In this unsettled moment on Capitol Hill, truth is relative, chaos reigns, and virtually nothing is for certain.
Except one thing: No member walking the halls of Congress is more hated than Matt Gaetz.
Over a month after he orchestrated the rebellion that ousted Kevin McCarthy from the speakership—and nearly three years after the FBI began investigating him for allegedly sex-trafficking a 17-year-old—the Republican congressman from Florida has become so much more among his colleagues than merely persona non grata.
To many, Gaetz—in one cunning, crass, and crocodile-booted package—is a walking embodiment of everything that is wrong in the GOP today and in American politics more broadly.
At any given moment, it seems, there’s a non-zero chance one of his colleagues tries to physically fight him. It’s already happened twice.
The first time, as Gaetz near-single handedly held up McCarthy’s election in January, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL) had to be physically restrained from attacking him on the House floor during a confrontation. The second, days after McCarthy’s downfall, Gaetz came to the microphone during a closed-door meeting and was shouted down by colleagues, with Rep. Mike Bost (R-IL) reportedly telling him, “If you don’t sit down, I’ll put you down.”
“We almost had one or two go into almost fisticuffs,” recalled Rep. Don Bacon (R-NE) to The Daily Beast.
Even in today’s messy and drama-adoring House, most members are reluctant to harshly attack their colleagues by name in public—even Gaetz. But when The Daily Beast asked a number of GOP lawmakers about him, their answers were remarkably candid.
“There aren’t a lot of people who, you know, are gonna go out of their way to defend Matt Gaetz,” said Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-SD), an ally of the toppled former speaker. “I mean, he’s a pretty diabolical character.”
“The anger is pretty well with him,” said Bacon. “I just think there will be long memories because he did serious damage to our House conference.”
Even those sympathetic to Gaetz—yes, those people exist—acknowledge that he thrives in the chaos and animosity.
“Matt probably has the most ire directed towards him,” said Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-ND), who works closely with Gaetz on the Judiciary Committee. “Matt’s an effective member of Judiciary, he’s one of the best questioners we have and he’s a member of Congress, just like everybody else. But he also revels in the conflict. And he knows that, too.”
There is another universal truth about Matt Gaetz in this moment: There’s never been a better time to be Matt Gaetz.
It’s a paradox that makes perfect sense in today’s GOP: The more Gaetz’s own colleagues hate him, the more beloved he is not just by the party base but its leader, Donald Trump.
It’s why Gaetz will happily accept sitting at the outcasts’ table inside Congress in exchange for being greeted like a folk hero outside of it—with all the campaign cash, right-wing influence, and media oxygen it entails.
In turn, Gaetz’s unreserved embrace of that bargain makes everyone else hate him more—to a point that he seems to live rent-free in the heads of his fellow Republicans, as some have put it. But in reality, Gaetz is just squatting there, refusing to shrink from their attention with an unrelenting onslaught of trolls and stunts.
To be sure, the congressman’s behavior almost took him down. In 2021, Joel Greenberg, a close friend of Gaetz’s, attested that he and the congressman paid for sex with women, including one who was 17 years old at the time, as The Daily Beast reported. With Greenberg, Gaetz was also known to use drugs, and federal officials reportedly explored that in the context of their investigation into the alleged sex trafficking of a minor.
But now, after prosecutors declined to charge Gaetz with anything following a nearly two-year investigation, he’s emboldened and renewed in his quest for attention.
There is a seemingly endless stream of Gaetz content, from his own regular podcast to a residency on Steve Bannon’s show and beyond. As if there were not enough Gaetz in the world, in November, the congressman’s office released a slickly produced “short film” dramatizing his journey to remove McCarthy and restore “the People’s House.”
To observers, the move perfectly distilled Gaetz’s role in this moment. “Congress is all a game,” as the GOP strategist Liam Donovan put it, “and the Gaetz cheat is playing on troll mode at all times.”
“Everything can be turned to his advantage because what happens doesn’t really matter, it’s just another plot line that can be fed into his act,” Donovan told The Daily Beast, “and a good reminder that victory is almost always there if you’ll declare it for yourself.”
Using that cheat code over and over not only boosted Gaetz’s own profile, but deposed one House Speaker and elevated another. Ironically, though the move was seismic, the status quo that Gaetz promised to dismantle by eliminating McCarthy is doing just fine under Johnson. With the party still paralyzed by infighting, Johnson averted a shutdown on Nov. 17 by enacting stopgap spending bills through next year—the very move that prompted Gaetz to boot McCarthy.
