MIAMI (AP) — Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, who is embroiled in a federal sex trafficking investigation, has denied wrongdoing and refused to resign — or even lay low — amid mounting political pressure.
During a high-profile appearance Friday night at former President Donald Trump’s Doral golf club in Miami, he vowed, “I have not yet begun to fight.”
Gaetz is emulating the former president’s approach and appealing to his most loyal supporters. The sponsor of Friday evening’s event also organized the Jan. 6 “March for Trump” rally in Washington that ended with a mob storming the U.S. Capitol in a deadly insurrection.
Gaetz repeated baseless claims that the election was stolen from Trump and suggested for the cheering crowd that he was a “wanted man by the deep state.”
“When you see the anonymous sources and insiders forecasting my demise, know this: They aren’t really coming for me. They’re coming for you,” he said. “I’m just in the way.”
Gaetz is looking to solidify his place as one of the brightest stars of the Republican Party’s most conservative wing, and he is embodying a new game plan when it comes to political scandal: just keep barreling ahead. It’s become an increasingly common strategy for politicians from both parties.
Republican strategist Rick Wilson said, “Trump sees in Matt Gaetz what he wanted in everyone else,” adding that, in many ways, the congressman is “the son he never had.”
But Gaetz isn’t alone in refusing to bend in the face of a political storm.
Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has steadfastly refused to resign despite several sexual misconduct allegations that spurred calls from some of the most powerful members of his own party for him to step aside.
Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam balked at resigning in 2019, when a picture surfaced from a 1984 medical school yearbook showing one man in blackface and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe. Northam apologized while acknowledging he was the one in the robe. But days later, he denied it was he.
The political fallout eventually calmed and staying put allowed Northam to win praise for handling Virginia’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Gaetz, meanwhile, remains largely popular in his heavily pro-Trump, Panhandle district.
“I love Matt Gaetz. His family is wonderful people. He’s a wonderful person. I respect him,” said Gayle Wilson, who moved from Tennessee three years ago to live with her daughter in a neighborhood not far from a home owned by the congressman’s parents in Niceville, Florida. “All this false, negative stuff on him is a flat-out lie.”
But Steve Jacobson, a registered Republican who lives in the nearby town of Crestview, had a much different opinion, saying that Gaetz “makes a big scene but doesn’t do a lot. It’s all about him to gain press for himself and not helping people around here.”
“If he’s showing sexual pictures on his phone as a congressman — a kid does that in high school, and they get expelled — and a guy does that on the floor of Congress, and that’s all right?“ Jacobson said.
Friday’s crowd was far more receptive.
“I am really grateful for someone like him in Congress,” said Jeanne Pankow, who traveled from Nashville for the event at Doral. “They are blackmailing him. It reeks with insincerity. It reeks with a lack of truth and a lack of honor,” she said of other officials and politicians.