Matt Gaetz’s Chaos Agenda

Matt Gaetz’s Chaos Agenda

Representative Matt Gaetz arrived at the White House in the last days of 2020, amid a gathering national crisis. President Donald Trump had lost his bid for reëlection the previous month, and his allies were exploring strategies to keep him in office. Though only thirty-eight years old, Gaetz, the scion of a political family in Florida’s Panhandle, had become one of the Republican Party’s most prominent and divisive figures. His dark hair styled in a kind of bouffant, his lips often curled in a wry smile, Gaetz bore a resemblance to Elvis Presley, or, in the description of a Florida friend, “either Beavis or Butt-head.” He was quick-witted and sometimes very funny, and he loved to taunt his enemies, who were numerous, especially in his own party. “He’s the most unpopular member of Congress, with the possible exception of Marjorie Taylor Greene, and he doesn’t care,” a fellow-congressman told me. With a combination of charisma and gleeful shamelessness, Gaetz had come to embody the new Republican creed of doing whatever it took, and laying waste to whatever it took, to insure that Donald Trump would survive and succeed.

By the time of Gaetz’s visit, on December 21st, Trump’s allies had already set in motion a deceptively simple mechanism to overturn his defeat: in seven states where he had narrowly lost, they attempted to replace the delegates to the Electoral College with loyalists to Trump. The plan, which came to be known as the “fake elector” scheme, was unsuccessful, and led to the indictment of several dozen people. Gaetz was more interested in exploiting technicalities. He joined a group of Republican hard-liners in a meeting with Vice-President Mike Pence, to discuss using parliamentary rules to reject electors’ votes—attempting to reverse an election that Gaetz described as “uniquely polluted.”

But Gaetz had another reason to be at the White House that day. In December and January, he tried repeatedly to persuade the Trump Administration to grant him an unusual dispensation: a “blanket pardon,” which would cover any number of potential crimes. “He wanted a pardon, as I recall, from the beginning of time up until that day, for anything,” Eric Herschmann, an attorney in the Trump White House, told the January 6th Committee. Gaetz invoked Richard Nixon, whose successor had pardoned him for his involvement in the Watergate scandal. Herschmann found even this ambitious comparison insufficient. “Nixon’s pardon was never nearly that broad,” he said.

It’s not clear why Gaetz pressed for such extensive immunity, but he was clearly preoccupied with more than trying to overturn the election. Prosecutors in the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section were investigating him over allegations that he had helped transport a seventeen-year-old girl across state lines and had had sex with her. It was a felony, and if Gaetz was convicted, he would likely be forced to resign and potentially sent to prison. Devin Murphy, who oversaw legislation in Gaetz’s Washington office for more than four years, told me that Gaetz was so consumed by the investigation that he effectively stopped carrying out many of his official duties. “He had withdrawn,” he said. “I was making all the decisions.” Tom Joscelyn, a principal drafter of the January 6th Committee’s final report, believes that the investigation could be the reason Gaetz asked for a pardon: “He may have been trying to head off the indictment.”

By then, the sex scandal had helped make Gaetz one of the most notorious members of Congress. Evidence suggested that he had spent time with a number of young women who advertised on a Web site that seemed to be a thinly veiled venue for prostitution. Gaetz, then a three-term congressman with a reputation for a freewheeling private life, appeared to have the impulse control of a teen-age boy. Cassidy Hutchinson, a young White House aide, wrote in her memoir that he made repeated passes at her. On a trip to Camp David in 2020, while she was meeting with the House Minority Leader, Kevin McCarthy, Gaetz came to the door and asked her to “escort” him to his cabin, because he couldn’t find it himself. (Gaetz denies this.) Even after Hutchinson pointed out that all the cabins were on the same circular drive and clearly numbered, Gaetz persisted, until McCarthy shooed him away. “Get a life, Matt,” he said, closing the door.

During the January 6th riots, though, Gaetz found a different way to make the news. He was at the Capitol when protesters stormed the building, and he joined colleagues in Congress as they were led to a safe room. “A lot of the members thought they were going to die,” a longtime House staffer told me. “They were calling their families to say goodbye.”

“On second thought, place the apple in front of your face and put your clothes back on.”

Cartoon by Dan Misdea

Once the rioters dispersed, the members filed into the chamber to cast ballots on the certification of the November election. Gaetz, along with a hundred and forty-six other Republicans, voted against it, but the majority of the House endorsed Biden’s victory. Minutes after the members reconvened, Gaetz took to the podium and suggested that neither Trump nor his supporters were to blame for the day’s events. He cited a story that had just appeared in the archconservative Washington Times, about a facial-recognition-software company that claimed the rioters had been infiltrated by false-flag agitators. “Some of the people who breached the Capitol today were not Trump supporters,” Gaetz said. “They were masquerading as Trump supporters, and in fact were members of the violent terrorist group Antifa.” (The story quickly disappeared from the Times’ Web site after the software company protested that it was false.)

In fact, the crowd that stormed the Capitol was overwhelmingly pro-Trump, which Gaetz had every reason to know. He was friendly with members of the Proud Boys, the hard-right gang that sent numerous people to Washington that day. He was in contact with Roger Stone, who had helped coördinate the movement to resist Trump’s loss, and with Jacob Engels, a conservative journalist whom one observer described as Stone’s “surrogate son.” The night before, Engels had attended a gathering of the demonstration’s leaders at the Willard hotel, across from the White House. (He wasn’t at the protest itself—he drank so much that night that he slept through it. “My alcoholism saved me,” he told me.) Engels has known Gaetz for some fifteen years, since they met through the Florida Teenage Republicans, and speaks of him with a mix of admiration and resentment: “He’s done very well. Family money can give you a lot of license to not give a fuck.”

Gaetz’s speech on the House floor was a remarkable performance: a protester had been fatally shot, Capitol Police officers were wounded, and members of Congress had possibly been saved from disaster by the barricaded doors they had hidden behind. Still, in just minutes, Gaetz had deftly constructed an entirely different story.

