Matt Gaetz has the worst office in Congress. Across the hall from the forgotten storage lockers of more senior members of Congress, it is in the back corner on the fifth floor of the congressional office building farthest from the U.S. Capitol. Walking briskly from his door to the House floor takes no less than 15 minutes. But somehow the 35-year-old Florida freshman has managed to find his way into the spotlight.
Too impatient to wait for the influence that comes with congressional seniority — or legislative accomplishments — the young backbencher has found a bully pulpit on cable television. Pragmatic and opportunistic, Gaetz is the boy politician who best embodies the Trump era.
“I’ve come into Congress at the right time in American political discourse,” Gaetz tells me as we hurry along that long walk from the Cannon House Office Building to the Capitol for votes. “Being a little rough around the edges, being a little politically incorrect, being abrasive and combative seems to be the flavor of the moment.”
Other freshmen have their moment when they rename a post office or when they get a quick shoutout from the speaker of the House. Gaetz got his moment when, last November, he filed a resolution calling on Robert Mueller to recuse himself as special counsel in the Russia investigation. He was panned as an overzealous idiot, before being subsequently booked on every major national television network.
Critics tell me Gaetz is a “media whore.” More polite observers call him “a modern media machine.” No one suggests that he's ineffective. Any given primetime, Gaetz can be seen on CNN, Fox, or MSNBC. He regularly makes appearances on each, completing the veritable triple crown of cable news weekly.
He spars with Chris Cuomo on bias inside the FBI. He backslaps with Tucker Carlson while discussing why Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., should resign from the House Intelligence Committee. And he goes toe-to-toe with MSNBC's Chris Hayes over President Trump’s comment about “shithole countries.”
So how does a no-name freshman get the kind of coverage traditionally reserved for D.C. heavyweights?
“It’s simple,” a news producer from a major network explains. “He’s one of the of the few rank-and-file Republicans who, when invited, will actually go onto networks and shows other GOP lawmakers might perceive as hostile to them.”
Gaetz doesn’t really remember his first big interview. He also doesn’t really remember the first call from Trump. But he admits that he gets “feedback” from the executive residence. “We all know the president keeps up on the news cycle,” Gaetz says with a boyish grin. “He occasionally gives me a call to comment on my performance.”
Those three-to-four-minute performances have earned him at least one ride on Air Force One and the attention of some of the president’s fiercest congressional defenders. “Offense beats defense every time,” Freedom Caucus founder, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, tells me. “In the sport of wrestling, if you’re going to win matches you’ve got to get on offense. I don’t know if Matt wrestled but he’s got that same mentality and I appreciate that.”
I see what Jordan meant the Tuesday I shadow the freshman. Gaetz does half-a-dozen radio interviews, goes on Fox News, and makes an appearance on that network’s scrappy and obscure rival, One America News. (The congressman turns down MSNBC’s Ari Melber because last time, he says, the host turned down his microphone.) The week before, his communications director brags, Gaetz racked up 29 media hits.
"Congressman Gaetz's microphone was never turned down during any of his appearances on 'The Beat.' Rep. Gaetz is welcome back on the show anytime," an MSNBC spokesperson told the Washington Examiner.
When Gaetz goes on Fox, he tells me “the ball is usually waiting for me on the tee.” When Gaetz goes on CNN or MSNBC, “they’re throwing high heat.” While he prefers the more liberal networks, the goal is always the same: Gaetz is working to discredit the Mueller investigation.
“Yeah, I think that’s a fair characterization,” Gaetz says casually in his office while sipping a Diet Pepsi after one of his many radio interviews. “If you look at the resolution I filed and the letters I wrote, I believe Mueller is conflicted. I believe his team is conflicted.”
Other congressmen are playing an old, slow game, one where they serve their time and pay their campaign contribution dues to their party and hope that their number is eventually called. Gaetz is cutting in line.
“If I’m not impacting outcomes, then I’m wasting my time and I’m wasting my district’s time, and so I’m just not playing the long game,” Gaetz says, explaining why he goes after Mueller. “The way to impact outcomes is to change public opinion. I can’t go and set a committee agenda to hear the bill I care about, but I can go on television and talk about where the country needs to go.”
Sometimes that urgency looks an awful lot like youthful indiscretion. Before taking a selfie with his biggest presidential fan, Gaetz gave a State of the Union ticket to alt-right agitator and Holocaust denier Chuck Johnson. The congressman would later claim ignorance about that blogger’s political opinions. Still, Gaetz has access to Google's search engine, and a quick search would have saved him from a brief, but ugly, viral scandal.
