ALL THE PRESIDENT’S FLORIDA MEN
The Rick Scott-Matt Gaetz Blood Feud Has a New Front: Venezuela
It’s an old feud that is now reaching new, and more heated, heights.
Scott and Gaetz are two of President Trump’s closest and most reliable allies in Congress. And both lawmakers have the president’s ear, speaking with him frequently on a number of topics.
But last week, their advice diverged into two opposite directions on the potential for U.S. military involvement in Venezuela, once again exposing their bad blood—and their jostling to be Trump’s favorite Florida man.
It began with Scott, who on April 30 publicly called on Trump to “immediately position American military assets” to deliver aid to Venezuela, which is grappling with a violent political crisis as strongman Nicolás Maduro clings to power in the face of a challenge by the U.S.-backed opposition leader, Juan Guaidó.
The military, Scott said, should also be prepared to “defend freedom and democracy as well as U.S. national security interests in our hemisphere.”
Four hours later, Gaetz issued a statement of his own, which praised Trump’s policy but also just happened to take aim at those calling for military action.
“Direct U.S. military involvement,” said Gaetz, “risks allowing Maduro to externalize conflict, scapegoat his failures, and delegitimize the organic desire of Venezuelans to choose their own brighter destiny. I trust and hope that the Trump Administration will continue to skillfully advance the cause of freedom in Latin America and throughout the world.”
A spokesperson for Scott said Gaetz is “entitled to his own opinion,” but noted Scott’s perch on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and mentioned that he represents the entire state of Florida. Gaetz himself serves on the House Armed Services Committee.
The two men may have an honest disagreement over what the U.S. should do in Venezuela, reflecting a real schism in the GOP between neoconservative hawks and non-interventionists.
But the timing raised eyebrows, given the history between the two. The epic Scott-Gaetz feud, detailed by Politico, spans two generations and goes back to the Florida capital of Tallahassee. For most of Scott’s tenure as governor, which began in 2011 and ended this January, Gaetz was a Florida state legislator whose father, Don Gaetz, was the state Senate president and frequently did battle with Scott. Gaetz the elder nursed a grudge against Scott after the governor pulled some strings to deny him a university president gig in 2016.
The feud between Scott and the younger Gaetz flared up again when both traded jobs in Tallahassee for gigs in Congress. Politico reported that earlier this year, Gaetz lobbied the Trump administration to deny a Scott official from the Florida government a job at the Federal Emergency Management Agency; the congressman also blasted Scott for how he handed over the governorship to Ron DeSantis, whose transition team Gaetz chaired.
Then came the Cohen fiasco: in February, on the eve of the former Trump fixer’s testimony before the House Oversight Committee, Gaetz tweeted to Cohen’s account: “Do your wife & father-in-law know about your girlfriends? Maybe tonight would be a good time for that chat.”
The tweet not only sparked outrage but endangered Gaetz’s status as a member in good standing of the Florida Bar, which launched an inquiry over whether the tweet constituted witness intimidation.
The next day, Gaetz tried to back away from the controversy. Scott didn’t want to let him, telling reporters that the congressman’s conduct was “disgusting.”
“If you’re trying to intimidate a witness, that's wrong,” he said.
Former Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) knows both men and told The Daily Beast that he didn’t know if their personal beef factored into their public disagreement on Venezuela, but it was certainly possible.
“It’s possible it was timed,” Curbelo said of Gaetz’s broadside. “I’ll also tell you I know Matt very well and he shares his opinion on all issues all the time. He’s not exactly a laconic member of Congress.”
Despite his junior status in the House, Gaetz is something of a foreign policy confidant for Trump. Whenever the president weighs a potential new foreign intervention or military adventure, one of the first Capitol Hill allies whom Trump asks his assistant to get on the phone for him is the 36-year-old Republican congressman, according to two sources with knowledge of their relationship. And before Venezuela, there was Yemen.
Early this year, Gaetz was among the prominent Trump loyalists who publicly broke with the president and his administration’s policy of supporting the brutal Saudi intervention in the Yemen war. The American military and logistical support for Saudi atrocities have directly helped create one of the single worst humanitarian crises. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the democratic socialist 2020 hopeful looking to unseat Trump, along with much of the left, has made halting U.S. support for the war a pillar of a foreign policy vision.
Still, Gaetz made it a priority, and privately urged Trump not to veto bipartisan legislation aimed at forcing an end to U.S. involvement, according to two sources with knowledge of their conversations. He argued to Trump that the intervention was not serving American national security interests, and that it was an unnecessary foreign entanglement that ran afoul of “America First.” At first, the president appeared receptive, at least superficially or instinctively.
Ultimately, Gaetz’s counsel and pleas weren’t enough, and last month Trump vetoed the bipartisan resolution, saying, “this resolution is an unnecessary, dangerous attempt to weaken my constitutional authorities, endangering the lives of American citizens and brave service members, both today and in the future.”
Regardless, the president has continued to reached out to Gaetz for casual conversation and foreign policy advice, these sources say, and Gaetz hasn’t stopped advocating for a less interventionist U.S. foreign policy, including as it relates to the Maduro regime in Venezuela.
Scott, meanwhile, has been a reliable Capitol Hill ally for Trump since arriving in D.C. in January. When Trump decided last month to embrace yet another effort to repeal and replace Obamacare, he spontaneously named Scott as the point man—a role the freshman senator did not shun, even though the push was clearly going nowhere.
The crisis in Venezuela has brought Scott closer into the White House fold. He has emerged as a leading advocate for military action and is speaking weekly with Trump on the situation, reported the Washington Post, urging him that a lack of forceful U.S. involvement would turn Venezuela into a “Syria here in our own hemisphere.”
Scott also recently visited the Colombia-Venezuela border, and speaks frequently with Trump administration officials and members of the Venezuelan opposition, a Scott spokesperson told The Daily Beast.
Looming over which way Trump goes in Venezuela are the political realities of the Sunshine State.
Curbelo, who said he has nothing but gratitude for Scott’s push to sway Trump, said the Florida Panhandle, which Gaetz represents, is “very different” than south Florida and other parts of the state with large expat populations. Scott pointed out to the Washington Post that 200,000 to 300,000 Floridians of Venezuelan descent can vote, and while the senator is not on the ballot again until 2024, Florida is a must-win for Trump if he’s to secure another four years as president.
Curbelo grew convinced that Trump was open to the military route, despite his non-interventionist stances in the past, after a ride with him on Air Force One last year. “He’s very serious about having the military option at the table, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he made that decision at some point in the near future,” said Curbelo.
“I don’t think he’s going to be influenced by any of the individuals who are opposing military action just for the sake of it.”
As both Gaetz and Scott are working to influence the president’s direction on Venezuela, it’s unclear whose advice he’ll ultimately take. Despite his campaign rhetoric of involving U.S. troops in fewer foreign conflicts, Trump has publicly flirted with violent action against the government in Venezuela since the very first year of his presidency.
Trump told reporters in August 2017 that he was refusing to rule out his “military option” for Venezuela, adding, “we have troops all over the world in places that are very, very far away. Venezuela is not very far away.”
The Department of Defense quickly clarified that the United States was not, in fact, invading the country at that time.