The Tangled Life Of Matt Gaetz

The old curse "May you live in interesting times" kicked in sometime in the 2010s — then the 2020s hit, the world decided to get really freaky with it, and here we are. Let's be honest: No matter what side of the political spectrum anyone falls on, the least we can all agree on is that politics are weird.

In 2023, even the hard divide between the right and the left seemed to shatter (or at least crunch) with the removal of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and the ostracization of the Congressman who led the charge, Matt Gaetz. Gaetz — who worked his way up through Florida's state senate, then was elected to the House of Representatives in 2016 — is a devoted Trump follower and a staple of the far-right. Needless to say, Gaetz has always been a pretty polarizing figure.

Fellow representative Carlos Gimenez didn't pull any punches, telling Politico, "Gaetz has very few friends in the conference. Gaetz maybe has a couple of friends in the delegation. But I'm not one of them. ... He's about clicks. He's about how many cameras he can get shoved in his face, and ... I think he gets off on that." So who, exactly, is he, what has he stood for, and what has he been involved in? That's everything from accusations of human trafficking to body-shaming teenagers, legalizing marijuana, being targeted by an extortion racket, and a strange relationship with the teenage brother of an ex-girlfriend. Buckle up: It's a bumpy ride.

He reportedly asked for a blanket, preemptive pardon

In Donald Trump's final hours as president, he issued a lot of pardons. Not on the list? Matt Gaetz, even though The New York Times reported they'd learned Gaetz had approached Trump aides to request a blanket, preemptive pardon be put in place for anything he might be found guilty of in the future. Sources reported that he had also asked for pardons for two unidentified associates, and what's apparently not clear is whether or not Gaetz already knew that representatives of the Justice Department were already asking questions about allegations that he had been in a sexual relationship with a minor.

Trump himself later declared that "Congressman Matt Gaetz has never asked me for a pardon." Still, sources in-the-know say that the request just didn't get that far, and before it even got to Trump, it was decided that handing out preemptive pardons would be a dangerous precedent to set.

Gaetz's supporters didn't deny that he had talked about a pardon but went on to claim that it was all a big misunderstanding that stemmed from comments he made on Fox News just after Joe Biden took the presidential election. Gaetz was quoted as saying (via ABC News) that they were facing "a bloodlust that will only be quenched if they come after the people who worked so hard to animate the Trump administration," and that he advised Trump to pardon "everyone from himself to his administration officials to Joe Exotic if he has to."

There were accusations of sex with an underage girl

In 2021, an investigation was opened into accusations that Matt Gaetz had not only engaged in a sexual relationship with a minor but had paid the then-17-year-old to travel with him across state lines. As reported by The New York Times, when asked about the investigation, Gaetz said, "I only know that it has to do with women. I have a suspicion that someone is trying to recategorize my generosity to ex-girlfriends as something more untoward."

Gaetz's name surfaced as part of an investigation into one of his associates, and it was claimed that in 2019 and 2020, he was one of several people who worked together to recruit women online, and then arrange payment for sex. Shortly after those accusations hit headlines, CBS News reported that authorities were also investigating a trip he had taken to the Bahamas. Allegations there involved the purchase of female escorts, which also would have fallen under the umbrella of human trafficking.

Gaetz's camp wholeheartedly denied all of the charges, saying (in part), "Rep. Gaetz has never paid for sex, nor has he had sex with an underage girl. ... It's interesting to watch the Washington wheels grinding so hard every time one of their falsehoods gets knocked down." In 2023, Gaetz's attorneys announced that the Department of Justice had finished their inquiry and there would be no official charges filed.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

He was at the center of a bizarre extortion plot

Even as the Justice Department started an inquiry into claims that Matt Gaetz had been involved in the perpetration of certain sex crimes, his father (former Florida state Senator Don Gaetz, pictured) was reportedly approached with a proposition: Finance the rescue mission of Iranian-held American hostage Robert A. Levinson, and his son's legal worries would go away. It didn't take long for him to go public with both the request and the name of the person who made it, which The Washington Post says kind of had two effects: Not only did it blow the extortion racket, but it shifted at least part of the focus away from the initial investigation.