Last year, prosecutors from the Justice Department announced, without explanation, that they were ending their sex-crimes investigation into Gaetz. But he still faced an inquiry from the House Ethics Committee, which could, if it determined that he violated its rules, lead to a vote on his expulsion.

By then, Gaetz had emerged as the embodiment of the populist wing of the G.O.P.—railing against the government, the establishment, and even the rule of law, if that stood in the way of political objectives. Aggressively self-promoting and consummately skilled at social media, Gaetz seems molded in the image of his mentor, Trump. In a memoir, “Firebrand,” he envisioned a dramatic trajectory for himself: “All political lives end in failure, in a sense, but some are spectacular. Better to be a spectacle than to end up having never said anything worth cancelling because nobody was listening in the first place.”

Gaetz taking questions outside the Capitol, after the vote to oust Speaker Kevin McCarthy.Photograph by Kent Nishimura / NYT / Redux

In seven years in Congress, Gaetz has helped make the institution even more dysfunctional than it already was, threatening to shut down the federal government and force a default on its debt. Gaetz is a paradox: he is determined to attack the modern democratic state, but he harbors ambitions that only modern American politics can satisfy. He articulates an idea of the country that seems so negative—ridiculing his colleagues, trashing the welfare state, scorning embattled democracies abroad—that it is sometimes difficult to see what he stands for. And yet the more Gaetz tears down, the more his supporters love him.

As his popularity grew, he seemed to be preparing an effort to succeed Ron DeSantis as Florida’s governor. Some of his fellow elected officials wondered what he would do if he got the job. Gaetz has said privately that he dislikes being in Congress. A longtime friend of his family told me that he finds the hours too long and the work too frustrating. (Gaetz denies this.) “Being a member of Congress is hard,” the friend said. “You’re flying from your district to Washington and back all the time, you’re studying policy, you’re raising money. Matt is too lazy for that.” Many are left to puzzle over what Gaetz’s ultimate political objective is, beyond self-serving anarchy. “Matt is very smart, even brilliant, and he can be very nice,” a former elected official who knows him well told me. “But when I see someone that intelligent aggravating the toxic divisions in this country, spreading mistrust in the institutions that are our foundations, it makes me wonder—where does it end?”

For months, as I reported this story, Gaetz refused to participate. Then, one day in January, my phone rang, and he was on the other end. “I would prefer not to have your attention,” he told me. Still, after some conversation, he invited me to meet him after an event in Little Elm, Texas, where he was campaigning for another insurgent Republican.

Gaetz has distinguished himself with flamboyant gestures—he once protested a COVID-response bill by wearing a gas mask on the House floor—but when we sat down, in the lounge of a Ramada across the street from his campaign event, he was studiously self-aware, eager to talk about parliamentary rules and political philosophy. Gaetz describes his ideology as “a populist-flavored libertarianism—or a libertarian-flavored populism.” At the event, he had enlivened his complaints about budget policy by proclaiming that it was the audience’s “destiny” to rescue a “diminished country.” Afterward, a long line of admirers gathered for pictures, treating him more like a celebrity than a public servant. “I think that if you want to be a populist, it’s sort of important to be popular,” he told me.

In 2020, Gaetz got engaged to Ginger Luckey, an executive at K.P.M.G., an auditing-and-consulting firm. (Luckey’s brother, Palmer, is a tech developer who founded Oculus VR and sold it for more than two billion dollars.) The two eloped, but there was a wedding party, where guests photographed a sign with light-up gold letters that read “Gaetz Got Luckey.” Recently, she has joined Gaetz on the campaign trail for Trump.

He also has an adopted son, Nestor, who was born in Cuba and is the younger brother of a previous girlfriend. After his mother died, Nestor, who was then twelve, came to the U.S. to live with Gaetz, who was in his early thirties. Gaetz did not disclose Nestor’s existence for years, and, when the news came out, he said that he’d been trying to shield the boy from publicity. “We share no blood but he is my life,” he wrote on Twitter. In an interview with People, he added, “I live for the values and principles that matter to my constituents and that I’ve been raised with.”

Cartoon by Mark Thompson

Gaetz grew up in Niceville, Florida, in a family of unusual wealth and political influence. His grandfather Jerry Gaetz, a former mayor of Rugby, North Dakota (campaign slogan: “Unbought! Unbossed! Unbowed!”), was famous for giving a speech to the state Republican Party in 1964, urging the election of Barry Goldwater for President, after which he walked into the crowd and collapsed of a fatal heart attack.

Gaetz’s father, Don, started out as a hospital administrator, then helped run a nonprofit that provided hospice care. In the nineteen-eighties, the industry was dominated by nonprofits, but Don Gaetz saw a way to use government power to create an advantage. He helped lobby the Florida legislature to impose a licensing code on hospice work, and then formed a for-profit company—giving him, for several years, a near-monopoly in the state. Concerns about inferior service were set aside. “The evidence is pretty clear that, with for-profit hospice care, you have less credentialled staff, fewer doctor visits, and lower-quality care,” Sam Halabi, a professor at Georgetown, told me. “But it’s an incredibly lucrative business.” Around the same time, Don was among the leaders of an effort in Washington to make hospice care reimbursable by Medicare, a vast source of revenue. His company grew rapidly, and in 2004 he and his partners sold it to Chemed Corp., which also owns Roto-Rooter, for four hundred million dollars. The company was later sued for overcharging Medicare and settled for seventy-five million dollars. (Though some of the overbilling occurred while Don was on the board of directors, he wasn’t named in the suit and denied wrongdoing.) A few years later, Don listed his net worth at twenty-four million dollars.

By then, he had moved on to a second career, in politics. In 2000, he decided to run for superintendent of the Okaloosa County School District. He won that race, and was subsequently elected to the Florida legislature, becoming the Senate president in 2012. He built a reputation as an unflashy but formidable legislator. “Don is one of the smartest people I know, and good at the game,” a Tallahassee lobbyist told me. “He can be so kind and so ruthless.” In 2017, when a $1.5-billion fund was set up to ameliorate the catastrophic damage from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Don was named to the board that decided how to direct the money.

