jaw-dropping” revelations about the FBI’s abuse of its surveillance powers to spy on Trump campaign officials.
A few days later, Gaetz turned up on CNN, highlighting a text message exchange between two FBI staffers that he and many other Republicans see as proof of a conspiracy at the bureau to take down President Donald Trump. A reference in the exchange to a “secret society” was, he said, further proof of a deep-state plot.
The performances were vintage Gaetz.
A year ago, few outside Gaetz’s native Florida knew his name. The freshman Republican and Freedom Caucus member has since risen above a crowded field to become one of Congress’ most vocal and visible critics of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Gaetz in November became the first Republican to introduce a resolution calling for Mueller to resign, on the grounds that Mueller ran the FBI at the time the Obama administration approved the sale to Russia’s government of a company that exports uranium. The “Uranium One” deal has recently returned as a touchstone among the far-right, who say it benefited a donor to the Clinton Foundation. No evidence of a quid pro quo ever emerged.
The same month, Gaetz said Attorney General Jeff Sessions should step down if he wasn’t willing to appoint a special counsel to investigate “Obama-Clinton” era scandals,” Uranium One included.
Gaetz’s rise to prominence comes at a time when his party has increasingly set aside its oversight duties to line up in near-lockstep behind the Oval Office’s own promoter of anti-FBI conspiracy theories. His unlikely emergence at the vanguard of the anti-Mueller brigade offers a compelling statement about the GOP’s direction in the Trump era.
Gaetz’s office didn’t respond to TPM’s inquiries for this story. But, speaking to the New York Times late last year, he touted his status as a leader of the GOP pack. “I was the lone voice in the wilderness,” Gaetz said, “and now I have a robust chorus behind me.”
People who knew Gaetz from his earliest days in politics told TPM that this development doesn’t come as a surprise.
The son of a former Florida state senate president, Gaetz served in the Florida House, where he used grandstanding floor speeches and attention-grabbing tweets to promote his hardline views on immigration and states’ rights. Florida politicos say he came to Washington, D.C. last year intent on using similar tactics to make a name for himself on the national stage.
The Russia investigations were Gaetz’s way in.
“If Matt weren’t railing about deep state conspiracies and Mueller and Hillary and Uranium One, he wouldn’t be on Fox,” veteran Florida GOP strategist Mac Stipanovich, who raised money for some of Gaetz’s Florida state races, told TPM. “If he was talking about infrastructure funding or focusing on federal marijuana policy, he’d just be your freshman hardworking lawmaker.”
“It is my theory that Matt, who I’ve known for quite a while—he’s been fishing on my boat and all that—is not on a career track to become Speaker of the House,” said Stipanovich, an ardent #NeverTrumper. “He’s auditioning for a full-time gig on Fox News.”
Gaetz’s frequent TV hits are “building up his email list, it’s building up his profile, it’s building up his name ID,” added Rick Wilson, a Florida GOP operative and Trump critic.
Gaetz’s father, Don, said that the 35-year-old lawmaker’s past as a nationally-ranked high school debater and courtroom litigator made him uniquely equipped for his on-camera turn.
“I’m not surprised that he’s become as recognizable on TV and the floor of the House as he has been,” Don Gaetz told TPM. “His whole life has sort of been a preparation for this moment.”
Political pragmatism also likely plays a role in explaining why there seems to be no anti-Trump conspiracy theory Gaetz doesn’t believe. Trump won over two thirds of the vote in Gaetz’s district—a rectangular chunk of Florida’s northwest panhandle home to a large military presence and large population of retirees—making it the reddest in the state.
“This is the kind of district where a Bannon-ite lunatic would emerge if there was a single sign that [Gaetz] was an apostate in the Trump universe,” Wilson said. “A single hint that he was off the reservation, they would nuke him from space, so it’s also a bit of self-preservation.”
During his six years in the Florida House, Gaetz showed signs that he was capable of bipartisan compromise. But, Florida political operatives said, a DUI arrest from 2008 in which charges were dropped helped create a perception that he was a spoiled rich kid whose success relied on his father’s connections.
Gaetz also developed a reputation for hard-right policy stances and provocative rhetoric that some found offensive.
Chairing hearings on Florida’s “stand your ground” law in the wake of the fatal 2012 shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, Gaetz said he opposed changing “one damn comma” of the legislation, which critics said emboldened gun owners to recklessly fire their weapons. Gaetz also favored accelerating the execution of death row inmates, and landed in hot water for a tweet that appeared to mock the research and language skills of two black Democratic lawmakers. (He later issued a half-hearted apology.)
“Similar to the guy in the White House, he’d often use Twitter without thinking it through or getting the full details,” Dwight Bullard, one of the senators targeted in the tweet, told TPM. “Whatever school of politics that Donald Trump comes from, Representative Matt Gaetz is the valedictorian.”
But Stipanovich suggests Gaetz may be reading the current climate—at least on the Republican side—perfectly.
“If we didn’t live in the time in which we did, if Fox wasn’t Fox, and if the Trump people weren’t delusional paranoids, it would be like a parody,” Stipanovich, the GOP Florida consultant, said. “Matt is a very bright and very capable guy who has the great good fortune to be able to be a parody who a portion of the population takes seriously.”