The elder Gaetz produced evidence in the form of text messages, and a few months later it was announced that Stephen Alford, a Florida businessman, was in court to enter a guilty plea to an attempt to extort the Gaetz family of $25 million. Interestingly, Matt Gaetz then claimed there was much more to the story than was being reported, saying, "Alford wasn't acting alone. DOJ is having him take the fall to protect their own." 

Just after the whole thing went public, he initially claimed that the investigation into him was a "planted leak" to cover up the extortion. Alford was ultimately sentenced to five years and three months in prison.

He was one of a few who voted against an anti-human trafficking bill

In 2022, Matt Gaetz was still in the middle of being investigated into accusations that he had paid women — including a minor — for sex, and had taken them across state lines to do so. That's sex trafficking, and that's what made it so weird that he was one of 20 Republicans to vote against a piece of legislation that it seems like anyone should really be able to get behind.

The legislation in question was the Frederick Douglass Trafficking Victims Prevention and Protection Reauthorization Act of 2022, which earmarked a little over a billion dollars to be spent on programs aiding the victims of trafficking, along with prioritizing nonprofits in high-risk areas for receiving government grants, supporting shelters for victims of domestic abuse, and funding law enforcement investigating child trafficking and online predators.

As if that wasn't surprising enough, it was actually the second time he had voted against laws designed to protect the victims of sex trafficking. (He'd voted against other legislation in 2017.) He explained his reasoning to The Hill, saying that the 2022 legislation "would serve as 'a backdoor loophole for illegal immigration and amnesty.'"

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

Other lawmakers have said he showed off nude photos of women

No matter how good a relationship might seem, there's always the chance it'll go very, very sideways. That's led to revenge porn — the online sharing of nude photos without the consent of the person in the photos. Back in 2013, the government started working on passing legislation that would make posting revenge porn illegal. Seems like a no-brainer that would get bipartisan support, right? Not exactly.

In 2021, The Washington Post spoke with former Florida state House Republican Tom Goodson. He spearheaded the anti-revenge porn bill and said he had one major opponent: Matt Gaetz. "Matt was absolutely against it," Goodson shared. "He thought the picture was his to do with what he wanted. He thought that any picture was his to use as he wanted to, as an expression of his right." The bill passed, with Gaetz's "no" vote being one of just two against.

Also in 2021, CNN reported that multiple sources had told them that Gaetz was well-known not only for "bragging about his sexual escapades," but sharing "photos and videos of nude women he said he had slept with." Sources were able to describe in detail the contents of the alleged images and claimed that he had even gone as far as to play the videos while on the floor of the House. Gaetz's behavior reportedly warranted a meeting with then-Speaker Paul Ryan, although Gaetz denied such a meeting ever took place.

He invited a Holocaust denier and conspiracy theorist to the State of the Union address

In 2018, Matt Gaetz's plan to invite his father to Donald Trump's State of the Union address fell through when the elder Gaetz came down with a nasty case of bronchitis. That was about the same time he started talking to a new acquaintance about a few hot-button topics — including cryptocurrency — and Gaetz invited him along. He said that it was only after he issued the invite that one of his employees Googled his new-found friend, only to discover Chuck Johnson was, as Politico says, "an infamous troll."

Although Johnson claims that labels like "white nationalist" and "Holocaust denier" are inaccurate, Mother Jones has pointed out that in a Reddit thread, for example, he shared his thoughts on World War II. He wrote, "I do not and never have believed the 6 million figure. I think the Red Cross numbers of 250,000 dead in the camps from typhus are more realistic. ... I agree ... about Auschwitz and the gas chambers not being real." He's also been banned from Twitter, regularly used racial slurs, and has said that he believes races are biologically different.

