Lurid personal scandals involving congressional members of both parties come and go. Arriving at the moment it does, however, the storm surrounding Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) has special reach and implications for future leadership of the national GOP.
This isn't a local issue confined in any way to the Sunshine State.
The MAGA-loyal Gaetz, son of a longtime Republican player, aided recent efforts to use procedural trickery to void then-President Donald Trump’s election defeat. Gaetz voted in January against accepting the Electoral College results, a gesture seen in retrospect as an oath of loyalty in Trump's influential party faction, headquartered at Mar-a-Lago.
If proved, the allegation under FBI review that Gaetz was involved in sex trafficking of a minor would make a mockery of the QAnon fiction that elite foes of the right wing run pedophilia rackets. So far, "Q" is sticking with Gaetz.
Trump’s convicted-but-pardoned Republican operative Roger Stone, another Floridian, has stepped forward, offering one of his trademark contrivances — that Gaetz has been targeted for his conservatism, however one may define it.
During Trump's term, federal officials began exploring whether Gaetz had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl and paid for her travel with him. After news of the probe surfaced this week, Stone held forth. "The ‘leaked’ smear on Congressman Matt Gaetz is an extortion play and an effort to destroy the up and coming conservative leader who has the balls to call the left out," Stone wrote on Parler, a social media site popular with Trump supporters.
Consider the source. It's the same Stone who said on a radio show in December: "I just learned of absolute incontrovertible evidence of North Korean boats delivering ballots through a harbor in Maine, the state of Maine." Nothing has been heard of that theory since.
Pages from Trump's own tumultuous-defense playbook are evident here, as Gaetz tries to get backers to focus instead on a different but theoretically related tale of intrigue.
It goes like this: Two men who knew about the investigation wrote to his father, Don Gaetz, the well-heeled businessman and former Florida Senate president, offering an opportunity to help his son. The elder Gaetz supposedly could do so by giving a huge sum of money to fund their effort to locate Robert Levinson, an American taken hostage in Iran and whose family has said they were told he's dead.
If it succeeded, Matt Gaetz could bask in the credit and save his career. The extortion alleged in that story is under federal investigation.
None of this sideshow addresses the merits of the original underage-sex-trafficking investigation of Matt Gaetz. According to published reports, his troubles began with the investigation of an associate, Joel Greenberg, now awaiting trial on charges including sex trafficking of a minor, stalking and identify fraud. Greenberg also faces new counts related to his three years as the elected tax collector of Florida's Seminole County.
As House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy looks to recoup a majority next year, Gaetz presents an awkward problem. Reports that Gaetz recently sought out post-congressional refuge at a right-wing TV outlet only adds to the image of an up-and-coming insider among national Republicans.
Not that McCarthy faces any danger of seeing Gaetz's deep-red seat, in the western portion of the Florida Panhandle, turn Democratic. At a certain point, however, more and more Republicans around the nation are likely to ask who runs their party — and why so many bizarre scandals stain its national narrative. The Gaetz case could signal just such a moment.