The embattled Matt Gaetz denies allegations in Trump’s Doral Club
MIAMI – The mere breath of a scandal that once unraveled political careers at astonishing speed. No more.
Florida MP Matt Gaetz, who was involved in a federal investigation into the sex trafficking, has denied the allegations, dismissed proposals that he resign and sent fundraising appeals depicting him as a victim of a “smear campaign”. During a high profile appearance on Friday night at former President Donald Trump’s Doral Golf Club in Miami, he swore, “I haven’t started fighting yet.”
“I’m built for battle and I’m not going anywhere,” said Gaetz. “The trade-offs against me range from distortions of my personal life to wild – and I mean wild – conspiracy theories.”
The third-term congressman joins a growing list of politicians from both parties – almost exclusively men – who oppose traditional response to controversy. Instead of humbly stepping down from public life, they race ahead, insisting they didn’t do anything wrong, and betting that once the news cycle finally shifts, voters will forget about alleged misdeeds.
“This is clearly a new strategy people are using in crisis management,” said Brent Colburn, a Democratic strategist and veteran of President Barack Obama’s administration. “It’s a new chapter in the playbook.”
Gaetz’s political future remains questionable and could completely dissolve depending on how the federal investigation develops. Having spent the past few years as one of Trump’s toughest public defenders, Gaetz strongly echoes the former president’s approach.
After a video surfaced in the final weeks of the 2016 campaign boasting of grabbing women by the genitals, Trump apologized “if someone was offended” and dismissed the episode as a “locker room talk”. He declined calls from some members of his own party to leave the presidential ticket and won the election just weeks later.
As President, Trump responded to one burgeoning scandal after another by evolving, making it harder for the public to ponder too long on one subject, even if that meant fueling new controversy over another.
Gaetz imitates the former president’s approach and appeals to his most loyal supporters. The Friday night sponsor also organized the January 6th March for Trump rally in Washington, which ended with a mob storming the US Capitol in a deadly riot.
Gaetz repeated unsubstantiated claims that the election had been stolen from Trump and suggested to the cheering crowd that he was “a man wanted by the deep state.”
“When you see the anonymous sources and insiders predicting my death, you know this: They are not really coming for me. They are picking you up,” he said. “I’m just in the way.”
Republican strategist Rick Wilson said, “Trump sees Matt Gaetz as what he wanted from everyone else,” adding that in many ways the Congressman is “the son he never had”.
But Gaetz isn’t the only one who refuses to bow down in the face of a political storm.
New York Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo has steadfastly refused to resign despite several allegations of sexual misconduct that have led some of the most powerful members of his own party to step aside.
Virginia Democratic Governor Ralph Northam refused to step down in 2019 when a picture from a 1984 medical school yearbook showed a man in black script and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe. Northam apologized when he acknowledged he was the one in the robe. But days later, he denied it was him.
The political fallout eventually calmed down, and Northam earned praise for responding to Virginia’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Male politicians seem more likely to use the tactic. California MP Katie Hill resigned in 2019 after admitting improper relationships with two employees.
“Men in both parties will do this. They double up, they deny and they hope that it will somehow pass them by, ”said the democratic strategist Nicole Brener-Schmitz. “Women are damned if they do, damned if they don’t.”
Meredith Conroy, professor of political science at California State University in San Bernardino and author of several books, including “Masculinity, the Media, and the American Presidency,” said women tend to be more damaged by scandals than their male counterparts.
“Women in general, but also in politics, are perceived as being more honest, moral and trustworthy,” said Conroy. “If women don’t fit this image, it definitely becomes a point of criticism.”
The exception is Georgia Republican MP Marjorie Taylor Greene, who is also on the Doral program on Friday night and has a strategy that moves forward at all costs. Greene was stripped of her committee duties and forced to apologize on the floor of the house for her past support for QAnon and other conspiracy theories, as well as for spreading racist tropes.
But she refused to step down, seeing that her fundraiser and star only brightened in certain conservative circles.
Gaetz is still very popular in his heavily pro-Trump Panhandle district.
“I love Matt Gaetz. His family are wonderful people. He is a wonderful person. I respect him, ”said Gayle Wilson, who moved from Tennessee three years ago to live with her daughter in a neighborhood not far from a house owned by the congressman’s parents in Niceville, Florida. “All of this false, negative stuff about him is an outright lie.”
But Steve Jacobson, a registered Republican who lives in the nearby town of Crestview, disagreed, saying that Gaetz “makes a big scene but doesn’t do a lot. It’s just about him putting pressure on himself and not helping the people here. “
“When, as a congressman, he shows sexual pictures on his cell phone – a kid does that in high school and they get evicted – and some guy does that on the floor of Congress, and that’s okay?” Jacobson said.
The crowd on Friday was far more receptive.
“I’m really grateful to someone like him in Congress,” said Jeanne Pankow, who had traveled from Nashville for the Doral event. “You are blackmailing him. It stinks of insincerity. It stinks of a lack of truth and honor, ”she said of other officials and politicians.
Even when moving forward helps elected leaders weather immediate crises, they don’t always have much political standing. Trump, of course, lost the election to Biden last year and Cuomo is increasingly politically isolated. Northam is temporary and does not need to be re-elected.
Top Republicans have conspicuously failed to speak up in defense of their colleague. The Floridian’s attention-grabbing style has often angered both parties, further suggesting that while his Congressional seat is likely to be safe, even within his own party outside of Trump’s shadow, he is unlikely to achieve much.
President Bill Clinton adopted a different strategy in order to survive indictment during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Choosing repentance, he watched as much of the political guilt for the trial ultimately fell on the GOP-controlled house, allowing him to end his tenure in a stronger position. Newt Gingrich resigned from the House of Representatives due to a scandal in 1999, but recovered enough to run for president in 2012 and win the Republican Elementary School in South Carolina.
“If your goal is simply to hold your position, this could be an effective strategy,” said Colburn. “If your goal is to make an impact, this is probably not the way to go.”