Then there was that one time that Gaetz missed a committee vote on the National Defense Authorization Act in the House Armed Services Committee. That gaffe was made more embarrassing by the fact that his Florida congressional district has five major military bases. No less than one in six of his constituents have served, or are currently serving, in the armed services. Gaetz owns up to the mistake though. He says his family was in town that week, he says he was scheduled to visit Walter Reed National Military Medical Center the next day, and he says the final bill eventually passed with his amendments anyway.
If Gaetz occasionally acts like a kid, it might be because Gaetz definitely looks like a kid. In a city run mostly by 20- and 30-year-old staffers, he looks more like a mature legislative assistant than a young congressman. That can confuse Capitol Police who regularly do double takes at the baby-faced representative throughout the day.
Gaetz laughs it all off though and acknowledges that, at 35 years old, he has spent about as much time in college and law school as he has in the real world. He graduated from William and Mary Law School in 2007 and Florida State University in 2003. Before that, Gaetz grew up in Seaside, Fla., in the house that Jim Carrey and Paramount Pictures would later rent to film the "Truman Show," a film about a man whose life is lived out on broadcast television. A picture of the residence hangs in his office.
In high school, Gaetz spent his time winning debate championships and trolling his teachers. When his father, now state Sen. Don Gaetz, ran against his principal for a spot on the school board, he made “Gaetz for Superintendent” T-shirts. He wore one to school every day until his father won the election. “I was not afraid of provocation.”
That resume made him a natural fit for politics. “He is extremely smart,” says Jared Moskowitz, a Florida Democrat who served in the state House with Gaetz. “When he got elected, he automatically became the most talented person in Congress,” he tells me over the phone. “I knew he wouldn’t sit still.”
If all the attention has gone to his head, Gaetz doesn’t talk like it. He admits that, compared to his colleagues, he hasn’t done anything he would describe as “heroic.” New in town last November, Gaetz even confided to a Roll Call reporter that he felt like the most boring member of the new Congress. Apparently, the reporter agreed and the headline read: “The least interesting (fresh) man in the House.”
Now Gaetz can barely believe the media buzz. Told GQ wants to profile him for their latest issue, the congressman tells his chief of staff to “shut up.” Then when he finally realizes the aide isn’t joking, Gaetz laughs it off as “proof the dad bod is so in right now.”
The truth is that Gaetz is only popular right now because of the Russia investigation. If not the most capable, he is certainly the most vocal defender of the administration currently. It has become his brand. And all that time on TV has meant big money in political donations. While Gaetz says fundraising “isn’t a strength,” his FEC filings show he isn’t hurting for money.
Gladhanding for cash, the average House member has brought in $250,043 in campaign contributions this cycle. Arguing on television, Gaetz has pocketed $449,595. And while his spokeswoman insists they don’t use the television clips to attract donors, FEC records show that more than $173,000 of that campaign haul comes from out of state.
Eventually this will stop. The special counsel's investigation will end. Majorities will change hands. Trump will move out of the White House. Where will that leave Gaetz? His ascent has overshadowed everything else. Without Russia, there isn’t anything else because that’s all anyone knows about him nationally.
Matt Gaetz is a phenomenon, and the subject of a dozen media profiles like this one, simply because he's the guy willing to go on every television show in America and defend the president against every Russia-related charge. Everyone seems more interested in the Russia investigation — except one group that stops by to lobby about Florida infrastructure and the CEO of Scotts Miracle-Gro who chases after Gaetz in the hallway to talk about Republican opposition to legalized weed (“It’s total bullshit,” he says while squeezed next to Gaetz in the elevator. “Like what the fuck?”).
Embracing the Trump moment has required Gaetz to be surprisingly one-dimensional. There is more than Russia though and it’s more interesting. The White House ally wants the president to show his tax returns. The EPA skeptic believes in the science of climate change. The Southern Baptist believes weed should be legal. But no one on TV cares. That wears on Gaetz.
For all his youth and energy, there is a real loneliness, an unforeseen cost that comes with having a moment in the Trump era. “I hate this place,” Gaetz grouses. “I don’t like the weather. I don’t like the traffic. I don’t like the buildings. I want to be home. I miss home.” He isn’t afraid to fight. He also isn’t having any fun. And even he isn’t certain it’s worth it. On some days, Gaetz admits, “you feel like you’re arguing in the ether.”