In March of 2021, the Department of Justice (DOJ) revealed that it was investigating 39-year-old Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., over allegations that he'd had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl. At the time, the public had every reason to believe the probe would be career-ending for the Florida flamethrower. According to Axios, Gaetz had already been "seriously considering" bowing out of a re-election bid, instead eyeing a position at the conservative network Newsmax. GOP insiders further told Politico in early April that Gaetz had been notorious for his "reckless" lifestyle and many regarded him as "a grenade whose pin had already been pulled." Even Gaetz's apparent allies among the far-right – some of whom were well-practiced in the art of demurring sexual assault allegations – refrained from rushing to the lawmaker's defense.
While Gaetz has maintained his seat in Congress, as well as all of his committee assignments, as the federal probe remains underway – and the cast of right-wing rabble-rousers grows more crowded by the day – it's unclear whether the congressman will remain a rising Republican star, gradually fade into persona non grata, or suffer a very public explosion.
A former Florida state legislator, Gaetz first entered the national political arena back in 2016, when he was elected to represent the state's 1st congressional district with 69% of the vote. Within months of his tenure, the conservative firebrand had already become one of Donald Trump's most loyal attack dogs, making headlines with aggressive rhetorical crusades against anyone who questioned the former president's conduct.
In November 2017, Gaetz introduced a resolution aimed at compelling former special counsel Robert Mueller to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, calling the probe an attempted "coup d'etat" that was "infected with bias." The next year, the Republican invited a Holocaust denier to the State of the Union and led a brigade of 30 House Republicans to "storm" a private deposition Mueller was holding. In 2020, Gaetz would go on to ventriloquize Trump's baseless claim that the presidential election was "stolen" by dint of widespread fraud. And after the violent culmination of this lie played out on January 6, the Florida lawmaker repeatedly downplayed it, claiming that the Capitol riot may have been provoked by antifa.
Unlike many GOP operatives who hide in the shadows, Gaetz has conducted much of his business in plain sight. Over the past five years, the lawmaker has consistently made the rounds on Fox News, Newsmax, and One America News Network, trumpeting his right-wing theatrics for the widest audience possible. "Virtually everything Gaetz has done in Congress," a Mother Jones profile put, "has been designed for maximum publicity."
On the day the DOJ's sex trafficking probe was first made public, Gaetz embraced this very ethos. Appearing for an interview with Fox News host Tucker Carlson, the Republican congressman denied any allegations of having sexual relations with a minor, claiming that they were part of a complicated extortion scheme orchestrated by a former DOJ official against him and his father.
Since then, Gaetz has turned his attention toward re-election. In May, the Florida conservative teamed up with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., to launch "America First Tour," a nationwide speaking tour designed to rile up their bases and line their campaign coffers. However, from a fundraising perspective, it's not apparent that Gaetz has been able to shake off the DOJ's probe.
According to Mother Jones, the first quarter of Gaetz fundraising haul started off strong, raking in $1.8 million dollars – more than he spent during that period. But during the second quarter, just after the DOJ's sex trafficking investigation was publicized, donations dropped to $1.4 million, and Gaetz's campaign had to spend a million more than it raised. (During that same period, Greene, his campaign partner, managed to amass over $4.5 million.)
To boot, Gaetz's goodwill with the Trumpworld may be souring.
According to CNN, the congressman was reportedly denied a meeting with Trump back in April because the former president's aides advised against it. That month, Trump also reportedly omitted Gaetz's name when rattling off a number of his allies in a speech with GOP donors.
The GOP House leadership has stayed mostly mum on the DOJ probe, though several of his colleagues have given their campaign donations from Gaetz to various charities, according to Forbes.
The new year may offer fresh developments for Gaetz, whose political ascendancy has slowed down since the probe. But so long as no charges are brought, his relationship with the GOP will likely be salvageable.
"The Gaetz scandal will be another test to see how far Republicans are willing to go to protect their own," CNN's Julian Zelizer writes. "After Trump, it's clear the Republican Party seems willing to defend just about anyone in the name of power. Gaetz's political future rests not on the morality of his actions, but how much power he can bring to the party."