“It's far more uncomfortable to offer thoughts on myself and me being in the media more. I like talking about the news more than being the news.”
U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, Fort Walton Beach’s local guy gone to Washington, has been catching heat since he provided a State of the Union address ticket to controversial alt-right blogger Chuck Johnson.
When all heck ensued in the aftermath, Gaetz backed off Johnson quickly, saying they had just recently met and conceding he didn’t do a very good job of vetting him before handing over the ticket.
Johnson, though, told the Daily Beast that he was a big fan of the freshman Republican lawmaker who’d gotten him admitted to President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union speech. He liked Gaetz, Johnson said, for his “(expletive) you mindset.”
It is, at least in part, that mindset — Gaetz calls it an “aggressive attitude” — that has helped propel Florida’s First District conservative into the public eye. He has been appearing nearly nightly on television in recent weeks and his Twitter account @RepMattGaetz has grown to 39,000 followers.
For all the recent attention coming his way, Gaetz said he rejected the premise he’d become a media sensation.
“I’m on the Judiciary Committee,” Gaetz said. “I have oversight obligations and I have an argument to make. When I’m invited to make that argument over various media platforms, I go make it, but I certainly am surprised by the amount of interest in me in this, my first term.”
Star on the rise
Gaetz’s Beltway star was rising before Johnson came along, but the encounter between the two doesn't appear to have made a dent in the congressman’s public profile. A Thursday interview with the Northwest Florida Daily News was Gaetz’s eighth in 48 hours.
.@RepMattGaetz: "We never want to live in a country where cash and political party is convertible into a government-sponsored warrant to spy on your political enemies."pic.twitter.com/pIPIMm8WFz— Fox News (@FoxNews)February 9, 2018
His main ticket to appearances on MSNBC, CNN and, of course, FOX News, has been Gaetz’s outspoken insistence that a memorandum recently released to the public by U.S. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes clearly shows an FBI and Justice Department bias towards President Trump.
Gaetz asserts that the federal agencies supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election and the memo, he claims, provides proof that allegations of collusion between Trump’s presidential campaign and the Russian government are nonsense.
The opinions Gaetz holds on the issue of the memo seem to be shared by relatively few of his congressional brethren, and perhaps that explains to some degree why he has become so popular with the television news shows. But Nunes is obviously as passionate, yet not nearly so sought after for interviews.
Dan McFaul, who served as the chief of staff for Jeff Miller, Gaetz’s predecessor, and spent a short time in that position for Gaetz, said the freshman has got something others in Congress don’t.
“Matt is an incredibly smart guy who is really good at getting his hands around policy and understanding the ins and outs of the politics surrounding something,” McFaul said. “When you combine that with his natural speaking ability and comfort in front of the camera, you’ve got someone who’s kind of made for prime time.”
Not everyone in Northwest Florida likes seeing Gaetz on television every night espousing what they see as either insider baseball or crazy conspiracy theories. Several have voiced that opinion in phone calls or website comments.
“There is a difference between being famous and being notorious. This newfound interview popularity is because he is so out there with conspiracy theories and inviting alt-right characters and Holocaust deniers to the State of the Union address,” said John Whitley, the elected Democratic Party Committeeman for Okaloosa County. “He’s so far out there is why he garners all this attention. Plus, he’s really cocky and doesn’t mind the media attention.”
Whitley said he’s convinced Gaetz is part of the reason that First Congressional District Democrats have seen, for the first time in 20 years, more than a single candidate announce plans to challenge for the U.S. House seat in 2018.
In what is considered by many the most conservative district in the country, there isn’t much optimism that Northwest Florida is going to go blue this year, but Whitley said maybe there’s room for a more moderate candidate than Gaetz.
“I hope more people will consider what an embarrassment he is to our district and look for other qualified candidates to replace him,” Whitley said.
'Moves like that are reckless'
Cris Dosev, who has filed to oppose Gaetz in the Republican primary, questioned Gaetz’s decision to provide Johnson a ticket to the State of the Union address.
“Moves like that are reckless,” he said. “You wouldn’t invite someone to sit in a room with the president, Supreme Court justices and members of Congress you wouldn’t invite to a neighborhood barbecue.”
Dosev, though, sides with Gaetz in calling for an investigation into misdeeds committed within the American intelligence community.
“I think everyone knows things were done that should not have been done and need to be investigated,” Dosev said.
The military veteran, small business owner and father of eight added, though, that he wants to see more than talk out of Washington Republicans.
“Is this just kabookie theatre or is this going to lead to indictments?” he asked. “All these people are telling members of the public that it's a real issue; well then, let’s not play around, let’s seat a grand jury, let’s seek indictments and show people that while the justice system doesn’t work quickly, it does work.”
Gaetz firmly denied that his forays into the interview circuit have taken time away from working for his own district.
“I’ll put my schedule up against any member of Congress. I work very long, hard hours and when I’m in the district, I spend as much time as I can with the people who make our district great,” he said.
'I’m just a guy doing my job'
If anything, Gaetz believes getting his face on television has helped him accomplish things for Northwest Florida.
“I will say the higher profile our office has found ourselves in has helped our district,” he said. “When the administration announced plans for oil drilling off of Florida shores, I was able to have a conversation directly with the president about that issue.”
Gaetz said he has received personal assurance from President Trump that Florida is not going to be included in a five-year plan for offshore drilling.
“While I’m certainly not taking all the credit, because a lot of other people did a lot of other really important work on that issue, it certainly does help when the president knows your name and takes your call. That’s not true of every member of Congress,” he said.
Gaetz also denied he’s an opportunist, a politician with an agenda or a pawn of FOX News, Trump or Nunes.
“I’m just a guy doing my job,” he said. “My only ambition is to be re-elected in the First Congressional District, I have no ambition beyond that.”
Even though he’s much sought after, Gaetz said he isn’t too picky, or political, about which television networks are granted interviews.
“I only say no to the shows that mute my microphone when I’m making my argument,” he said. “I did say no to Russia Today.”
And, Gaetz said, he’s much happier talking about his work than himself.
“Honestly, it’s just been the weirdest thing. I’m always very comfortable offering my thoughts on issues and bills,” he said. “It’s far more uncomfortable to offer thoughts on myself and me being in the media more. I like talking about the news more than being the news.”
.@RepMattGaetz: "The real question is whether or not there's going to be any consequences because the Clintons, for decades, are used to having a different standard of justice applied to them than is applied to the rest of the American people."#Hannitypic.twitter.com/gLYoDW9VEa— Fox News (@FoxNews)February 9, 2018