As a student at Niceville High School, Matt Gaetz excelled in debate, becoming the state champion in 2000. (“He was always winning an argument about something,” a classmate told me.) Offstage, he often projected an air of entitlement, boasting to peers that his family’s vacation home, down the coast, was where “The Truman Show” was filmed. In his teens and twenties, Gaetz was cited by Florida police eight times for speeding and once for driving drunk. In the latter case, he was pulled over in his father’s BMW and refused to take a sobriety test—the police found an empty mouthwash bottle in the glove compartment—and an Okaloosa County deputy arrested him. Gaetz engaged a lawyer and contested the case, and the charges were dropped for lack of evidence. When the Tampa Bay Times asked to see video of the arrest, officials responded that it had been destroyed. Soon afterward, the deputy who arrested Gaetz was forced to resign, on the ground that he had used excessive force with a civilian, among other infractions.

At Florida State University, Gaetz majored in interdisciplinary sciences and took a class in state government with Brian Ballard, a prominent lobbyist in Tallahassee and Washington. “He was smart as a whip, and he did the work,” Ballard told me; the two are now friends. Gaetz went on to law school at William & Mary, and soon was given a position with State Senator Ray Sansom. But Sansom quickly transferred him to a campaign committee, from which he was fired for allegedly not showing up. (Gaetz denies this.) Gaetz went into private practice, representing citizens in disputes with local governments.

In 2010, though, he filed to run for the Florida House. The seat he was pursuing had belonged to Sansom, who had been indicted for corruption. (The charges were later dropped.) Gaetz raised nearly half a million dollars for his campaign, far more than any other candidate. He finished first in a field of five primary challengers and then easily beat his Democratic rival.

In the legislature, the Gaetzes acquired nicknames: Daddy Gaetz and Baby Gaetz. But Matt distinguished himself as being well prepared and unusually adroit. He took a leading role in drafting legislation to legalize adoption by gay partners, and supported measures to increase penalties for animal abuse and to strengthen child-sex-abuse laws. Republican colleagues recognized the easy facility that had made him a debate champion. They would often hand him a bill, give him a minute to read it, and then have him formulate an argument for or against. Ron Book, a longtime Tallahassee lobbyist, told me, “He’s the kind of guy you want on your team.”

Gaetz built a theory that government was good in some cases, bad in others—particularly in the case of Washington, D.C. “It’s just so corrupt,” he told me. “That’s my principal thesis. It’s just broken.” He blames the emphasis on fund-raising, and the lack of term limits, which constrain legislators in Florida but not in D.C. “When you only have a certain term of years before you have to leave, you’re willing to take half a loaf,” he said. “Also, I learned that in a term-limit system, you don’t have to be there forever to get a substantial amount of power and influence.”

Soon after taking office, Gaetz helped draft legislation that legalized medical marijuana; his father, then the Senate president, supported the bill. “Matt was a big-time proponent of marijuana, and a big-time user,” a former Republican official told me. The legislation permitted a limited number of venders to sell marijuana; one license went to a company owned by the family of Halsey Beshears, a state congressman who was a friend of Gaetz’s. “The legislation was written to more or less insure that one of the franchises was awarded to Beshears,” a Florida lobbyist told me. Afterward, Beshears supplied Gaetz with thousands of dollars in campaign contributions.

Some of Gaetz’s initiatives seemed calculated to attract publicity. He pushed a bill to hasten the execution of death-row inmates and another to allow carrying guns in public, even in churches and schools. In 2013, during a debate over accepting federal funding to help secure health care for the poor, Gaetz reportedly expressed reluctance to aid single, childless adults, because they were “too busy playing a Grand Theft Auto video game to get a job.” Two years later, when Democrats filed an emergency lawsuit to stop the Florida House from ending the legislative session over a stalemate on health care, Gaetz posted on Twitter, “This lawsuit reads like it was researched and drafted by Sen Joyner . . . and spell checked by Sen Bullard.” Arthenia Joyner and Dwight Bullard are both Black. The House leader apologized on Gaetz’s behalf; Gaetz soon did the same.

“He’s a typical child of rich parents,” Mac Stipanovich, a former chief of staff to the Republican governor Bob Martinez, said. “He’s intelligent, entitled, irresponsible. He is accustomed to being the center of attention, and insists on being the center of attention.” A fellow-lawmaker subsequently accused Gaetz of presiding over a game for House legislators in which each member would receive points, on a sliding scale, for having sex with “aides, interns, lobbyists, and married legislators.” (Gaetz denied the accusation.) “Matt dated younger women and bragged about it,” the Tallahassee lobbyist told me. “He showed inappropriate pictures around the legislature. He acted like a twelve-year-old boy.”

Cartoon by Edward Steed

In 2016, Representative Jeff Miller announced that he would retire from his seat in Florida’s First Congressional District. Gaetz, despite his reservations about national politics, decided to take his place. The Florida Panhandle, like much of the South, was a reliably Democratic stronghold from the end of Reconstruction until the nineteen-sixties, when the Party embraced civil-rights legislation. In recent decades, the Panhandle has produced consistently conservative Republican congressmen. The most intense competition took place not in the general election but in the Republican primary.

One of Gaetz’s main opponents in the primary was Cris Dosev, a combat veteran and a father of eight who advocated balanced budgets and a vigorous foreign policy. “Gaetz calls himself a conservative,” he told me. “But a conservative respects tradition and those who came before him. All Gaetz wanted to do was tear things down.”

As a candidate, Gaetz attached himself to Donald Trump, who was running for President. The previous year, both Gaetz and his father had endorsed Jeb Bush, the moderate former governor. But on the campaign trail the younger Gaetz began to invoke Trump’s themes: illegal immigration, Islamist terrorism, and Second Amendment rights. He had the advantage of his family’s name and local political network; a significant portion of his funding came from his own wealth and from his father’s companies. Dosev said that these things, combined with the identification with Trump, made Gaetz all but unstoppable: “I’d knock on someone’s door, and I would hear Fox News on the television—Fox was all about Trump, and Gaetz was riding that.” Gaetz won an easy victory, carried into office by the wave of frustration that brought Trump to the White House. But the relationship was not entirely one-sided: Gaetz had campaigned hard for Trump, helping to secure his big upset in Florida. “We relied quite a lot on Matt,” Ballard, who was the finance chair for Trump’s campaign in the state, said.

