If there’s one member of Congress who embodies the Trump era — a combative cable-news fixture who seems to thrive in controversy and has been an unflinching critic of the FBI — you’d be hard pressed to find a more perfect character than first-term Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.).
Gaetz has been one of the leading figures in the #ReleaseTheMemo push on the right. He made headlines this week for inviting an alt-right agitator, Chuck Johnson, as his guest to the State of the Union, just days after he appeared on conspiracy-theory driven Infowars’ Alex Jones’s show to advocate, for the umpteenth time, that a secret GOP memo alleging FBI bias in its Russia investigation gets publicized. (Looks like he’ll get his wish soon.)
The Fix called Gaetz, who is at a GOP congressional retreat in West Virginia, to talk about his rising national prominence, the memo on his mind and whether he’d invite such a controversial figure to the State of the Union again. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
THE FIX: You’ve been a leading figure to release the memo. How’d that come about?
GAETZ: I am a member of the Judiciary Committee, and I take those oversight responsibilities very seriously, and after reading the memo, I felt it appropriate to form an alliance to release it in a letter that dozens of my colleagues signed onto.
THE FIX: And what in the memo made you think, ‘Oh, wow, we have to release this now’?
GAETZ: My background is as a transparency lawyer before coming to Congress. I would sue local governments for not releasing public records, and so I’m particularly chafed when the Americans’ government stands in the way of important public discourse and the American people would need to know what their government was doing, and I’ve spent my professional life fighting for transparency. I don’t think I made a whole lot of friends over at the White House when I called on the president to release his tax returns. I’m a transparency hawk through and through.
THE FIX: Critics argue that the very existence of this memo and the effort to release it are part of a concerted effort to undermine the Russia investigation right as it gets close to the president.
GAETZ: There is a concerted effort to undermine, but it’s a concerted effort to undermine the Trump presidency. And while bad actors are happening, a responsible oversight function is to stop them from happening rather than to sort of wade around and become a historian after the fact.
THE FIX: Have you spoken to the president about this?
GAETZ: I spoke to him on the floor of the House after the State of the Union. He turned to me and said: ‘We are absolutely going to release the memo. Can you imagine if we didn’t? People would be so mad.’
THE FIX: Can you see how your association with and presence on leading conspiracy theorists’ media outlets doesn’t help your case that there is no conspiracy to undermine the Russia investigation?
GAETZ: I interact with people on the far ends of the political spectrum regularly on both the right and the left, and conservatives don’t think I should go on Chris Hayes’s show and Chris Cuomo’s show, and I find if you only speak to the audiences you agree with you, you don’t really advance your cause. And so I speak to audiences on the right I don’t always agree with. I speak to audiences on the left I don’t necessarily always agree with. Does that give people the ability to assail my viewpoint? I guess. That’s for the public to decide.
THE FIX: You’ve told reporters that you didn’t even know who Johnson was when you invited him to the State of the Union as your guest?
GAETZ: Not at all. I didn’t even have an appointment with him. He just came into the office because another member of Congress said, ‘This guy, he really wants to meet you,’ so he came over. He really has provocative points on cryptocurrency and animal welfare that align with my views, and we were talking about those matters I agree upon, and had an extra ticket and he said he would love to have it. I’ve since learned a lot about him.
THE FIX: Do you regret bringing him?
GAETZ: I regret that my dad had bronchitis. I wish my dad could have come. I probably won’t invite Chuck again. I will probably invite my dad.
THE FIX: What’s something the national media gets wrong about you or has a misconception you’d like to clear up?
GAETZ: My ideology, it’s not a far right one. A critical part of my ideology is my belief in science. It’s why I’m a cannabis-reform advocate. It’s why I’m a member of the Climate Solutions Caucus. I lean hard into the facts and the science regardless of the politics.
THE FIX: Scientists argue that the Trump administration is engaging in a war on science.
GAETZ: I don’t agree with all of the president’s Cabinet on all of the views they hold. In the science space, climate change is real. I’m not going to spend my time in Congress arguing with a thermometer.
I think that Jeff Sessions’s views on cannabis are reflective of an antiquated era. I’ve been very critical of them. So I’m no universal cheerleader for every decision of the Trump administration.
THE FIX: What do you make of your rising prominence as a controversial figure?
GAETZ: I haven’t really given it much thought, to be honest. Whether I’m controversial or not controversial doesn’t drive my service. I try to make my argument if I’ve got an argument to make. Typically, my viewpoint is reflective of the vast majority of my constituents. So I come here to make my argument and I’ll make it any form that’s available, whether it’s on cable news or talking to you or doing a webcast with a guy who’s got some pretty zany views. I’ll talk with anyone who will listen.
THE FIX: Final thing. When people Google you, they see your mug shot from a 2008 DUI arrest, one that didn’t result in charges but an investigation in the Tampa Bay Times determined went away under mysterious circumstances.
GAETZ: It’s ridiculous. It’s been heavily litigated in every election I’ve had. I was not convicted because at a hearing it was determined there was no probable cause for him to pull me over. Since then, I’ve gotten way too many speeding tickets, and I am an imperfect driver. I sure hope I’m a better congressman than I am a driver.