But perhaps the most uncomfortable truth of all about Gaetz is that he wields a power no backbencher ever has—and that he’s not going away anytime soon.
In his ultraconservative Florida Panhandle district, Gaetz is widely popular. He has dispatched primary challengers before and his House takeover would probably help him do so again.
Gaetz’s longstanding alliance with Trump is also one of his greatest assets. The congressman made a name for himself defending Trump from a number of investigations during his presidency. The relationship survived even though Gaetz took some backlash from Trumpworld after he joined with Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) to successfully push an amendment seen as reining in the then-president’s war powers on Iran.
In the Biden era, Gaetz has gleefully advanced Jan. 6 conspiracy theories and loudly pumped up Trump’s 2024 comeback bid, even if it has meant trashing his former ally, Gov. Ron DeSantis.
In fact, Gaetz has intimated that his push to topple McCarthy was at least blessed by Trump, even if not actively cheered on by him. Notably, the former president did not lift so much as a finger to help the man he once referred to as “My Kevin.”
But there’s evidence Gaetz’s act is wearing thin among Florida voters more broadly—a big problem if, as expected, he mounts a run for governor in 2026.
A new poll from Florida Atlantic University found that, statewide, Gaetz only had a 21 percent approval rating, with 57 percent of voters disapproving of him. Notably, Gaetz was polarizing even in his own party, breaking almost exactly even among GOP voters.
A spokesman for Gaetz did not respond to a request for comment on that poll or to any other questions from The Daily Beast.
What is clear for now is that if Gaetz is to face any poetic justice for his congressional coup, it won’t be from his fellow lawmakers, no matter how much they roll their eyes anytime he speaks.
Right after McCarthy’s removal in October, rumors flew around the Capitol that the eight Republicans, but Gaetz most of all, might be hit with some kind of sanction, or even be expelled from the GOP conference.
Nearly two months later, it’s clear no such consequences are coming. A half-dozen Republican lawmakers told The Daily Beast that no one in the conference was talking about exacting any payback on Gaetz for his gambit.
“It was never really serious,” Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) told The Daily Beast of the early talk of retribution. “It’s certainly not being talked about now.”
Asked what Gaetz’s standing is in the party, Crenshaw said, “We moved on.”
One very notable person has not moved on: Kevin McCarthy.
Dethroned from power yet still a member of Congress, the former speaker has stalked the halls like a ghost determined to avenge his own murder. In interviews, McCarthy has kept alive the idea that Gaetz and his allies deserve punishment, warning gravely that the party won’t heal “if there’s no consequences for the actions.”
But the California Republican has reserved special glee in reverse-trolling Gaetz with a House Ethics Committee investigation into the Florida congressman’s personal conduct.
In an interview with Fox’s Maria Bartiromo last Sunday, McCarthy brought up Gaetz unprompted and compared him to alleged fraudster Rep. George Santos (R-NY), who faces expulsion after a damning Ethics Committee report was released in November.
“Once that Ethics complaint comes forward, he could have the same problem as Santos,” McCarthy said, “and I think the conference would probably be better united to move forward and get this all done.”
For his part, Gaetz deployed a tactical troll in response: He wrote a letter to the Ethics Committee’s top members calling for an investigation into McCarthy’s alleged kidney-bruising shove of Rep. Tim Burchett (R-TN), who voted to remove him.
But McCarthy’s comparison of Gaetz and Santos is not entirely unfounded. Over the summer, the Ethics Committee re-started work on its investigation into Gaetz, which had been on pause as the U.S. Department of Justice probed whether he had participated in thr illegal sex trafficking of the 17-year-old girl.
Federal prosecutors ultimately declined to charge the congressman, who denied wrongdoing. But reportedly, Ethics is looking into a much broader range of potential violations, many of which could be deeply embarrassing and reputation-harming for Gaetz—including an allegation that he showed inappropriate sexual content to colleagues on the House floor.
It was understood on Capitol Hill that Gaetz’s effort to boot McCarthy from the speakership was motivated by his enduring resentment of the GOP leader for allegedly not doing enough to quash the Ethics probe—something McCarthy did not have the power to do. (Gaetz has denied this.)