Gaetz was widely condemned for not rescinding the invitation but explained, "I don't only associate with people who hold all my views. ... I don't have an ideological purity test." The uproar had just about died down when Johnson showed up at a fundraiser for Gaetz's reelection campaign, raising eyebrows yet again.

He's a Humane Society favorite

Way back in 2017, Matt Gaetz modestly referred to himself as "the least interesting member of the freshman class." With his far-right leanings and accusations of illegal behavior still to unfold, it's only in hindsight that it becomes surprising that when he first got to the House of Representatives, he painted himself as — among other things — the animal rights guy.

"My mother raised my sister and I to believe you can judge any person by how they treat innocent and defenseless animals, so we've always had rescue pets in our home growing up," he explained to Roll Call. At the time, he had three rescues — two dogs and a cat — and his work with animal rights groups earned him the Humane Society's endorsement.

Since his election to the House, Gaetz has championed multiple pieces of legislation put forward to extend protections afforded to animals, including the Democratic-led bill to limit sources for research animals, prohibitions on funding sources for animal testing, and he's also been one of the loudest voices speaking out against greyhound racing. In 2019, he was one of a handful of lawmakers who appeared at an event promoting the adoption of ex-racing greyhounds, telling The Palm Beach Post that the industry's days were numbered: "We won. Greyhound racing is done. If the owners aren't willing to cooperate, they may face animal cruelty charges. We will utilize the carrot, or they will face the stick."

He was briefly banned from practicing law due to unpaid dues

In 2023, Matt Gaetz commented (via The Guardian), "I am the most investigated man in the United States Congress. It seems that the ethics committee's interest in me waxes and wanes based on my relationship with the speaker." It hasn't just been the ethics committee that's found some dirt on him, though, and in 2021, The Daily Beast reported that they'd discovered that he hadn't paid some of the fees required by the Florida Bar.

Interestingly, they hadn't seemed to have noticed until the article ran: They immediately declared him ineligible to practice law, and the move sent Gaetz scrambling to pay the $265 fee, the $200 late fee, and get reinstated. At the same time, his camp claimed that he had simply decided to take a break from various lawyerings in favor of his political career, but several attorneys who spoke with the outlet clarified that the typical way that's done is to pay a lesser fee and simply be labeled as "inactive."

A small oversight? Perhaps, but some of his colleagues had some pretty harsh things to say about it. Santa Rosa Beach attorney (and Gaetz constituent) Daniel Uhlfelder said, "He clearly doesn't take his law license very seriously when he doesn't take the time to pay the $265 dues. He's not a serious lawyer. He's not a serious congressman. He's not a serious person. This is one small but symbolic example of that."

There were accusations of witness tampering

It's no secret that Matt Gaetz is one of Donald Trump's biggest supporters: He did, after all, push a 2018 petition to see Trump awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. So, it's not entirely surprising that when Trump's former personal attorney appeared to testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Gaetz showed up in spite of definitely being not invited. More surprising is that he sent an ill-advised tweet that was deemed to be so far out of line that CNBC reported it could lead to him facing an investigation by the House Ethics Committee for "witness intimidation and tampering."

The tweet read: "Hey @MichaelCohen212 — Do your wife & father-in-law know about your girlfriends? Maybe tonight would be a good time for that chat. I wonder if she'll remain faithful when you're in prison. She's about to learn a lot..."

Gaetz claimed that he was "witness testing, not witness tampering," and according to Vanity Fair, he went on to say first that it was fine that he stepped up to "challenge the truthfulness, veracity, and character of people who have a history of lying," and when Gaetz to issued an apology, he also lauding himself for crossing a line to defend his Trump in what he called "a sign of valor." It was later reported that Gaetz would not face disciplinary action for the tweet, and instead got a strongly-worded warning letter from the Florida Bar.