In 2018, coasting to reëlection, Gaetz made another shrewd political move, this one in the gubernatorial race. While most Republican leaders were lining up behind Adam Putnam—a reliable moderate who served as the state agriculture commissioner—Gaetz backed a relatively unknown congressman named Ron DeSantis. No one expected much of DeSantis, but Gaetz offered him a potent advantage. “Matt orchestrated his introduction to Trump,” the former Republican official told me. “DeSantis never would have won without that.” With Trump’s endorsement, DeSantis shot past Putnam in the primary and won the election.

Gaetz helped run DeSantis’s transition, working to appoint loyalists throughout the bureaucracy. “Matt had a huge influence on who was hired in the administration, and also on policy,” the former Republican official told me. “He and Ron were very, very, very close.” Gaetz’s ascent looked certain. “Matt has the winning formula,” a former Florida official who knows Gaetz told me. “He’s a privileged son. He was handed a legislative seat and a congressional seat in a super-protected Republican district and really doesn’t have to do anything to stay there.”

The Florida novelist Carl Hiaasen, a former newspaper reporter who made a second career of fictionalizing his state’s excesses, once said, “The Florida in my novels is not as seedy as the real Florida. It’s hard to stay ahead of the curve.” The investigation that may force Gaetz out of office would be right at home in a Hiaasen novel: an only-in-Florida tale of local corruption, illicit sex, influence trading, and fraud. It might never have emerged, if not for the concerned testimony of a high-school band director in Florida.

In October, 2019, Brian Beute, who taught at Trinity Preparatory School, was summoned by his bosses and told that someone had sent a series of nine letters accusing him of raping a male student. Beute, devastated by the allegation, feared that his career was over. “There wasn’t a shred of truth to any of it,” he told me.

Beute lived in nearby Chuluota, in Seminole County. In the previous year, he had helped form a citizen’s group, Save Rural Seminole, to oppose a sprawling housing development that was proposed to be built on land set aside for farms and nature preserves. Some of the area’s biggest developers and lobbyists were behind the project, called River Cross. As the dispute spread, River Cross also gained the support of Seminole County’s elected tax collector, Joel Greenberg. Locals found it unusual for a tax collector—an ostensibly apolitical official—to take sides in a sensitive public controversy. But Greenberg had big ambitions and influential supporters. In 2016, when Trump had appeared at a campaign event in the small city of Sanford, Greenberg introduced him.

In 2018, after months of petitioning by Save Rural Seminole, the county commission voted unanimously to reject River Cross. The next year, Beute filed papers to challenge Greenberg in a coming election. Soon afterward, the mysterious letters arrived at Trinity Prep. Investigators were curious; the timing of the letters seemed fishy. What was more, someone had set up a fake Twitter account in Beute’s name, with posts trashing Jews and a vow to make Seminole County racially segregated. The investigators lifted fingerprints and DNA from the letters and found that they matched Greenberg’s.

As it happened, Greenberg was already under investigation for financial crimes. When police arrested him, they discovered several identification cards with his picture on them. Amy Tyler, an employee in Greenberg’s office, told investigators that, one weekend a few months before, someone had tripped the office alarm. When she went to investigate, she found what appeared to be expired state I.D. cards scattered across a desk. Suspecting a burglary, she checked security footage from the weekend. The tape, she said, showed Greenberg at a desk, sorting through I.D.s, with another man. She texted Greenberg to inquire, and he replied that it was Matt Gaetz. “I was showing congressman Gaetz what our operation looked like,” he wrote. “Did I leave something on?”

Gaetz’s congressional district, and his home, were some four hundred miles from Seminole County, but he visited Greenberg repeatedly. They’d met in 2017, through a mutual friend, and become close; the two often talked politics and sometimes mused about how Greenberg could get elected to Congress. At one point, they had dinner with Roger Stone, and the three men posed for a photo together.

Investigators eventually determined that Greenberg had gone on a crime spree, beginning soon after he was elected; they charged him with a range of crimes that included identity theft, wire fraud, and embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars to use in cryptocurrency transactions. By the time the inquiry was finished, nine people had been indicted for various political and financial crimes, including placing a ghost candidate on the ballot for the state legislature.

Greenberg, faced with decades in prison, agreed to coöperate with prosecutors, as they looked into Gaetz. With his help, they began to unravel the story. In Seminole County, Greenberg and Gaetz hung out with a lobbyist named Chris Dorworth—who was also an investor in River Cross. Dorworth had previously served in the state legislature and befriended Gaetz there. The three men spent time together in restaurants and at social events at Dorworth’s home.

Before Gaetz came to town, according to people close to the case, Greenberg often went to a Web site called Seeking Arrangement, to procure women. “Greenberg would set up girls and drugs,” a lawyer with knowledge of the case told me. (Gaetz disputes descriptions of his conduct and his relationship with Greenberg.) The Web site evidently stopped short of outright prostitution: in a typical transaction, a man would make contact with one of the women on the site and negotiate a price—though what the price was for appears to have been left unsaid. In a letter to Roger Stone, Greenberg said that he would sometimes aid women financially, and that the interactions typically led to sex: “Often it was a card payment, help with rent, a speeding ticket or even a plane ticket home to see their family during a break.” (Stone denies receiving this letter.)

Documents record one of the exchanges involving Gaetz, when Greenberg, in 2018, connected online with a woman from West Palm Beach who went by the pseudonym Priscilla.

Greenberg: I have a friend flying in and we are trying to make plans for tonight. What are your plans for later?

Priscilla: That’s good! As of now nothing planned . . .

Greenberg: And how much of an allowance will you be requiring 🙂 If you have a friend that is down, perhaps all four of us can meet up later. Do you party at all?

