NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland—On Saturday afternoon, Rep. Matt Gaetz was supposed to be on stage whipping up and energizing an adoring crowd of supporters and activists at the 2019 Conservative Political Action Conference. Instead, he was big-footed by the president of the United States.
While some members of Congress would have been angry to be bumped by Donald Trump’s protracted stream-of-consciousness that upended the final day of this year’s CPAC scheduling, the Florida Republican was unbothered.
Instead, Gaetz told The Daily Beast, he was a “willing volunteer” in foregoing his stage time, as he and his chief of staff were waiting for their car to get them back to Washington, D.C.
It’s just the latest example of Gaetz putting the president first.
Last week, Gaetz drew attention after he sent a tweet, perceived as a threat, suggested that Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen was cheating on his wife. The timing, a day before Cohen testified to the House Oversight Committee, led to charges that the Florida congressman was intimidating a witness. He initially claimed in an interview with The Daily Beast that he was merely “challenging the veracity and character of a witness” before tweeting that night that he was sorry and deleting the initial tweet.
After a series of tweets and apologies, Gaetz said he regretted the post, telling reporters late last week he’d texted Cohen to apologize for bringing Cohen’s family into the dispute.
“He appreciated that I acknowledged the mistake on my part; he asked me to publicly ask folks to leave his family alone,” Gaetz said.
After all that, he was not worried how his comments would play at home in Florida.
“I enjoy tremendous support in my district, in no small part because they see that I’m an aggressive defender of the president,” Gaetz told the Daily Beast on Thursday afternoon.
It’s true that if President Trump could make a Republican member of Congress in a test tube, the result would probably look, talk and vote a lot like Gaetz.
First elected to Congress in 2016, Gaetz has drawn attention to himself with near-constant appearances on Fox News talking up the perceived illegality of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian intrusion in the 2016 election. His fervor for the president and disdain of the Mueller investigation is reflected in his legislative record.
Of the total 19 bills, resolutions and amendments Gaetz has introduced, five are directly related to scandals about or pushed by the president. In his first term, he introduced resolutions calling for special counsel Robert Mueller resign, for the FISA memo that many Republicans insisted would prove the FBI had abused the surveillance law to target them be declassified and publicly released, and for a new special counsel to investigate “misconduct” by former Attorney General Loretta Lynch, former FBI Director James Comey and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
In February, Gaetz introduced a new “Justice for All” resolution that called for a half dozen Obama-era officials including Comey, Clinton and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to be charged with lying to Congress, just as Trump ally Roger Stone had been earlier this year.
None of these resolutions went anywhere, of course. But that was never the point.
He had established himself as an unblinking loyalist, the ultimate attribute for President Trump.
Probably because of his cable news presence, Gaetz caught the president’s eye early on and now counts himself as one of the Republican lawmakers whom the president speaks to regularly. He’s flown on Air Force One with the president and is considered one of Trump’s “favorites.”
But Gaetz hardly needs Trump to create controversy.
At the president’s first address to Congress, Gaetz created a stir when he invited internet troll Chuck Johnson to the event after he said his father had bronchitis and couldn’t come. He explained that Johnson ended up with the invitation simply because he had “showed up at my office” the day of the speech.
Last month, Gaetz was pilloried after he tried to eject the father of Joaquin Oliver, a victim of the Parkland massacre, who repeatedly interrupted Gaetz for using a hearing about gun safety in the House Judiciary committee to talk about the need for a border wall.
To hear his colleagues on the Hill tell it, Gaetz is either a harbinger of the future of the Republican party, or a right-wing conspiracy-dabbler whose frequent off-message comments threaten the ability for the modern GOP to sustain itself over time.
“He excites young people,” Rep. Steve Stivers told The Daily Beast of his colleague who served as the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee last cycle. “He's doing a great job representing his district. Obviously, he's raising his profile nationally, but he's a hard-working, smart, new voice in the Republican Party.”
When pressed further on some of Gaetz’ most outlandish statements, Stivers said: "Matt does provocative things at times, but Matt is a great, young, hard-working, smart member of Congress who's effective."
He has, unsurprisingly, not earned the same plaudits from members of Congress from across the aisle.
"I should show you the texts from me and my brother every time he's on TV,” a Democrat, who requested anonymity to speak freely, told The Daily Beast. "We rank him as one of the top two assholes in Congress. My brother said 'he has the most punchable face in Congress.' I said, 'I thought Ted Cruz is still No. 1. He's No. 2.'”
Cris Dosev, a Pensacola businessman who challenged Gaetz in the Republican primary in 2018, told The Daily Beast he was embarrassed by his congressman’s constant TV presence and outlandish antics.
“The thing about it is, you know, how do some of these funny stories start? ‘Florida Man,’” Dosev said. “People here in Northwest Florida don’t appreciate being conjoined to crazy stunts and embarrassing events.”
— Jackie Kucinich and Gideon Resnick contributed to this report.