His DUI arrest surfaced amid his accusations against Hunter Biden

There's an old saying about people who live in glass houses throwing stones, and in 2019, Democratic representatives pulled out another old saying after Matt Gaetz went on a tirade about Hunter Biden's struggles with addiction. According to The Washington Post, Gaetz's five-minute speech was punctuated with, "It's a little hard to believe that Burisma hired Hunter Biden to resolve their international disputes when he could not resolve his own dispute with Hertz rental car leaving cocaine and a crack pipe in the car."

That led Georgia's Hank Johnson to observe, "I would say that the pot calling the kettle black is not something we should do. I don't know what members, if any, have had problems with substance abuse, been busted in a DUI. I don't know, but if I did, I wouldn't raise it against anyone on this committee. I don't think it's proper."

That was enough to silence the whole room, because Johnson did, of course, know that in 2008, Gaetz had been pulled over for speeding, refused to take sobriety tests before admitting to law enforcement that he had been drinking, and finally was arrested for a DUI. The case was dropped partially on a technicality — the prosecutor's stepson was a friend of Gaetz — and partially because of the force used to make the arrest. Gaetz says he was "pleased the truth has come out," but the incident was evidently not forgotten.

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

He was called out for bullying and body-shaming comments about pro-choice women

Before getting to the meat of the story, Vanity Fair reminded readers that yes, this was the same Matt Gaetz who was under investigation for paying for sex. It was this Matt Gaetz who spoke at the Turning Point USA Student Action Summit in Tampa, and not only made a series of shockingly misogynistic comments, but when he was given the chance to backpedal, doubled down and responded, "Be offended."

He said: "Why is it that the women with the least likelihood of getting pregnant are the ones most worried about having abortions? Nobody wants to impregnate you if you look like a thumb. ... They're like, 5'2, 350 pounds, and they're like, 'give me my abortions or I'll get up and march and protest,' and I'm thinking, 'March? You look like you got ankles weaker than the legal reasoning behind Roe vs. Wade.' A few of them need to get up and march."

That went over about as well as can be expected, but it also had an impact that Gaetz probably didn't expect. Olivia Julianna is a political strategy specialist with Gen Z for Change, and thanked Gaetz for his remarks (while adding, "I'm actually 5'11. 6'4 in heels. I wear them so the small men like you are reminded of your place"), noting (via NPR) that after his comments, her organization received around $700,000 in donations, which would be distributed to abortion services nationwide.

He was lauded — and investigated — for loosening regulations on marijuana use

In 2018, WUWF reported that Matt Gaetz had set his sights on changing federal marijuana legislation, just as he'd help change Florida laws. While working on a state level, Gaetz spearheaded the movement to legalize medical marijuana, and with H.R. 2020, moved to do the same thing for the nation. He explained that marijuana's classification as a Schedule 1 drug, "...harms low-income communities each year. It turns thousands of citizens into felons, and it punishes people who are sick and looking for medical help."

Fast forward to 2022 and the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, which would not only make marijuana legal at the federal level, but it would get rid of previous convictions. That passed in the House — by the narrowest of margins — with Matt Gaetz as one of the rare Republicans who voted for it. The following year, Gaetz put forward legislation that would do away with marijuana testing for enlisted military. 

That's not the entire story, though. According to the Associated Press, Gaetz's history of championing the legalization of marijuana was investigated as a part of his 2018 Bahamas trip. He was joined on the trip by several campaign donors, including a doctor who was suspected of influencing Gaetz's position on marijuana legalization. Gaetz denied wrongdoing and stressed that he had been campaigning for legalization for years by the time the trip took place.

There was that time he tried to kick the parents of shooting victims out of a meeting

In 2019, Matt Gaetz participated in a congressional hearing addressing gun violence and House Resolution 8 — legislation that would have tightened background checks on gun sales. During the hearing, Gaetz argued (via ABC News), "I hope we do not forget the pain and anguish and sense of loss felt by those all over the country who have been the victims of violence at the hands of illegal aliens. [HR 8] would not have stopped the many of the circumstances I raised. But a wall, a barrier on the southern border, may have."

