When I first met Matt Gaetz back in February, the Florida congressman was applying concealer under his eyes in front of a large mirror hanging in his congressional office, doing his own last-minute touch-up before we took off for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. At the time, I was more impressed with his technique than bemused at the spectacle. (In a later conversation, he credited his contouring skills to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who learned from his wife, Casey.) But I later realized I had been watching a new set of Washington rules in action, with a new type of Washington character at its center—one who governs from the airwaves, and whose rise was achieved on the coattails of the president. That day would become something of an inflection point for Gaetz; hours later, he used his CPAC speech to disavow all PAC donations. He remains the only Republican member of Congress to do so, but for him, that doesn’t really matter. In the Trump era, the traditional arbiters of influence on Capitol Hill are obsolete as far as Gaetz is concerned. “I view the Trump presidency not as a condition to be managed, but as an opportunity to be seized,” he told me.
As I followed him around the convention center that day, just days before the COVID-19 pandemic would upend the country, I came to understand Gaetz’s notion of political gamesmanship. In his new book, Firebrand, out September 22, Gaetz documents his undeniably Trumpian mindset: as long as he’s catching rides on Air Force One and ubiquitous in the media, he is untouchable. “Politics, they say, is show business for ugly people. The real question is who writes the scripts and produces the acts. You are governed by the theater geeks from high school, who went on to make it big booking guests on the talk shows,” Gaetz writes. “Ignore them and they’ll ignore you, and you’ll go nowhere fast. The hairdressers and makeup ladies and cameramen pick our presidents. As well they should. They are closer to the viewers and therefore the voters.”
Gaetz, like Trump, sees politics as entertainment: if you can keep the people’s attention, you can keep your power. Or, as he puts it, “Stagecraft is statecraft.” That Gaetz is regularly knee-deep in the outrage cycle—parroting George Soros conspiracy theories, or weaving together claims about the “deep state,” or defending some of the president’s most indefensible comments—is by design. As society’s attention span abbreviates, Gaetz is angling to expand his 15 minutes. “I grew up in the house Jim Carrey lived in in The Truman Show,” he writes. “I know that all the world’s a stage, especially when we all have cameras with phones.”
As conservatives like Bill Kristol and George Conway pontificate about the future of the Republican Party post–Trump, Gaetz seems to recognize that its evolution is complete and irreversible. The sun has set on the so-called young guns once hailed as its future—the Paul Ryans and Kevin McCarthys and Eric Cantors. “Speaker of the House Paul Ryan once knocked me for going on TV too much, without considering that maybe his own failures as a leader stemmed from spending too much time in think tanks instead of in the green rooms where guests wait to appear on TV, and are thereby connected to the dinnertime of real Americans,” he writes. “I take his recent elevation to the board of News Corp., the parent company of Fox News, to be his very silent apology. It’s impossible to get canceled if you’re on every channel. Why raise money to advertise on the news channels when I can make the news? And if you aren’t making news, you aren’t governing.” (Ryan was appointed to the board of the Fox Corporation in March 2019.)
Gaetz speaks during a news conference to announce the "Green Real Deal", a resolution intended to serve as a response to the "Green New Deal" promoted by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Among his compatriots—those playing by the new rules of the game—is Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whom he praises far more than he does establishment figures on his own side of the aisle. “President Trump knows talent when he sees it. He knows AOC has star power, which is why he so effectively trolls her fellow New York Democrat Chuck Schumer with the prospect of an AOC primary for his Senate seat. The president knows AOC and I are friendly, and on more than one occasion he has checked on my progress in encouraging her potential Senate run,” Gaetz writes. “In our time, all the politicians want to be celebrities while the celebrities want to be politicians.” When I spoke with Gaetz earlier this year, he provided a similar assessment of Ocasio-Cortez. “Reporters always try to bait me into myself making some comparison to her, which would be unfair. She is far more famous. She is far more interesting. She has an ability to drive the message of her party far more than I do,” he said. “So there are certainly similarities and the tactics that we use, but I find her to be far more proficient at them.”
The other difference, of course, is that Ocasio-Cortez periodically breaks with Nancy Pelosi, the highest elected official in the Democratic Party. Gaetz has broken with the president on policy; his vote on the Iran War Powers resolution is a prime example. But he clearly recognizes that his influence in Washington is tied to his allegiance to the president. It’s Trump’s precedent that allows Gaetz to swear off PAC money and dismiss lobbyists in the first place, a topic he spills much ink on in his book. In a pre–Trump world, Gaetz describes rubbing elbows with lobbyists over carafes of wine, dropping the names of Ryan, McCarthy, and Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers as the masters of ceremony.
“Donations to the party do not officially determine which committees you’ll sit on or how prestigious your spot will be, but unofficially money sure seems to make a difference. I won’t pretend I walked away from the game. On the contrary, I was playing to win, and I did. I was eager to meet with Leader McCarthy in hopes of getting a spot on the Armed Services Committee, which is very important to decisions that affect the lives of many military personnel and veterans in Florida’s First District. I expected that when I did meet with him, I’d have to explain the potential impact on my constituents, my relevant experience with military issues, and the ways in which I was (or was not) in sync with the rest of the party on military and foreign policy issues,” Gaetz writes of an exchange he had with McCarthy as a freshman congressman. “To my shock, he looked me straight in the eye and said it would be helpful if in the next ten days I could direct $75,000 ‘across the street,’ which meant into the coffers of the National Republican Congressional Committee. I frankly told my supporters back home about how things apparently work in D.C., and they agreed I should try rolling the dice. I quickly ponied up $150,000, twice the ask, and ended up not only on Armed Services but the Judiciary Committee as well.”
