Matt Gaetz’s Chaos Agenda | The New Yorker

They exchanged photos, and Priscilla proclaimed Greenberg “very handsome.” When she asked for a picture of his friend, a photo of Matt Gaetz appeared onscreen.

Priscilla: Oooh my friend thinks he’s really cute!

Greenberg: Well he’s down here only for the day, we work hard and play hard. Have you ever tried molly

Greenberg told investigators that he sometimes got Molly—the party drug also known as Ecstasy—and that he and Gaetz had sex with the women. “There were multiple sex parties,” the lawyer with knowledge of the case told me. Sometimes, the women were required to put their phones in a box.

The liaisons on Seeking, whatever their legality, appeared to have been consensual. But then investigators uncovered evidence that at least one of Greenberg’s recruits was not an adult. According to Greenberg, he, Gaetz, and others had sex with a seventeen-year-old who had posted on the site, claiming to be older. “On more than one occasion this underage individual was involved in sexual activity with several of the other females at the house, myself and also the congressman from Florida’s panhandle,” Greenberg wrote. “I also made payments to several of the girls on behalf of the congressman.”

Gaetz has repeatedly denied that he had sex with an underage girl. “I have maintained my innocence,” he told Tucker Carlson on Fox News, in 2022. “This was an operation to destroy me.” Still, the revelations prompted the House Ethics Committee to launch its investigation. In 2020, the F.B.I. seized Gaetz’s phone. The evidence was highly suggestive. Venmo records showed that, in a single day, Gaetz had sent Greenberg nine hundred dollars’ worth of payments, including one flagged with what was apparently a short version of the underage girl’s name. The next morning, Greenberg paid out nine hundred dollars to the girl and two other women. Greenberg’s attorney, Fritz Scheller, said in an interview on MSNBC, “There’s a lot more witnesses than just the minor and Mr. Greenberg.”

Greenberg recalled that he discovered the girl was a minor from an anonymous text message, and that he and Gaetz were stunned by the news. “She had a fake ID, her surrounding friends were all in college and there was absolutely no way any reasonable person could tell that she was under the age of 18,” he wrote, adding, “None of us would have ever engaged in any of type of relationship with this individual had we known the truth.” After that, Greenberg said, there was no further contact with the girl “until she had turned 18.” (Her lawyer declined to comment.)

Under federal law, though, the prohibition on adults having sex with minors entails what is known as “strict liability.” All that matters is the act; it doesn’t matter if the perpetrator believed that the victim was an adult. Even as Gaetz proclaimed his innocence, he hired the attorneys Michael Mukasey (the former Attorney General) and Marc Fernich (who previously defended John A. Gotti).

While Gaetz braced for the possibility of an indictment, Greenberg had already pleaded guilty. In late 2020, when Trump was still in office, Greenberg reached out to his friend Roger Stone and asked if he could beseech the President for a pardon on his behalf. Trump had already commuted Stone’s sentence for obstructing a federal investigation. Stone thought that he could, at a price. “Your thing is being looked at,” he texted Greenberg, who was ecstatic. “Thank you so much Roger,” he replied. “I pray that the Lord will help.” “Today is the day,” Stone later wrote. “I hope you are prepared to wire me $250,000 because I am feeling confident.” (Stone denies offering a pardon, saying that the correspondence was “incomplete and corrupted.”) Stone never came through, though; he told Greenberg that Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, had shot down his request. In 2022, Greenberg was sentenced to eleven years in federal prison.

As it turned out, Gaetz did not require a pardon of his own. In February, 2023, lawyers at the Justice Department informed him that they were closing their investigation. They didn’t give a reason, but observers speculated that they’d concluded their main witness—Greenberg, a convicted felon eager to secure a lighter sentence—might not prove credible in a trial. The underage girl, now over eighteen, had become an adult-film star, with her own channel on Pornhub and a profile on OnlyFans.