The comments provoked outrage from the assembled gallery, which included Fred Guttenberg and Manuel Oliver. Both lost children in the Parkland shooting: Guttenberg's 14-year-old daughter was killed, as was Oliver's 17-year-old son. The gallery was warned after Gaetz's attempt at having the two parents removed from the room, and he later told reporters that it didn't really matter that they'd lost children to gun violence, he found their interruptions unacceptable.

Committee chair Jerry Nadler — who had refused Gaetz's request to kick the parents out of the meeting, told CNN, "To bring up, in a room full of parents of kids killed, Trump's border wall, which has nothing to do with this, is frankly insulting." That was a sentiment echoed by an anonymous committee member whose words — "Oh, Jesus Christ!" — were caught on a mic during Gaetz's comments.

He's denied being associated with the Proud Boys while promoting his Jan. 6 narrative

In 2023, Matt Gaetz was named as one of the five Republicans who were continuing to push the idea that the events that unfolded at the January 6 riot were, as described by The New York Times, "an elaborate setup to entrap peaceful Trump supporters, followed by a continuing Biden campaign to imprison and torment innocent conservatives." The declarations have continued even as sentences continue to be handed down for key figures involved in the insurrection, and that came a year after Gaetz made some pretty brazen comments about what happened that day.

According to Rolling Stone, his comments — along with similar comments made by Marjorie Taylor Greene — were the loudest vocalized by the Republican party. In an appearance on Steve Bannon's podcast, Gaetz said, "We're proud of the work that we did on Jan. 6 to make legitimate arguments about election integrity. ... We did not want the Republican voice to go unheard... ."

Those "true insurrectionists" have been — according to Gaetz and co. — the FBI and everyone who was behind the nation's election fraud. Other critics, meanwhile, have raised questions about Gaetz's relationship with right-wing militias associated with January 6: The year prior, Gaetz was photographed attending an event alongside members of the Proud Boys. He said (via The New York Times), "Just because you take a picture with someone, [it doesn't mean] you're tied to every viewpoint they've ever had or that they will ever have in the future."

His relationship with an ex-girlfriend's brother is unclear

Roll Call keeps track of all kinds of data, including the family status of various politicians. According to their 2019 data, Matt Gaetz was described by his own office as being single with no children, but that changed in a big way just a year later. Gaetz tweeted (via CBS News) that the big reveal that he had been raising a non-biological son for years was kick-started "when (to make an absurd debate point) a fellow congressman diminished the contributions of Republicans because we don't raise non-white kids."

The exchange was with Louisiana's Cedric Richmond, who was speaking to the worries specific to the Black community. Gaetz stepped up to say that he, too, actually had the same worries with an introduction to the man he referred to as his son, then-19-year-old Nestor Galban. A Cuban immigrant, Galban was the younger brother of Gaetz's ex-girlfriend, and when their mother passed away after being diagnosed with breast cancer, Galban lived with the couple. According to what Gaetz told People, "[he is] my son in every conceivable way, and I can't imagine loving him any more if he was my own flesh and blood."

While some of Gaetz's fellow congress members came forward to confirm that he'd always spoken about Galban behind-the-scenes, others weren't convinced. Critics accused him of using Galban as a political crutch, pointing to earlier social media posts where he alternately referred to the teenager as a "helper," a "local student," his "best door-knocker," and "House page."

COVID, a gas masks, antibodies, and a questionable spring break

Few things in recent history have been as divisive as COVID, and in March of 2020, Matt Gaetz tried to make a point of some sort by wearing a gas mask during House voting on a virus response package. The bill — which allocated more than $7.8 billion to outbreak-related needs — passed and was backed by Gaetz, but Gaetz later said (via CNN) that he believed Democrats were trying to "weaponize politics against the president."

Even as CNN reported on his choice to wear a gas mask to Congress, they also added that he announced he was going to be self-quarantining after potentially being exposed to the virus at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Gaetz later said that he had tested negative, and in November of that same year, told USA Today that while he had never suffered any symptoms of COVID, a positive antibodies test confirmed that he had contracted the virus at some point. (He also argued that he'd been "quite serious," when he donned the gas mask.)