Priscilla: Oh that’s perfect. I have a friend who introduced me to the website that I could bring. She’s very pretty, great personality. I usually do $400 per meet, does your friend use the website as well? And yes I do like to go out sometimes

Greenberg: Very cool. Yes, he understands the deal 🙂 What does your friend look like? $400 is not a problem. Are you both old enough to drink?

Priscilla: She’s 21, I’m actually 20 (put 21 on the site for safety) but I do have an ID that I use.

They exchanged photos, and Priscilla proclaimed Greenberg “very handsome.” When she asked for a picture of his friend, a photo of Matt Gaetz appeared onscreen.

Priscilla: Oooh my friend thinks he’s really cute!

Greenberg: Well he’s down here only for the day, we work hard and play hard. Have you ever tried molly

Greenberg told investigators that he sometimes got Molly—the party drug also known as Ecstasy—and that he and Gaetz had sex with the women. “There were multiple sex parties,” the lawyer with knowledge of the case told me. Sometimes, the women were required to put their phones in a box.

The liaisons on Seeking, whatever their legality, appeared to have been consensual. But then investigators uncovered evidence that at least one of Greenberg’s recruits was not an adult. According to Greenberg, he, Gaetz, and others had sex with a seventeen-year-old who had posted on the site, claiming to be older. “On more than one occasion this underage individual was involved in sexual activity with several of the other females at the house, myself and also the congressman from Florida’s panhandle,” Greenberg wrote. “I also made payments to several of the girls on behalf of the congressman.”

Gaetz has repeatedly denied that he had sex with an underage girl. “I have maintained my innocence,” he told Tucker Carlson on Fox News, in 2022. “This was an operation to destroy me.” Still, the revelations prompted the House Ethics Committee to launch its investigation. In 2020, the F.B.I. seized Gaetz’s phone. The evidence was highly suggestive. Venmo records showed that, in a single day, Gaetz had sent Greenberg nine hundred dollars’ worth of payments, including one flagged with what was apparently a short version of the underage girl’s name. The next morning, Greenberg paid out nine hundred dollars to the girl and two other women. (A spokesman for Gaetz, while not denying that the transaction took place, said that by that date the girl had turned eighteen.) Greenberg’s attorney, Fritz Scheller, said in an interview on MSNBC, “There’s a lot more witnesses than just the minor and Mr. Greenberg.”

Greenberg recalled that he discovered the girl was a minor from an anonymous text message, and that he and Gaetz were stunned by the news. “She had a fake ID, her surrounding friends were all in college and there was absolutely no way any reasonable person could tell that she was under the age of 18,” he wrote, adding, “None of us would have ever engaged in any type of relationship with this individual had we known the truth.” After that, Greenberg said, there was no further contact with the girl “until she had turned 18.” (Her lawyer declined to comment.)

Under federal law, though, the prohibition on adults having sex with minors entails what is known as “strict liability.” All that matters is the act; it doesn’t matter if the perpetrator believed that the victim was an adult. Even as Gaetz proclaimed his innocence, he hired the attorneys Michael Mukasey (the former Attorney General) and Marc Fernich (who previously defended John A. Gotti).

While Gaetz braced for the possibility of an indictment, Greenberg had already pleaded guilty. In late 2020, when Trump was still in office, Greenberg reached out to his friend Roger Stone and asked if he could beseech the President for a pardon on his behalf. Trump had already commuted Stone’s sentence for obstructing a federal investigation. Stone thought that he could, at a price. “Your thing is being looked at,” he texted Greenberg, who was ecstatic. “Thank you so much Roger,” he replied. “I pray that the Lord will help.” “Today is the day,” Stone later wrote. “I hope you are prepared to wire me $250,000 because I am feeling confident.” (Stone denies offering a pardon, saying that the correspondence was “incomplete and corrupted.”) Stone never came through, though; he told Greenberg that Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, had shot down his request. In 2022, Greenberg was sentenced to eleven years in federal prison.

As it turned out, Gaetz did not require a pardon of his own. In February, 2023, lawyers at the Justice Department informed him that they were closing their investigation. They didn’t give a reason, but observers speculated that they’d concluded their main witness—Greenberg, a convicted felon eager to secure a lighter sentence—might not prove credible in a trial. The underage girl, now over eighteen, had become an adult-film star, with her own channel on Pornhub and a profile on OnlyFans.

Observers of Florida politics say that Gaetz’s constituents don’t particularly care about the inquiry. “Matt could be serving hard time for sex trafficking and he’d still get reëlected,” Stipanovich, the former chief of staff, told me. But, he added, that sense of assurance had inspired hubris; Gaetz had got out of so many jams since his youth in the Panhandle that he was certain he could get off again. “If you’re going to be a spoiled rich kid, it’s better to be dumb,” he said. “Matt’s trouble is, he’s a spoiled rich kid and he’s smart—he’s clever. And that’s gotten him into all kinds of trouble.”

One Saturday morning last fall, at Callie Opie’s Orchard restaurant in Mineral, Virginia, I contributed fifty dollars to Representative Bob Good’s campaign so that I could watch Gaetz speak at a fund-raiser on his behalf. Dressed in a black jacket and black pants, Gaetz looked more like a night-club singer than an elected official, and he held a roomful of voters rapt. He spoke of an America in decline, of runaway deficits that were sucking the life out of the country, of the dream of homeownership slipping away. Gaetz has the political gift of sounding completely sincere; he told the crowd that he and his small band of rebels were among the only members of Congress who were determined to cut spending and shrink the deficit. “We believe that this system needs change—that sometimes you’ve got to send a shock to the system,” Gaetz said to the audience, arrayed before him in plastic chairs. “We can solve every other problem, but if our country continues to spend money like this, we will be the generation that presides over a managed American decline.”

Gaetz is part of a chorus of Republican politicians, including J. D. Vance and Kari Lake, giving speeches on Trump’s behalf. They all say more or less the same thing: the country’s problems can be blamed on Washington and on the Democrats, with their out-of-control spending. (Never mind that Trump presided over an eight-trillion-dollar increase in the national debt, compared with about six trillion for Biden.)