Observers of Florida politics say that Gaetz’s constituents don’t particularly care about the inquiry. “Matt could be serving hard time for sex trafficking and he’d still get reëlected,” Stipanovich, the former chief of staff, told me. But, he added, that sense of assurance had inspired hubris; Gaetz had got out of so many jams since his youth in the Panhandle that he was certain he could get off again. “If you’re going to be a spoiled rich kid, it’s better to be dumb,” he said. “Matt’s trouble is, he’s a spoiled rich kid and he’s smart—he’s clever. And that’s gotten him into all kinds of trouble.”

One Saturday morning last fall, at Callie Opie’s Orchard restaurant in Mineral, Virginia, I contributed fifty dollars to Representative Bob Good’s campaign so that I could watch Gaetz speak at a fund-raiser on his behalf. Dressed in a black jacket and black pants, Gaetz looked more like a night-club singer than an elected official, and he held a roomful of voters rapt. He spoke of an America in decline, of runaway deficits that were sucking the life out of the country, of the dream of homeownership slipping away. Gaetz has the political gift of sounding completely sincere; he told the crowd that he and his small band of rebels were among the only members of Congress who were determined to cut spending and shrink the deficit. “We believe that this system needs change—that sometimes you’ve got to send a shock to the system,” Gaetz said to the audience, arrayed before him in plastic chairs. “We can solve every other problem, but if our country continues to spend money like this, we will be the generation that presides over a managed American decline.”

Gaetz is part of a chorus of Republican politicians, including J. D. Vance and Kari Lake, giving speeches on Trump’s behalf. They all say more or less the same thing: the country’s problems can be blamed on Washington and on the Democrats, with their out-of-control spending. (Never mind that Trump presided over an eight-trillion-dollar increase in the national debt, compared with about six trillion for Biden.)

Gaetz criticizes the influence of lobbyists, and in 2020 he announced that he would stop taking PAC money. (“I confessed my sins,” he told me.) He depends on his road show for funding; eighty per cent of it comes from out of state, largely in small donations. Along with paying Gaetz’s travel costs, his campaign spent millions of dollars last year buying lists of potential out-of-state donors.

In addition to his campaign events, Gaetz posts photos and videos on X (formerly Twitter) nearly every day, and appears in such right-wing outlets as Steve Bannon’s “War Room,” Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News, and Newsmax. Given their frequency, these videos and guest spots sometimes seem more important than the votes he casts. As he wrote in his memoir, “Stagecraft is statecraft.”

Gaetz’s speech on January 6th was a memorable demonstration of his stagecraft, but it wasn’t the first time he had accused Democrats of stealing an election. In November, 2018, two statewide races in Florida—for governor and for U.S. senator—were remarkably close, with margins of less than half of one per cent. The nominees—Ron DeSantis and Andrew Gillum in the governor’s race, and Rick Scott and Bill Nelson for the Senate—didn’t know who had won. Under Florida rules, both races were subject to mandatory recounts.

During the proceedings, Gaetz met Jacob Engels, the columnist and confidant of Roger Stone, outside an office in Fort Lauderdale where poll workers were counting ballots. Standing on the back of a truck and speaking into a bullhorn, Gaetz led demonstrators in denouncing the recount. “Stop the steal!” they chanted. He likened what was happening in Fort Lauderdale to the Presidential election of 2000, when George W. Bush and Al Gore tangled for weeks after the voting was over. “For all I know, they’re still counting ballots for Al Gore back there!” Gaetz told the crowd.

There was no evidence of fraud, but it didn’t matter. Demonstrators blocked the doors to the elections office, and security had to be put in place for officials. “It was pretty rough, trying to get inside,” the then-lawyer for the Florida Democratic Party told me. Both Republicans ultimately won their races, and the demonstration in Fort Lauderdale was mostly forgotten. But, three years later, after the January 6th riot, federal prosecutors were intrigued by the similarities of the two Stop the Steal protests. Stone said that he attended neither, but some of his associates, including several leaders of the Proud Boys, went to both. Years before, Stone had led the so-called Brooks Brothers riot in Miami, when, during the tense recount for Bush and Gore, Republican protesters tried to rush the doors of the Miami-Dade supervisor of elections office. It was the first in a series of national and statewide elections in which Republicans protested results, accusing Democrats of fraud.

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