But unlike Santos—who seems all but certain to promptly get expelled from Congress—Gaetz does have genuine allies on Capitol Hill. More importantly, he has a MAGA grassroots army of supporters who mobilize to make any member’s life hell if they dared to cross Gaetz or threaten his political future.
Some lawmakers have already gotten a taste of the wrath of Gaetz’s fans. When Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH)—a close ally of Gaetz—failed to win over enough Republicans to claim the speakership, the Florida congressman railed against “Republicans In Name Only” and blasted out fundraising solicitations to his many donors attacking them.
The 20-some Republicans who wouldn’t acquiesce to Jordan found their offices deluged with angry emails, calls, and in some cases, death threats—not just directed at themselves, but their families.
Bacon, the Nebraska Republican, was one of them. “We’ve got a different part of our ecosystem… that Republicans should do some more self-reflection on,” he told The Daily Beast. “When I have calls threatening me and harassing my wife, and all these folks write in their bios they are Christians… I don’t know how people can’t see there’s a contradiction.”
Gaetz later tried to apologize for the fundraising email, which may have been the only remotely conciliatory move he has made this fall. In fact, he has begun responding to criticisms from fellow Republicans with a viciousness that has stunned even longtime detractors.
In October, Rep. Jason Smith (R-MO), a McCarthy ally who chairs the powerful Ways and Means Committee, appeared on local radio in Missouri and called Gaetz a liar, blaming him for the chaos and dysfunction that had engulfed the chamber.
Responding on his podcast, Gaetz seemed to strongly suggest Smith was being dishonest about his personal life.
“There may not be another member of Congress who lives a lie every day more than Jason Smith,” Gaetz said. “Jason Smith knows exactly what I’m talking about, and by the way, so does every member of the House Republican caucus.”
While he stopped short of making any specific accusations or claims, the clip was widely shared among shocked Democratic and Republican aides. Gaetz later insisted he was not making any kind of personal claims about Smith.
While they may try to be diplomatic, it’s clear to lawmakers that Gaetz’s pattern of lashing out in harsh, personal terms is unhelpful, to put it generously.
“If you’re trying to rebuild a conference and a relationship, and sort of a sense of camaraderie, it ain’t helping,” said Rep. David Schweikert (R-AZ).
Schweikert noted there are plenty of other ways, short of any immediate, dramatic sanctions, through which Republicans could register their disapproval of Gaetz, or any of the other McCarthy Eight, and marginalize them within the conference.
When a new Congress convenes every other January, for instance, each party’s Steering Committee decides members’ committee assignments. Consisting largely of leadership allies, the powerful panel can determine whether a member thrives in the spotlight and engages on an issue important to them, or languishes in obscurity.
“How many of the people that brought the place down will pursue positions where they have to go in front of the Steering Committee?” Schweikert asked. “That may be where you see it.”
Gaetz serves on the House Armed Services Committee, a crucial assignment for his military-heavy district in the Florida Panhandle. And his perch on the Judiciary Committee, where he has zealously defended Trump and antagonized President Joe Biden, arguably boosted him to the MAGA celebrity status he enjoys now. Losing even one of those spots next year would be an enormous blow for him.
But as long as Gaetz is around, in a narrowly divided House where every vote counts, it will be hard for anyone to completely discount him. Asked if he’d work with the Floridian, Schweikert said, “I’ll take anyone’s vote if it’s something I’m working on.”
Some who did not support McCarthy’s ouster are still inclined to view Gaetz’s gambit as the noble crusade to fix the institution he framed it as, not a self-promotional exercise.
“I’m fine with Matt,” said Rep. Clay Higgins (R-LA). “This is the House of Representatives. It’s supposed to be quite passionately engaged and that means sometimes contentious, so this is as the founders envisioned and indeed themselves participated in.”
Ultimately, everyone from Gaetz’s friends to his detractors to those simply trying to get along understand that, while he might have reached his zenith with the McCarthy coup, he has always inspired a mix of exasperation, fascination, and revulsion.
Asked if Republicans had lost patience with Gaetz, Armstrong, his Judiciary Committee colleague, said “I don’t think that was necessarily new, either.”
“I get along with Matt. I try and get along with everybody,” he said. “But I mean, there are still people mad at him, and they’re angry about all that happened. I’m angry about how it all happened. But tomorrow’s a new day. We’ve got to govern for the country.”
Riley Rogerson contributed reporting.
Source: The Daily Beast
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