WASHINGTON — Three weeks ago, Matt Gaetz’s purpose in Congress was clear. “This place sucks,” he told BuzzFeed News, but he wasn’t going anywhere. President Donald Trump, to whom the Florida Republican has hitched his political career, was constantly under attack. There was the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller, and a Democratic majority in the House issuing subpoenas left and right, and steady chatter from some Democrats about impeachment proceedings.
“The president is deserving of a zealous and capable defense against illegitimate charges from biased people. And I feel very compelled to be here to provide it,” Gaetz told BuzzFeed News in an interview in his Capitol Hill office. Gaetz, from his perch on the House Judiciary Committee, was ready to go to war against impeachment proceedings against Trump, which he was convinced would come.
Trump, Gaetz said in the interview, was his political raison d’être.
“I don’t know. I don’t know how I’d fit into this place in the absence of the president,” he said when asked if he’d stick around if Trump were to lose reelection or be term-limited out of office after eight years.
But the conclusion of Mueller’s investigation, and a four-page summary from the attorney general that said the investigation found no evidence that the president colluded with Russia in 2016, has at least for now changed the political landscape. The “farce intended to distract and undermine the president” on which Gaetz has focused much of his anger over the past two years is sidelined, as Democrats try to get Mueller’s full findings made public and largely hold back any talk of impeachment until they see the complete report.
“It feels good to be right,” Gaetz said in a follow-up call this week.
It has also, maybe, changed things for Gaetz. Impeachment now seems less likely. The fights around the intelligence that set off Mueller’s report are now academic. So what does someone who has made a name as the president’s loudest defender do now that the biggest perceived threat to his presidency seems to have gone away?
Keep defending, Gaetz said.
Democrats are still doing investigations, even if impeachment now seems like a heavier lift. “They come for him every day,” Gaetz said this week. “They’ll never stop. He is such a disruptive force in this town. You’ve got all the Democrats, and even some of the Republicans, hoping for him to slip or falter.” He wants the Mueller report to be made public in full, along with the underlying evidence that started the probe, which he thinks will illustrate that the whole thing was politically motivated.
Gaetz on Monday also wanted to revisit some of his earlier, pre-Mueller conclusion comments. That day in his office, he said, “I was in a very bad mood.”
“I kept like, responding with these trite or impish news of the day type of responses,” he recalled, adding, “A reasonable person in your shoes might have walked out of that discussion thinking I’m just here to flick at people.”
“Defending the president is not an end unto itself,” he said, but rather something that he’s doing “in service to my desire to make this town a better place.”
“I love the country, I believe that the Congress let the country down, and I’m here to change it,” a goal he said he believed was in alignment with Trump’s efforts.
Before the attorney general’s summary of Mueller’s findings were out, Gaetz was sure “2020 is going to be entirely contingent on whether or not the public views the impeachment as a political legitimate or illegitimate exercise.”
Now Gaetz, who expects to barnstorm his home state of Florida on behalf of the president, thinks the race could take on a new focus. “The entire Russia narrative has occupied a tremendous amount of bandwidth in that national discussion,” he said. “That has hurt the president because it has crowded out stories of how well the country’s doing.” (As for the Democrats, he said, “I hope they don’t nominate Beto.”)
In the meantime, he said, “Maybe if we’re investigating a little less, we can legislate a little more. I’d love that.”
Legislating has not been Gaetz’s priority since he arrived in Congress in 2017. He freely admits to accomplishing much of the work for his district outside the halls of Congress.
“When I want to get things done for my constituents, I don’t call Speaker Pelosi, and I didn’t call Speaker Ryan. I call the White House, and they can make things happen to help people across the country, and that benefits the people I serve,” he said during the interview in his office.
That stance meant the transition from Republicans being in the majority to the minority at the start of the year was not much of a transition at all.
“I wake up every day and I do what I can to expose what I believe is an intractable bias among the people who are investigating the president,” he said during the interview in his office. “I did that when I was in the majority, and the people who ran the place you know, stood in the way at times. And I do it in the minority, and the people who run the place stand in the way at times. I guess the big difference is, being in the minority, the people who run the place who don’t like me are now members of the other party.”
He sees all those efforts as a team sport, “it’s just not all Republicans are on the same team.”
The legislative priorities he’s excited about aren’t necessarily the ones his party’s leadership would list. He cosponsored a bill authored by Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a Democratic presidential hopeful, to decriminalize marijuana, and names cannabis reform as a top priority. And in recent weeks, Gaetz has done a handful of interviews about climate change legislation — something he thinks more Republicans should be worrying about. He’s not a fan of the Green New Deal, which he describes as “unilaterally disarming the American economy,” but he hopes that it’s a place where some bipartisan legislation could get passed.
He is fond of telling a story about a passing conversation he had with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, “where I looked at her and said, ‘you know, I’m starting to think the far right and the far left might have more in common with each other than either of us have with the middle.’ And very matter of factly she just looked and me and said, ‘oh, totally,’ I mean, like that wasn’t even a question.” He sees potential allies in the new Democratic freshmen in the House, even if he doesn’t agree with them on much.
“I kinda dig their style,” he said, as well as their aspirations to blow things up in Congress. Because even when he’s not in a bad mood, he said, “this place still sucks.”