Matt Gaetz is currently stuck somewhere between a Greek tragedy and one of Shirley Jackson’s dark short stories.
Every day Congress is in session, he walks the marbled halls like any other lawmaker. He votes. He attends committee hearings. Questions witnesses. Even pops up on the Senate side with his fiancé from time to time.
But all the while, the sword of Damocles hangs over Gaetz: any day could be his last as a free man for a very long time.
The Florida Republican has not been charged with a crime, but there’s plenty of reason to believe Gaetz is in serious trouble.
His self-described wingman, Joel Greenberg, has already pleaded guilty to six felonies, including sex trafficking a minor—a minor who Greenberg says Gaetz also paid to have sex with—and prosecutors dropped 27 charges in exchange for Greenberg’s cooperation.
And while we don’t know if investigators will ever bring forward charges against Gaetz, we do know that certain facts don’t look good for him. We know that Gaetz paid Greenberg on Venmo, with the caption “Hit up ___,” using a nickname for this teenager. We know that Greenberg then turned around hours later and paid this same girl on Venmo. And we know that Greenberg, while seeking a presidential pardon, wrote a confession letter that implicated Gaetz in some of the same crimes that Greenberg has pleaded guilty to.
And yet, all around Gaetz, members of Congress—Democrats and Republicans—are pretending nothing is wrong, that their colleague isn’t credibly accused of paying for sex with a minor.
Gaetz himself almost seems to be getting a laugh out of the situation. Besides the jokes he’s made on the campaign trail, when The Daily Beast ran into Gaetz on Wednesday outside an elevator, we asked him whether it was really appropriate for him to be questioning the FBI director during Judiciary Committee hearings when he’s under FBI investigation.
“I thought I asked good questions,” Gaetz playfully responded, as the elevator doors closed.
More broadly on the GOP side, the affected ignorance is stunning. When The Daily Beast asked Republicans about Gaetz staying on his committees, the usually talkative Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) sharply said he didn’t have any comment to make about Gaetz “one way or the other.”
Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC) repeatedly said he couldn’t talk about Gaetz because he hadn’t thought about it. Rep. David Schweikert (R-AZ) said the same thing. And Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-TN) said he didn’t want to judge other people.
“That’s something that every member of Congress has to deal with on an individual level, so I prefer really not to comment,” he said. “I have not followed that situation.”
When The Daily Beast asked Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (R-NY) about keeping Gaetz on committees, she repeatedly refused to answer and instead asked her own question.
“Where’s Ilhan Omar? Where’s the vote to take Ilhan Omar off the Foreign Affairs Committee?” she said.
(Omar recently appeared to equate the actions of the United States and Israel with the Taliban and Hamas, though she has since clarified that wasn’t her intention.)
But not every Republican is avoiding the Gaetz situation. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) is so taken with Gaetz that’s she’s proudly hit the road with him, holding rallies where Gaetz complains about cancel culture. The ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), is also loudly sticking by Gaetz’s side.
Jordan told The Daily Beast on Wednesday that there was “no controversy” over whether Gaetz should stay on the Judiciary Committee.
“He should stay on the committees,” Jordan said. “Definitely stay on the committees.”
And Jordan noted this was “probably the fourth or fifth time” that he’s said Gaetz should keep his committee assignments.
“Thanks for asking,” he said.
One GOP member—who would only talk anonymously—said the Gaetz situation was an “embarrassment” for Republicans, adding that we would be hard-pressed to find any “sane member of the conference” who would defend Gaetz.
Still, it’s not just Greene or Jordan. The silent Republicans are complicit. And GOP leadership has been explicit.
A spokesperson for Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) declined comment Wednesday, but McCarthy said back in March that he wouldn’t strip Gaetz of his committee assignments unless the allegations turned out to be true.
“But right now, Matt Gaetz says that it’s not true and we don’t have any information,” McCarthy said. “So let’s get all the information.”
In the meantime, Gaetz has carried on in his normal, troll-y capacity as a member of Congress.
