- Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz is one of the most media-friendly members of Congress.
- He has agreed to do an “ungodly” number of profile interviews.
- He’s one of President Donald Trump’s top defenders on TV.
- That has made him an outsize presence in Congress, even as a freshman.
The second time we ever spoke, Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida started with an apology.
He was supposed to give me a call the day before. It slipped through the cracks.
No need to apologise. Gaetz was supposed to give me a call while he was in the middle of having another reporter shadow him for a day. That other reporter was my colleague, Joe Perticone, who was getting a sense of what the congressman does each day on Capitol Hill.
It was easy to understand why Gaetz didn’t think he needed to get Business Insider on the phone while he was already talking to Business Insider.
But his apology, and willingness to commit to such an extensive process, is emblematic of one of Congress’ most press-friendly – and hungry – members.
Hardly a day goes by without a Gaetz appearance on Fox News, CNN, or MSNBC. He even made a recent appearance on the far-right conspiracy outlet InfoWars, which drew scrutiny.
“It’s weird to be talking about myself when I just got here,” the freshman lawmaker said, adding that he didn’t think he’d be so prominent, so quickly.
But he has rapidly made a name for himself as one of President Donald Trump’s most vehement congressional allies. A member of the House Judiciary Committee, Gaetz has pushed the envelope on criticising and critiquing the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. He utters the word “Russia” with an inflection to make it sound as if those promoting the probe are deranged.
Gaetz has come under fire on a number of occassions for some of his antics, including inviting far-right provocateur Chuck Johnson as his guest to the State of the Union earlier this year.
Then again, the GOP lawmaker who has become a near-constant presence on TV news actually has an unconventional favourite sparring partner on cable news.
“I love going on Chris Hayes’ show,” he said of the MSNBC host. “It probably is my favourite because of the intensity of the intellectual combat. The other thing is Chris is really good about letting his guests make their argument. I really feel like on that show, I get the chance to make my argument, Chris makes his. He’s not on talking points and neither am I. So we always have a good discussion.”
He then made a request to his communications director, Jillian Lane Wyant, who was listening in on the call.
“Actually, I’d love to get back on that show this week, Jillian,” he said of Hayes’ show, “All In.”
“Noted,” she replied.
How he got here – and how he gets to Trump
Gaetz says he speaks with the president “frequently,” with most of those calls taking place after Trump views one of his TV appearances. He says his past career as a transparency lawyer in Florida has allowed him to take such a prominent role among Trump’s backers in the Russia probe.
Trump, he said, is getting a “raw deal.”
Their conversations hardly focus on the Russia probe, however, Gaetz said. In one instance, Trump called him after one of his initial appearances on cable news to provide a bit of advice.
“Don’t let people talk over you,” Trump said, according to Gaetz.
Trump has given the congressman compliments on a new haircut, backup on an argument, and pointers on his presence.
“He did make mention of the fact that he thought I had found a calling in television, which is high praise from someone who found a calling in television,” Gaetz said of Trump.
After a recent appearance on “Fox & Friends,” Gaetz said, Trump called him to give him a compliment courtesy of first lady Melania Trump.
“One of the last times I spoke with the president, he said Melania had seen me on ‘Fox & Friends,’ and she told him there was this really handsome guy on television talking about him,” he said.
Travelling with Trump
The White House and a spokeswoman for the first lady did not respond to a question on that retelling. But deputy White House press secretary Raj Shah said Trump “appreciates” Gaetz for his “strong support for [Trump’s] agenda.”
Trump and Gaetz first met when the latter was a Florida legislator. As Gaetz recalled, the president was “surprised” to find out that he was running for Congress when they spoke briefly at a Pensacola, Florida, rally during the 2016 campaign.
Gaetz travelled with Trump aboard Air Force One late last year, joined by fellow Republican Rep. Ron DeSantis of Florida. Gaetz said the ride was “just like the movies,” and he confessed to stealing “as many boxes of matches and M&M’s that I could get my hands on.”
Staffers initially told Gaetz and DeSantis that Trump would drop by the cabin for a quick photo with them, then return to his quarters. But Gaetz said that wasn’t how it ended up going.
“As soon as we got airborne, the president came back and spent the whole flight with us,” he said. “Which I found impressive because he talked during a good portion of that conversation and then proceeded to give an hour and 10 minute speech in Pensacola. It was quite the display of stamina.”
‘I’m a conservative. And unlike Joe, I’d like to stay one’
Gaetz represents the same Florida district that two decades ago was helmed by former Republican Rep. Joe Scarborough, now a prominent MSNBC host and personality – and a thorn in Trump’s side.
But the media-friendly Gaetz see himself going down a similar career path.
“No, I’m a conservative,” Gaetz said. “And unlike Joe, I’d like to stay one.”
Gaetz says he hasn’t spoken to Scarborough in a while, although he said he “used to a lot.” Gaetz’s sister, Erin Gaetz, was once a producer for Scarborough’s show. He said his first political donation was $US12 he had in his pocket to Scarborough’s 1994 campaign for Congress, when the 35-year-old congressman was in junior high school.
“What’s kind of funny about that is years later, when I was running for the legislature, Joe returned the favour by making a far more significant donation to my political campaign at which point he was fairly suspended without pay for donating to a candidate,” Gaetz said. “His donation to me wound up being far, far more expensive than mine to him.”
Gaetz, who has faced questions about why he would do an interview with InfoWars, said he tries to “make myself open and available to anyone who is interested in my viewpoint,” saying he doesn’t “expect the media personalities that I engage in discourse with to agree with my views.”
“I certainly don’t always agree with theirs,” he said. “But I am grateful to live in a country where even people with zany ideas get to question government officials. And I think it’s part of our responsibility to be open and accessible and available to the media, which is why I’m doing an ungodly, unnecessary, and inordinate amount of profile interviews.”