Gaetz criticizes the influence of lobbyists, and in 2020 he announced that he would stop taking PAC money. (“I confessed my sins,” he told me.) He depends on his road show for funding; eighty per cent of it comes from out of state, largely in small donations. Along with paying Gaetz’s travel costs, his campaign spent millions of dollars last year buying lists of potential out-of-state donors.

In addition to his campaign events, Gaetz posts photos and videos on X (formerly Twitter) nearly every day, and appears in such right-wing outlets as Steve Bannon’s “War Room,” Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News, and Newsmax. Given their frequency, these videos and guest spots sometimes seem more important than the votes he casts. As he wrote in his memoir, “Stagecraft is statecraft.”

Gaetz’s speech on January 6th was a memorable demonstration of his stagecraft, but it wasn’t the first time he had accused Democrats of stealing an election. In November, 2018, two statewide races in Florida—for governor and for U.S. senator—were remarkably close, with margins of less than half of one per cent. The nominees—Ron DeSantis and Andrew Gillum in the governor’s race, and Rick Scott and Bill Nelson for the Senate—didn’t know who had won. Under Florida rules, both races were subject to mandatory recounts.

During the proceedings, Gaetz met Jacob Engels, the columnist and confidant of Roger Stone, outside an office in Fort Lauderdale where poll workers were counting ballots. Standing on the back of a truck and speaking into a bullhorn, Gaetz led demonstrators in denouncing the recount. “Stop the steal!” they chanted. He likened what was happening in Fort Lauderdale to the Presidential election of 2000, when George W. Bush and Al Gore tangled for weeks after the voting was over. “For all I know, they’re still counting ballots for Al Gore back there!” Gaetz told the crowd.

There was no evidence of fraud, but it didn’t matter. Demonstrators blocked the doors to the elections office, and security had to be put in place for officials. “It was pretty rough, trying to get inside,” the then-lawyer for the Florida Democratic Party told me. Both Republicans ultimately won their races, and the demonstration in Fort Lauderdale was mostly forgotten. But, three years later, after the January 6th riot, federal prosecutors were intrigued by the similarities of the two Stop the Steal protests. Stone said that he attended neither, but some of his associates, including several leaders of the Proud Boys, went to both. Years before, Stone had led the so-called Brooks Brothers riot in Miami, when, during the tense recount for Bush and Gore, Republican protesters tried to rush the doors of the Miami-Dade supervisor of elections office. It was the first in a series of national and statewide elections in which Republicans protested results, accusing Democrats of fraud.

Gaetz on Steve Bannon’s podcast with Representative Nancy Mace. At times, Gaetz’s online videos and media appearances can seem more important to his political project than the votes he casts.Photograph by Erin Schaff / NYT / Redux

The demonstration in Fort Lauderdale was emblematic of the kind of congressman Gaetz would be: showy, glib, and relentlessly antagonistic to institutional norms. He had a serious side, though he seemed not especially eager to show it, and even his enemies conceded that he was smart. As a legislator, he worked to constrain government power. He pushed to end warrantless surveillance, to curtail the government’s ability to seize individuals’ property, and to loosen laws criminalizing marijuana distribution and possession.

For the most part, though, his record in getting laws enacted is undistinguished. “Nobody’s going to accuse me of passing too much legislation,” he joked to me. His more prominent role is that of gadfly. He chides his fellow-Republicans for insider trading and occasionally takes sides with progressives—particularly around environmental protections, which have bipartisan support in his home state. During the Trump years, Gaetz helped end oil drilling off Florida’s coast, and spoke in favor of regulating polluters: “Conservative, Inc.—bought off as always—would have you believe it’s in your best interest for chemical plants to pollute our rivers, agribusiness to clog our estuaries with their runoff, and coal plants to darken our skies.”

To Gaetz and his allies, his unpopularity in Congress is a measure of his principled approach. In their telling, the typical Republican member wins election on a promise of reducing the federal deficit and shrinking the government, but, once in Washington, succumbs to pressures to conform. “It’s so sad up here,” Representative Eli Crane, a friend of Gaetz’s, told me. “Most of the members of Congress come here to be popular, and they ignore their base back home. They don’t do what they were elected to do. Matt is very unpopular here, but it makes him popular back home. And he’s popular because he actually listens to his base.”

Gaetz speaks of his district as a haven for like-minded people. “My community is very conservative—it’s very homogenous,” he said. “It’s actually where I’d like to spend all of my time.” But he seldom seems to be there. In four months of reporting, I saw him speak in rural Virginia, New York City, and the Dallas suburbs, and I just missed him in Montana and North Carolina. As far as I could tell, he did only two events in the Panhandle: a ceremony for military cadets and a rally for his campaign in the town of Navarre, at which he likened his obstructionism in the House to John Quincy Adams’s unpopular stand against slavery. The old saw “All politics is local” is no longer true. These days, all politics—from a train derailment in Ohio to an argument about gender at a school-board meeting in Florida—is national. Gaetz was elected to represent the people of Florida’s First Congressional District, but he understands that his stage is much larger than Pensacola, Crestview, or Fort Walton Beach. “The number of nights that we spent in our own bed in Florida, in calendar year 2023, was in the teens,” he told me. When he is criticized for not spending more time at home, he said, “The way I explain that is that I am an expeditionary force.”

Nowhere did Gaetz’s desires to shock the system and to attract attention converge more dramatically than in his long feud with Representative Kevin McCarthy, of California. In the 2022 election, the G.O.P. took control of the House of Representatives, and McCarthy was poised to become Speaker. The Republicans’ majority was thin—only nine seats—but, under normal circumstances, that would have been enough for him to secure the job. Yet McCarthy was precisely the kind of Republican whom Gaetz said that he’d come to Washington to fight—the kind who favored incremental progress, kept close ties with lobbyists, and feared dramatic change. In January, 2023, as the 118th Congress took office, Gaetz led an effort to peel away twenty-one members from supporting McCarthy, depriving him of a majority.