However, more questions were raised about just how seriously he was taking the outbreak when, in March 2021, he confirmed (via Twitter) that he had allowed his son to head to Panama City, Florida beach on spring break. The month prior to his announcement, WFSU Public Media reported that Panama City was currently the site of one of the country's worst COVID outbreaks. 

He's supported Kyle Rittenhouse and called for killing protesters

In 2020, Twitter faced off against Donald Trump by adding fact-checking and warning labels to his tweets, flagging them as incorrect and/or going against their policies about posts that incited violence. According to The New York Times, they hit Matt Gaetz with a warning, too, after he posted, "Now that we clearly see Antifa as terrorists, can we hunt them down like we do those in the Middle East?" That not only got him the anti-violence warning, but it gave him a chance to repost tweets from Trump, talking about limiting the power of tech companies to censor what appeared on their platform.

Gaetz said that the Twitter warning was his "badge of honor," and it's not the only time he's been pretty vocal about what he thinks about protests. In November 2021, the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse was winding down. (Spurred on by protests following the shooting of Jacob Blake, Rittenhouse crossed state lines, joined the protests, then shot and killed two people and injured a third. He was ultimately cleared of all charges.) 

Just prior to the announcement of the verdict, Gaetz addressed the case on Newsmax (via NBC News). He said, "You know what, Kyle Rittenhouse would probably make a good congressional intern. We may reach out to him and see if he'd be interested in helping the country in additional ways. ... He is not guilty. He deserves a not guilty verdict and I sure hope he gets it." 

Putting an end to offshore drilling... in his own state

When it comes to energy, Matt Gaetz has something of a strange track record — starting with the fact that he was the only Republican to vote against the 2022 American Energy Independence from Russia Act, claiming that it would "actually help Russia." Gaetz said (via Florida Politics) that allowing drilling off the coast of Florida would interfere with the military research and testing that went on there, "that allows our military to maintain a qualitative edge over Russia, China, and the world."

In early 2023, The Washington Post reported that Gaetz had actually asked for other members of the House to help him permanently block the possibility of new drilling sites off the coast of Florida. Again, he used the military's Gulf of Mexico-based testing facilities — along with Florida's tourist industry — as grounds for the ban, but Texas Monthly pointed out that critics say that it's more of a case of NIMBYism, or "not-in-my-backyard-ism."

Those critics point out that Gaetz is seemingly only concerned with drilling when it happens in his state. They note that in spite of the fact that he used coastal communities and unique ecosystems as another part of his reasoning, he still voted against banning drilling sites in national forests and wildlife refuges in Colorado and Alaska.

He had some strange thoughts on abortion and LGBTQ+ rights

When Slate spoke with Matt Gaetz about his opposition to a 2015 amendment that would have given faith-based organizations the right to deny adoptions to couples that didn't subscribe to their code of morality, Gaetz described it as "a big, wide, slippery slope." He added that he was particularly in favor of supporting adoptions by same-sex couples, adding "...there have been absolutely no indications that same-sex adoptions or same-sex foster care placement have had any negative effects on children."

That's a seemingly straightforward position to take, but in 2022, it developed into something weird. That's when Gaetz spoke at a hearing called "What's Next: The Threat to Individual Freedoms in a Post-Roe World." The American Independent summed up his position as one in which he claimed affording abortion access to lesbian and bisexual women would — in his words — "actually result in fewer same-sex couples having access to the family formation that gives them fulfilled lives."

The legal director of the Human Rights Campaign, Sarah Warbelow, replied there were other ways that children came up for adoption, adding: "What I would be concerned about is forcing women to carry a pregnancy simply to satisfy another couple's desire to have a child." It's also worth noting that in his 2015 interview, Gaetz spoke of the "852 adoptable children in the state's foster care system, ... [and] There are thousands and thousands more children [in foster homes]. I don't want there to be any barriers to those children having loving, permanent homes."