On Wednesday afternoon, he sat in the House Armed Services Committee room and asked the Secretary of Defense about critical race theory. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who is Black, could barely contain the eye rolls as Gaetz questioned him about whether his subordinates were just telling Austin what he wants to hear when it comes to conversations about race.
“Maybe they’re telling you what you want to hear,” Austin shot back.
Just 13 days earlier, Gaetz sat in the Judiciary Committee’s hearing room and questioned the FBI director.
On that day, Gaetz asked director Christopher Wray about investigations into the origin of coronavirus, to which Wray replied that he had to be “careful not to discuss specific investigations.”
You’d think Democrats would be quick to call out the impropriety of a Republican under FBI investigation questioning the FBI director. And Democrats are, predictably, disgusted by the sight. But again, no one is really doing anything about it.
“It’s embarrassing,” Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) told The Daily Beast. “It just degrades the entire institution and confirms the worst perceptions people have of Congress and politicians, when a schmuck like that continues to hold the office and sit in a committee room.”
Huffman, who also called Gaetz “a world-class sleazeball,” said everyone knew how this would end. “I have no doubt that he will not be in Congress for long,” he said.
But for all of Huffman’s bluster, he was unwilling to question Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision not to remove Gaetz from his committees.
“We did it with Marjorie traitor Greene,” Huffman said, referring to Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, whom Democrats stripped of committee assignments in February. “And, you know, I would support it, of course. I think many of us would. But I’m not gonna second guess her judgment on how sparingly you gotta use an extreme authority like that.”
And that was the standard position among most Democrats: in favor of removing Gaetz from his committees, but also supportive of Pelosi’s position to defer to McCarthy.
That was exactly how Rules Chairman Jim McGovern (D-MA) saw it.
“Ultimately, this is McCarthy’s responsibility, and he’s choosing to just continue with business as usual,” McGovern said. “So, I mean, we’ll see how it all unfolds.”
McGovern did say he was concerned McCarthy may never act, that he was surprised by the “lack of respect” McCarthy has for Congress as an institution, and that he was happy to call out McCarthy for not being “fit” to ever serve as Speaker of the House.
But as willing as McGovern was to call out Republicans—“What I’m finding is that my tolerance for bullshit no longer exists,” McGovern said—he was unwilling to call on Pelosi to do anything about it.
In a statement to The Daily Beast, Pelosi spokesperson Robyn Patterson placed the blame squarely on McCarthy.
“This Congress, House Republicans have spread conspiracy theories about September 11, spewed racist invective, and attacked the police officers who protected the Capitol from a violent insurrection,” she said. “Previous Republican leaders have taken their responsibilities seriously and held their members accountable for inexcusable behavior. Minority Leader McCarthy recruited these lawmakers and encouraged their lawlessness. It’s well past time for him to clean up his own house.”
A senior Democratic aide noted that, historically, party leaders have made the call about repercussions for members of their caucus or conference. When former Rep. Steve King (R-IA) was stripped of his committees in Jan. 2019 over his history of racist remarks, it was McCarthy who made that decision.
But McCarthy himself doesn’t seem to be abiding by that standard. He has repeatedly called on Democrats to remove Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) from his perch on the Intelligence Committee over Swalwell’s repeated and unintentional contact with a Chinese spy. When Swalwell became aware that the woman was a spy, he cut off all contact. And though Republicans suggest Swalwell had a sexual relationship with the woman, he denies it.
Still, McCarthy isn’t waiting for criminal charges—which almost certainly won’t come—or all the facts. He’s already introduced a resolution to remove Swalwell from the Intelligence Committee.
For many Democrats, an indictment did seem to be the red line. As Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Mark Takano (D-CA) said, an indictment would be “an inflection point.”
In the meantime, though, everyone is just keeping quiet and waiting—waiting for charges and waiting for Gaetz to behave like he realizes the true gravity of his situation, and of the fate that may await him.