In taking on McCarthy, Gaetz was violating hallowed traditions. For most of American history, the longest-serving members of Congress were typically the most influential. From their posts as committee chairs, they guided decisions around how bills were drafted and brought to a vote. Junior members waited their turn, and rarely criticized their party’s leaders.

Gaetz portrayed McCarthy as little more than an apparatchik, hardly different from the corrupt Democrats, who rose to power by securing campaign money for his colleagues. He told the House that McCarthy was “the LeBron James of special-interest fund-raising.” Jeering at a reference to McCarthy as “selfless,” he said, “Selflessness is not selling shares of yourself to the lobby corps and then doing their bidding at the expense of the American people.”

His resistance was met with outrage. “Matt Gaetz is a fraud,” Nancy Mace, of South Carolina, said. “Every time he voted against Kevin McCarthy last week he sent out a fund-raising e-mail.” He and his allies insisted that Jim Jordan, the hard-right representative from Ohio, was a better candidate. Gaetz subjected McCarthy to a sustained public humiliation; fourteen times McCarthy offered himself up for a vote, and fourteen times, with Gaetz marshalling the dissidents, he failed. On the fourteenth attempt, McCarthy grew so angry that, in view of television cameras, he strode up the aisle toward Gaetz, who was looking smugly implacable. Mike Rogers, of Alabama, a McCarthy ally, surged at Gaetz and had to be physically restrained.

Gaetz’s professed goal was to force McCarthy to confront the huge deficits that have plagued federal budgets for the past two decades—particularly under the Trump and Biden Administrations, which used borrowed money to stabilize the economy during the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, federal borrowing represented more than six per cent of the G.D.P., which, while not a record, was historically high for a country not in a major war.

By law, the President is required to propose a federal budget in February, giving Congress several months to debate its various parts, with deadlines along the way. In the past thirty years, though, as the parties have grown further apart, they have mostly failed to approve individual appropriations bills on time. Instead, congressional leaders have typically rolled over budgets largely unchanged from previous years, discarding much of the debate on spending priorities. Gaetz and his allies claimed that they merely wanted to return to a normal budgeting process. “I think that not passing single-spending-subject bills is chaos,” he argued. “We have been out of compliance with budget laws for most of my life.”

In the end, McCarthy managed to secure support for his candidacy. But Gaetz forced him to agree to make deep spending cuts in the next federal budget, and to give any House member the right to call for a no-confidence vote. With the majority so thin, McCarthy effectively gave Gaetz the power to remove him. These conditions left almost no room to maneuver. On one side, McCarthy faced a Democratic White House and Senate. On the other were Gaetz’s hard-liners, who were insisting on severe cuts. “When Kevin gave Matt the power to remove him, he gave him his life,” the fellow-congressman of Gaetz’s I spoke to told me. “The idea that you could give that power to Matt and that he wouldn’t use it—boy, you don’t understand Matt.”

Removing McCarthy left the legislature in chaos for weeks, at a time when the country was involved in two foreign wars. Asked if he regretted it, Gaetz said, “Never.”Photograph by Kent Nishimura / Getty

It didn’t take long. In June, McCarthy struck a deal with the White House and the Senate which continued high spending and lifted the government’s borrowing ceiling. To do it, he’d had to secure both Republican and Democratic votes—a show of old-fashioned bipartisanship. To Gaetz, he had committed an unpardonable sin. “It is going to be difficult for my Republican friends to keep calling President Biden feeble while he continues to take Speaker McCarthy’s lunch money in every negotiation,” he said. In September, McCarthy confronted Gaetz in a closed-door session and dared him to try removing him, snapping, “File the fucking motion.” Less than three weeks later, Gaetz gathered his allies and called for a vote.

Many Republicans were furious at Gaetz. “I think he’s a petulant child,” Mike Lawler, of New York, said at the time. “He doesn’t care about governing. He cares about getting attention.” Meanwhile, House Democrats were only too happy to watch Republicans assail one another. “Do we side with a sociopath or an incompetent?,” Mark Pocan, a Democrat from Wisconsin, mused.

Gaetz’s calculus was audacious. He had only a handful of Republican allies—but he gambled that he wouldn’t need more than that, because Democrats, angry that McCarthy had endorsed an impeachment inquiry against Biden, would agree to oust him. Gaetz was right: McCarthy became the first House Speaker in history to be removed before his term expired.

Some of Gaetz’s peers believed that he had pulled off an astonishing feat. “He single-handedly toppled a Speaker of the House,” David Jolly, a former Republican congressman from Florida, told me. “For someone to be able to do that within six years shows incredible gravitas.” But, for the most part, his actions left intense bitterness. Not a few Republicans pointed out that he had relied on the opposing party to drive a wedge into his own. “Does someone want to tell Matt Gaetz that he worked with RADICAL DEMOCRATS like @AOC @IlhanMN and @RashidaTlaib to remove @SpeakerMcCarthy, a REPUBLICAN SPEAKER,” Lawler wrote on X.

The episode left many Republican members feeling that their party was captive to people with motives they could hardly comprehend. “Matt actually thrives on the hatred,” Representative Garret Graves, an ally of McCarthy’s, told me. “I pray for him. I truly believe that he had a tough childhood, because there is no one that can have that mind-set and be that maniacal and be mentally healthy.”

McCarthy’s ouster threw the House into chaos. Several members stepped forward to run for Speaker, only to back out when they determined that they couldn’t win. Jim Jordan, Gaetz’s favored candidate, made his own failed attempt. For three weeks, the legislature was effectively incapacitated, at a time when the United States was involved in two overseas wars. Finally, Republicans came together around Mike Johnson, a deeply conservative member with support among evangelical Christians.

Within days of taking over, Johnson realized that he faced the same circumstances McCarthy had: Congress needed to approve yet another temporary budget to avert a shutdown. So, like his predecessor, Johnson made a deal with Democrats.

Gaetz voted against this compromise, but neither he nor the other hard-liners tried to remove Johnson, even though the budget that he shepherded through represented essentially the same level of spending—$1.6 trillion—as the one approved under McCarthy. “After all of that, what did we get?” Graves said. “We lost time, we lost credibility, and we ended up with a deficit larger than before.”

