Untangling the threads of this scandal takes some work, and Gaetz may have benefited (so far) from the Trumpian excess of it all: When so many bizarre fiascos are happening at once, it’s hard for anyone to grasp any of them. The first set of allegations remains murky. The FBI investigators reportedly hold lots of evidence, including text messages and receipts, but it’s one thing to demonstrate that Gaetz was promiscuous and another to prove that relationships between consenting adults actually broke the law.
(Gaetz denied the allegations in an extremely humanlike statement: “Matt Gaetz has never paid for sex. Matt Gaetz refutes all the disgusting allegations completely. Matt Gaetz has never ever been on any such websites whatsoever. Matt Gaetz cherishes the relationships in his past and looks forward to marrying the love of his life.”)
The alleged extortion plot is even weirder, involving an American who went missing in Iran in 2007, but at this point it appears to be a mostly separate matter.
The third set of claims, however, is both more straightforward and simpler to understand and believe. Per CNN:
Gaetz allegedly showed off to other lawmakers photos and videos of nude women he said he had slept with, the sources told CNN, including while on the House floor. The sources, including two people directly shown the material, said Gaetz displayed the images of women on his phone and talked about having sex with them. One of the videos showed a naked woman with a hula hoop, according to one source. “It was a point of pride,” one of the sources said of Gaetz.
Previously, while serving in the Florida House of Representatives, Gaetz was “part of a group of young male lawmakers who created a ‘game’ to score their female sexual conquests, which granted ‘points’ for various targets such as interns, staffers or other female colleagues in the state House,” according to ABC.
His behavior didn’t improve when he got to Washington in 2017. According to CNN, staff in then–House Speaker Paul Ryan’s office had “a discussion with Gaetz about acting professionally while in Congress.” Gaetz also screamed at then-Representative Cedric Richmond during a June 2020 hearing.
One might hope that “acting professionally” would be the bare minimum for a U.S. representative, especially one who had already served in a state legislature—and whose father was once president of the Florida Senate. But Congress has often been the site of abhorrent behavior, and state legislatures are even worse. Gaetz was a product of his milieu.
Eliot A. Cohen: Honor and dishonor
Congress has none of the measures in place that other workplaces do to deal with bad behavior. There’s no HR department, so when members misbehave, there’s no one to handle it. In theory, the House and Senate ethics committees can investigate and punish members, but in practice they are reluctant to punish their colleagues, and anyway, there are few real punishments short of expulsion. Nor are there bosses. The Ryan staff meeting may seem like a weak response, but the speaker has little real control, either. (Just ask Ryan’s predecessor, John Boehner.)