Matt Gaetz is a 35-year-old freshmen Congressman pursuing a risky new gameplan for getting ahead in Washington: Be just like Trump. He’s courting controversy, becoming a fixture on FOX, and proving that the only real sin in politics these days is being boring. Has the rookie lawmaker found himself a shortcut to the top—or doomed himself from the start?
Matt Gaetz did not set out to go drinking, with a journalist, on the record. Nonetheless, here he is, plunked down at the Capitol Hill watering hole Bullfeathers, ordering a pint of beer.
Gaetz, a freshman Congressman, would like the record to reflect that he “vigorously protested” this idea. At 35, Gaetz is one of the youngest lawmakers in town, but he is old enough to know that an article like this—one that begins with him on a barstool—is bound to be used against him by his political enemies.
But what the hell.
Gaetz had been scheduled to appear on cable tonight, but got bumped from Tucker Carlson’s show at the last minute, freeing him up to go drinking. But he’ll be back on TV soon enough, continuing the outspoken campaign of provocation that is earning him notoriety far outside his Florida Panhandle district. In recent months, no hot-button topic has seemed off limits for the rookie lawmaker who’s appeared on TV to call for the firing of Robert Mueller, relentlessly taunt Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and voice support for President Donald Trump’s assessment that some developing nations are shitholes.
In January, Gaetz set off a prolonged media firestorm when he invited a notorious Internet troll known for posting statements online questioning the history of the Holocaust to be his guest at the State of the Union. He’s expressed some regret about that decision, but generally stood by his attention-grabbing approach. Washington, meanwhile, has taken notice.
Gaetz is tall, clean-cut, and sturdy—he’s conscious of his weight—with chestnut hair and deep-set eyes, his face vaguely evocative of a bulldog or a pug. He’s not married, a rarity for a politician and a fact that gets remarked upon now and then. He told me a story about that. Once, at a party at the Florida governor’s mansion, he introduced his date to Governor Rick Scott. “Why aren’t you married yet?” Scott teased him. “Well, Governor, Gaetz shot back, ‘You vetoed alimony reform.’ ”
When I asked Gaetz what his date had thought of his alimony zinger, he said, “I don’t think she knew what alimony was.” Then he said, “She’s this Cuban girl.” Then he did an impression of her asking him, ” ‘What is thees alimony?’ ”
Gaetz does an impression of Trump, too, one that is about as good as Alec Baldwin’s, which isn’t saying much. Unlike Baldwin, though, Gaetz is in regular contact with the president—sometimes twice a month or more, he says. It’s an unusually high level of access for a first-term congressman, and this relationship goes a long way toward explaining why Gaetz feels so free to run amok on Capitol Hill.
Once upon a time, as a freshman lawmaker in Washington, you could be expected to keep your head down, learn the ropes, and avoid anything—telling off-color jokes to reporters, slagging your own party’s attorney general, inviting a suspected Holocaust skeptic to the State of the Union—that might unnecessarily rile the leaders of your caucus or the voters back home.
But in Trump’s Washington, Gaetz’s example suggests a new path for young politicians on the make: Court controversy, soak up national media attention, and damn the consequences, so long as you remain in the good graces of the president (or, for Democrats, in his bad graces).
Gaetz has been with Trump since the start—he endorsed him early and stuck with him through the darkest days of the campaign. And in recent months, he’s doubled down, emerging as one of Congress’s most vocal and aggressive opponents of the investigations into the president’s relationship with Russia.
He argues that his approach isn’t just a ticket to national notoriety, but one that confers real authority. Being the sort of guy who can whisper into the president’s ear confers its own sort of influence. “He knows who I am,” Gaetz said of Trump, “and he doesn’t want to screw me.”
Besides, Gaetz argues that being controversial has its benefits these days; the only real sin in Trump’s Washington is to be boring. “The organizing principle of today’s politics is ‘stay interesting,’ ” he told me.
Courting controversy, of course, means making enemies, which is just the sort of thing that typically spells trouble for a young member of Congress.
“I think he’s just on a collision course with disaster,” said one establishment Republican operative who has watched Gaetz’s swift rise with the expectation that an equally swift fall is likely not too far off.
The proposition Matt Gaetz seems willing to test is a straightforward one: Has he cracked the new code for getting ahead quickly in Trump’s Washington, or has he simply found a shortcut to a spectacular downfall?
Gaetz has had an unusually long time to ponder the possibility of a Trump era in Washington. Back in 2013, at a meeting with Roger Stone, Trump’s notorious dirty trickster told Gaetz, in no uncertain terms, that the mogul would become the president. “I thought he had gone one toke over the line,” Gaetz said of Stone, a relentless advocate of marijuana liberalization and a fellow Floridian.
In those days, pot was central to his relationship with Stone, whom he calls his “cannabis consigliere.” Gaetz was a state representative then, and marijuana was his signature issue—one he pursued with clever help from Stone. It was Stone, Gaetz recalled, who advised him to keep the word “cannabis” off his committee agenda when first raising the issue of medical marijuana—relying instead on vague euphemisms so that party leaders could not intervene to prevent the issue, still taboo among Florida conservatives, from coming up for debate.
Gaetz continues to champion marijuana liberalization in Congress—under Stone’s continued tutelage. But his talent for provocation was on display long before he met Stone. In college, at Florida State, Gaetz was nicknamed the “agitator-in-chief” and became well-known for seeking confrontation with campus liberals. “Matt was always the guy that was aggressive and never shy about being in people’s face,” recalled Christian Ulvert, a Miami-based Democratic consultant who served with Matt in student government.
Mo Roberts, who participated in Model UN with Gaetz at FSU and later took a bar exam prep class with him, found him to be “overconfident,” with a surprising “level of ignorance” about the world. Roberts, who was born in Guinea and grew up in Sierra Leone before immigrating to the United States, said Gaetz seemed surprised to be studying alongside a West African immigrant. “He thought my story was unique,” Roberts said. “I don’t think it’s unique at all.” He said Gaetz once asked him if he came to the United States in a boat.
Following in the footsteps of his father, who served as president of the Florida Senate, Gaetz jumped into politics early, getting elected to the Florida House in 2010, at the age of 27.
While his father is known as a staid member of the state’s Republican establishment, Gaetz quickly earned a more rambunctious reputation in Tallahassee. He staked out a hardline position on the death penalty, including support for the return of firing squads (Gaetz maintains it’s actually the “most humane” form of execution).