Gaetz recalls another exchange with former congressman Jack Kingston, now a lobbyist, during his first year in Congress. “Sure, the job only pays $172,000,” he writes Kingston told him. “But with all the travel and fundraisers you get to do, it’s more like a $400,000-$500,000 package. Take advantage of it!”
Gaetz also credits Trump with making life a little bit easier in Washington for a guy like him who, as he put it, “arrived in D.C. as a single man after a couple of long-term relationships that didn’t work out.” A thrice-married serial adulterer as the face of the Republican Party certainly provides some cover for members who might step outside the lines. “We’ve got a president now who doesn’t care for puritanical grandstanding or moralistic preening. He is a lot more direct, even visceral, open, and realistic about his likes and dislikes, so overall, this is a good time to be a fun-loving politician instead of a stick-in-the-mud,” Gaetz writes. “I have an active social life, and it’s probably easier in the era of Trump. We’ve had ‘perfect family man’ presidents before, after all, and many of those men sold out our country, even if their wives were happy the whole time. If politicians’ family lives aren’t what really matter to the voters, maybe that’s a good thing. I’m a representative, not a monk.”
He goes into detail about his dating life in Washington to tabloid-style effect, like the man in whose shadow he stands, always the entertainer. “I knew going in how many people had been brought down by sexual missteps in this town, so I set some rules to help me err on the safe(r) side,” he writes. “In Washington, safe sex means in part: no dating lobbyists, no dating your staff members, and I should have added no dating reporters, but I didn’t at first.” Nor does he hold back at taking shots at his former Republican colleagues, Pat Meehan and Blake Farenthold, who both resigned while under investigation by the House Ethics Committee into allegations of sexual misconduct and the use of taxpayer funds to settle lawsuits brought by former staffers. He does stop short of revealing the name of a colleague engaged in a relationship with a staffer—a violation of congressional ethics rules. “One young fellow member told me he’s dating his scheduler. They’re happy. Blissfully in love, he says. I told him, keep in mind she’s no longer working for you—you’re working for her, not the public you swore on oath to serve. She’ll be hailed as a hero the moment she decides to call it off and publicly complain about it,” he writes. “I’m not preaching, just advising. It’s risky to date in a town where there’s potentially a thin line between love and blackmail, or at least love and bad PR.”
In a similar vein, Gaetz casts his defense of Congresswoman Katie Hill, who was revealed to have engaged in a relationship with a campaign staffer and was later the victim of revenge porn allegedly released by her ex-husband, as flying in the face of political tribalism. (Hill’s ex-husband Kenny Heslep has reportedly said he was hacked.)
Congress treated a female member expressing her sexuality worse than the man exploiting her because of it. It wasn’t our best hour fighting the Man. If you are a liberal, California Democrat the only thing potentially worse than having nobody defend you is having only Matt Gaetz defend you. But where was the sisterhood of the traveling pantsuit?! Did the woke women of the new Democratic majority stand up for Katie? Did the squad don pink hats and organize protests?... I had Katie’s back in hours. The few who ever spoke up took days and weeks as their wet fingers tested the political winds. It takes these feminists-in-name-only less political courage to smear President Trump than to stand up for one of their own against a real monster.
In boomer Congress the millennial notion that we’ve all made mistakes—the pictures are everywhere—and we don’t get too worked up about it, is totally alien. My mug shot from an arrest twelve years ago is online. So what? Some people share nudes. Big deal. Do we really care? The president is friends with Kim Kardashian, and we all know how she became famous. Kardashian is now using her fame to help others. Good for her. We millennials contain multitudes. As millennials, we were handed phones with video cameras at the most hormonal stage of life and we document every transgression.
Gaetz shares two exchanges between himself and President Trump in which they discussed Hill. “You’re dating her, aren’t you?” Gaetz recalls the president asking him during Game 5 of the 2019 World Series at Washington Nationals Stadium. “No, Mr. President,” Gaetz recalls replying. “But chivalry is not dead. And I’m a sucker for a damsel in distress. Besides, we all fall short of perfection in our personal lives. That doesn’t mean she should be getting bullied like this.” Melania Trump, he wrote, nodded in approval. The president went on, telling former congressman Mark Meadows, who is now the White House chief of staff, “He’s dating her. Totally dating her. And he won’t even admit it to his favorite president.”
Later, in May 2020 after the Republicans won back the congressional seat Hill vacated amid the scandal, Gaetz writes that he received a note from Trump: ‘“Hey, Gaetz.… That thing you did for the girl with the naked pictures. That was a good thing. You were right to do that.’ The president is at his best when he is being magnanimous,” Gaetz writes. “But I still couldn’t convince him I never dated her.”
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