Gaetz runs the Trump playbook for scandal: Keep talking, and talking
A person in serious legal jeopardy tends to, per their lawyer’s advice, shut up. Matt Gaetz is handling his current problems a little differently.
Trying to deflect from the threat of a federal criminal investigation for potential trafficking of a minor, Gaetz raced to Twitter, Fox News and other outlets seeking maximum exposure — a flood-the-zone approach reminiscent of Donald Trump’s strategy for talking his way through scandal. And so the GOP congressman from Florida, to the bewilderment of legal experts, made himself unavoidable for comment as the threat to his political career began to metastasize.
“My hope is that the truth will set me free, so I’m trying to get as much truth out as possible,” Gaetz, who represents a Florida panhandle district, said in an interview Wednesday.
It’s an unorthodox strategy that former prosecutors and defense attorneys described as dubious and perhaps even counterproductive, since Gaetz’s interviews this week risk handing fodder to prosecutors as they build a possible trafficking case against him. But Gaetz’s path, they said, is well-worn by politicians who are more concerned about the court of public opinion than the courtroom — none more visibly than the former president whose politics Gaetz has championed.
“It would seem to me that he is digging himself a deeper hole,” David Weinstein, a former assistant U.S. attorney from the Southern District of Florida, said of Gaetz. “His statements yesterday seem to have given credence to the allegations, not defeated them.”
Ever since the first report that he faced a Department of Justice investigation into potential trafficking of an underage girl, Gaetz has channeled the former president as he tries to explain the inquiry away. One of Gaetz’s claims is eerily similar to Trump’s response to the federal probe of his ties to Russia: It’s all part of a DOJ-orchestrated smear, the congressperson says, meant to silence a prominent conservative.
Other Gaetz responses served as further distractions, all without definitive proof or refutation of the trafficking allegation he faces: It’s an elaborate extortion plot, he says, meant to bilk his wealthy family of millions. Oh, and DOJ once attempted to convince a previous romantic interest to pin him with a pay-for-play scandal, he adds.
And by the way, Gaetz says, his dad was planning to wear a wire to catch the current extortionists, one of whom had a bizarre request related to freeing an American hostage in Iran.
Thus went the first 24 hours of Gaetz’s ongoing media blitz, which began minutes after The New York Times broke the first story about the trafficking probe.
Along the way, he admitted that he’s ferried romantic interests across state lines, paying for their travel, but he insisted the young women were all of legal age and that he was simply being chivalrous. Those comments, legal experts said, run counter to the typical defense strategy of denying allegations and lay low.
There’s a world in which this strategy could be effective, said William Jeffress, who represented former Dick Cheney aide Scooter Libby against leak charges — but it can also backfire.
“An aggressive, let-it-all-hang-out strategy can be very effective if one is very sure of the evidence that’s going to come out. If the tapes back up Gaetz on the extortion claim, he could be vindicated, even if testimony by the teenager is incriminating (as I have to believe it is, since DOJ opened an investigation),” Jeffress said. “But if the extortion claim is unconvincing, his credibility is shot and his problem is more serious than it needed to be.”
But one thing the Trump era also proved is that unless you’re Donald Trump and sit in the White House, his strategy doesn’t work as well.
“You never know the strength of the government’s case or all the specifics of the government’s investigation. You could end up unnecessarily admitting to a key fact or making a false exculpatory statement,” said Sol Wisenberg, a white-collar criminal defense lawyer and former deputy in Ken Starr’s independent counsel office. “However, public officials and celebrities often decide to take this risk for the sake of career survival.”
To be sure, Gaetz has fiercely denied the allegations against him. “I’m not seeking a pardon. I’ve not done anything improper or wrong,” Gaetz told Tucker Carlson on Tuesday night. The sophomore GOP lawmaker later told POLITICO that he had not asked his ally Trump for a pardon before the former president left office.
But in casting himself as the victim of a plot against conservatives, Gaetz omitted the fact that the investigation into him began during the tenure of Trump-era Attorney General Bill Barr, who instituted new policies requiring any probe of a candidate for office to be briefed to the attorney general himself. Barr had given the inquiry at least a tacit blessing last summer and, sources said, avoided a private meeting with members of the House Judiciary Committee last year in part to avoid running into Gaetz.
Legal experts said Gaetz’s strategy was befuddling in part because he has now publicly admitted to a central element of the case against him — that he paid for women to cross state lines — even if he says it was in pursuit of legitimate romantic interests. In addition, in his rush to deflect from the news, Gaetz may have damaged any ongoing extortion investigation by exposing it.
Gaetz said the inquiry into the alleged extortion plot was already destroyed when sources told The New York Times about the pending investigation into his conduct.
Trump, of course, turned the be-everywhere post-scandal strategy into a personal brand. As his presidency careened from one crisis to another — including several that posed clear legal risk to Trump himself — the then-president would flail, deflect and even attempt to turn the tables on those pursuing him, accusing them of criminal conduct or worse. Leaning heavily on friendly media outlets, Trump would buy time and air cover until he could weather the chaos of the moment.
For example, Trump blasted Justice Department officials who had sway over the investigation of his campaign’s ties to Russia. He slammed judges who ruled against him in key 2020 election cases. And he famously derided Stormy Daniels as “horseface” as details of a Trump-approved payoff to silence her about their affair began to emerge.
So far, Gaetz continues to enjoy the support of his GOP colleagues. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) told reporters he believes Gaetz’ denial. And Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), a Trump disciple herself who’s no stranger to conspiracy theories, billed the case against Gaetz as part of a long-running propaganda battle against undisclosed enemies.
“Remember all the conspiracy theories and lies like Trump/Russia collusion and propaganda that the media has spread around,” Greene tweeted. “Take it from me rumors and headlines don’t equal truth. I stand with @mattgaetz.”
House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy said he would keep Gaetz on his committees — including the Judiciary Committee, which oversees the FBI and DOJ — unless the allegations prove “true.”
“Those are serious implications,” McCarthy said on Fox News Wednesday. “If it comes to be true, we would remove him. Right now he says it is not true, and we don’t have any information. Let’s get all the information.”
House rules, though, require lawmakers to relinquish their committee posts if they face felony indictments.
The extortion attempt Gaetz alleges does appear to have credence, born out by emails that show Gaetz and his father were working with the FBI to expose the scheme. Nonetheless, that effort has little bearing on whether the trafficking case against Gaetz ultimately bears out.
It’s unclear if Gaetz, an attorney, has hired a lawyer to represent him in the matter. But if he does, it’s easy to predict what one might say.
“Most lawyers would advise a client under investigation to remain silent,” said Barb McQuade, a former U.S. attorney from the Eastern District of Michigan.