As much as Gaetz talked about balancing the budget, he never laid out a detailed plan to do it. (Like most congress members, he takes pride in securing federal funds for his district, especially for the many military bases in northwest Florida.) Roughly eighty-five per cent of the budget is military spending and entitlements, which neither Gaetz nor his colleagues seem willing to cut. “I’m realistic about the political circumstances,” he told me. “If you started with the prospect that you were going to cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid all at once, it would be politically doomed to fail.”

“If our marriage could survive a panini press, a garlic roaster, and a spiralizer, it will survive an air fryer.”

Cartoon by Liza Donnelly

Nor did Gaetz present a definite vision of how the House should be reformed. “Matt didn’t have a plan beyond taking down McCarthy—he didn’t know who was going to come after,” the former Republican official told me. “He thought he’d shake up the system, cause some chaos, and in the meantime get on TV a lot.” Yet Gaetz’s maneuvering made him a star. During his monthslong feud with McCarthy, he raised $1.8 million for his campaign, positioning himself as a bulwark against Washington’s élite. “If you want to Drain the Swamp, you cannot put the biggest alligator in charge of the exercise!” he wrote in a fund-raising letter.

Some veterans on Capitol Hill believed that Gaetz’s motives were even more cynical: he was carrying out a personal vendetta connected to the sex-trafficking allegations. According to people around McCarthy, Gaetz made it known that he expected McCarthy to kill the House Ethics Committee investigation. McCarthy refused, saying publicly that he had no legal authority to do so. Gaetz insisted that he had never asked him. “It was all about vengeance,” a person close to McCarthy told me.

On February 6th, Mike Johnson oversaw what was widely viewed as a devastating defeat. In a single day, his divided party failed to pass two measures that prominent Republicans had urgently endorsed: the impeachment of Alejandro Mayorkas, Biden’s Homeland Security Secretary, and a bill to provide Israel with additional military aid. A bill that made assistance for Ukraine contingent on increased spending for border security had died the day before. The conservative establishment was outraged. The Wall Street Journal editorial board, which has taken to calling Gaetz’s crew “the chaos caucus,” derided “the war of all against all that has followed its coup against Kevin McCarthy” and declared that the “revolution is eating its own.”

When I raised the Journal editors’ comments with Gaetz, he seemed amused: “When I threw out McCarthy, it was the first regime change they’ve ever opposed.” For him, voting down the spending bill was a victory. “When Mitch McConnell builds it, it usually becomes a law. And for the first time in seven years, we blew it up and stopped it.”

Between campaign events, Gaetz has been working to remake his party—supporting candidates he likes, attacking those he doesn’t, and sometimes just making trouble. On the night that the votes failed, he went online to offer an evidently sarcastic endorsement of Kevin McCarthy as the new head of the Republican National Committee, praising him as “a very high-revenue fundraiser.”

Not long before, Gaetz had appeared with Trump in the ballroom of Cipriani Wall Street, for the annual gala of the New York Young Republican Club. The attendees constituted a taxonomy of MAGA influence: the Old Guard stalwarts Rudy Giuliani and Steve Bannon; America First cheerleaders like Senator J. D. Vance; and newer faces such as the lawyer Alina Habba, who has represented Trump against a series of accusations of fiscal and sexual impropriety, and Rogan O’Handley, an online personality who helped popularize the boycott of Bud Light’s trans-inclusive advertising. Dressed in tuxedos and body-con dresses, downing Bellinis, they projected an image of a party, or at least a faction, confident in its own ascent.

The crowd cheered when Trump ambled onto the stage, but as he began to speak he seemed tired, slurring his words. Against President Biden’s frailty it’s easy to forget that the anointed Republican nominee, obese at seventy-seven, is also perilously old for the job. Trump rallied enough to promise the crowd that he would bring the country back from “Hell,” and to repeat his infamous comment about being a dictator on “Day One.” Still, the real energy was provided by Gaetz—bouncing, beaming, almost conspicuously young—as he told the room that Trump was the greatest President America had ever had. He mocked leftists—who “seethe at the thought of greatness” and consider “Lizzo a sex symbol”—and said that most Republicans had been “derelict in their duty.” His wife, Ginger, in a sequinned evening dress, sang the national anthem with unusual facility. (She used to volunteer as a piano and voice teacher.) If Trump wasn’t exactly passing the torch to Gaetz, it seemed clear that the torch was his to take.

After that, wherever Trump went on the campaign trail, Gaetz followed with a galvanizing stump speech. He was less sycophantic than such MAGA endorsers as Kari Lake, Tim Scott, and Vivek Ramaswamy; he looked like a more charismatic version of Don, Jr., with a stronger chin. Almost everywhere, Gaetz was met by adoring crowds. Like Trump, he occasionally had to confront detractors. “What’s the youngest schoolgirl you’ve been with?” a heckler called out in New Hampshire. Unfazed, he riffed on Vice-President Kamala Harris’s incompetence and moved on to his own remarks.

In recent weeks, the House Ethics Committee has apparently ramped up its inquiry. Scheller, Greenberg’s attorney, turned over a trove of documents and said that his client would coöperate. But there is no guarantee that even a damning verdict will have much effect on Gaetz. Both he and Trump have behaved in ways that not so long ago would have led them to be, at the very least, banished from political life. To the annoyance of what they call “the liberal media élite,” both men have almost seemed to enjoy sidestepping ethical pitfalls. With each new allegation, their voters become more committed. These tactics have taken Trump further than anyone might have imagined when he left office, friendless and defeated, in 2021. Gaetz, by his side on the campaign trail, has the air of someone who is just getting started. “What you learn is, in politics, it’s all the best-laid plans of mice and men,” he told me. “And so I’m trying to do a good job. I like what I’m doing now. I think I’m where I’m supposed to be.” ♦

*An earlier version of this article included errors in the transcription of several messages to and from Joel Greenberg. It has also been updated to include comment from Matt Gaetz’s spokesman. *

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