“I am not some ‘Lord of the Flies’ nihilist,” said the far-right congressman and chief tormentor of Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
WASHINGTON — The night before the start of a humiliating and historic five-day floor fight in Representative Kevin McCarthy’s quest to become speaker, Representative Matt Gaetz, Mr. McCarthy’s chief tormentor, handed him a list of demands from a hard-right faction ensuring that if Mr. McCarthy’s victory did occur, it would only be a pyrrhic one.
It was Monday, Jan. 2, and Mr. McCarthy, soon to move into his new suite of offices, rejected the list outright. “You just want to be speaker,” he told Mr. Gaetz, according to two Republican lawmakers with knowledge of the encounter.
Not so, Mr. Gaetz replied. Then he breezily added, according to the lawmakers: “You can have the portrait.”
It was a reference to the ceremonial paintings spanning two centuries of 54 House speakers on the walls of the Capitol, and the implication was obvious. Mr. McCarthy of California would be the 55th speaker but in title only, and a political hostage to Mr. Gaetz and his fellow rebels on the right.
In the three weeks since Mr. McCarthy ultimately agreed to the price of the portrait, Mr. Gaetz’s role in the melodrama has only entrenched his stature as an attention-craving political arsonist adored by the Trump wing of the G.O.P. — but also, House Republican leaders begrudgingly say, as a lawmaker with new powers.
Mr. Gaetz and his fellow antagonists demanded and got a deal allowing a single lawmaker to force a snap vote to oust the speaker, a commitment for a third of the seats on the powerful Rules Committee and an agreement that any lawmaker could force votes on changes to government spending bills. Taken together, the concessions drastically hamstring Mr. McCarthy’s ability to shape a legislative agenda.
Mr. Gaetz “had to be dealt with, even if he was not ever going to vote for Kevin,” said Representative Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina, one of Mr. McCarthy’s closest allies. “And coming out of the speaker fight, that’s still going to be the case. It may not be the outcome some of us would have preferred. But, for now at least, his stature has been elevated.”
The far right is exultant. “He handed McCarthy a blunt knife and forced him to castrate himself on national television,” Raheem Kassam, a British political activist and the editor of the far-right online journal The National Pulse, said in an interview.
What the prankish and abundantly coifed 40-year-old Mr. Gaetz, a Florida Republican, plans to do with his new clout is a matter of intense speculation in Washington.
Will he continue in his role as an insatiable limelight seeker, one who boasted to colleagues that he began each day instructing aides to call Fox News bookers to determine what message du jour he should be trumpeting? Will he assert himself more on substance and push harder on his far-right agenda? Or is his only goal blowing things up?
For now, Mr. Gaetz seeks to project a victor’s air of comity. “I am not some ‘Lord of the Flies’ nihilist,” he said in a recent interview.
His chief aim, he asserted, is to bring egalitarianism to a legislative process dominated by lobbyists and powerful committee chairmen. As a conservative, he said, he and his allies intend to use this push for greater transparency “to draw the American people into our vision.”
Mr. Gaetz became cagier when the subject turned to how he intended to use his influence on the burning issues of the day, including the debt ceiling and funding for Ukraine. “Well, I mean, we’ll see,” he replied.
In the past, Mr. Gaetz has said the United States should not be providing funds to Ukraine for its military defense against Russia. He has supported the fantastical idea of abolishing the Internal Revenue Service and the federal income tax in favor of a national sales tax. But he has also said that failure to raise the debt ceiling would have negative consequences for the economy, although he has said the same about failures to cut government spending.
His past, recent and otherwise, is not that of a judicious legislator who might be depended on to hold a fractious and wafer-thin Republican majority together.
Two years ago, The New York Times reported that Mr. Gaetz was the subject of a Justice Department investigation over allegations that the congressman had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old and paid for her to travel with him, a violation of federal sex-trafficking laws. Mr. Gaetz denied the allegation and has not been charged.
Last month, Joel Greenberg, a Florida tax collector and Gaetz confidant who has been cooperating with the sex-trafficking investigation, was sentenced to 11 years in prison. It remains unclear what the sentence means for Mr. Gaetz, whose lawyers have tried and failed to learn from the Justice Department whether the case remains active or closed.
Mr. Gaetz has in the meantime propelled forward, as quick to offend as ever. Last summer he told a conference of conservative college students that abortion supporters are less likely to get pregnant because they are unattractive. “Nobody wants to impregnate you if you look like a thumb,” he said. “These people are odious on the inside and out. They’re like 5-2, 350 pounds, and they’re like, ‘Give me my abortions or I’ll get up and march and protest.’”
Yet he can be as quick to surprise as to repel. He has received accolades from animal rights groups for his opposition to federally funded animal testing. Colleagues on the House Armed Services Committee say they regard him as a productive member, and he was recently seen on the House floor having a lengthy discussion with Representative Dan Crenshaw, a Texas Republican and former member of the Navy SEALs, about providing veterans with access to psychoactive drugs.
During votes in the House chamber, he tends to sit by himself, with no visible signs of discontent. Friends of Mr. Gaetz maintain that three terms of political seasoning on Capitol Hill, in addition to his 2021 marriage to Ginger Luckey, a sales analyst he met the previous year at Mar-a-Lago, former President Donald J. Trump’s private club in Palm Beach, Fla., have matured the congressman’s approach to politics and the way he conducts his personal life.
A Bombastic Adolescent
Republican colleagues remember how swiftly Mr. Gaetz sought to ingratiate himself in 2017, his first year in Congress, with Speaker Paul D. Ryan — how, at a dinner Mr. Ryan hosted for the new members, Mr. Gaetz showed exaggerated concern for a minor sports injury Mr. Ryan had suffered on his hand.
Mr. Gaetz also displayed a lawyerly deftness when it came to cajoling the House Steering Committee into awarding him a seat on the Armed Services Committee. But he could also be boorish, as when he bragged about his sexual conquests and even showed photos of them on the House floor, according to one member.
Mr. Gaetz was 34 at the time and not far removed from the chubby and bombastic adolescent raised in the Florida Panhandle town of Niceville (and whose devotion to high school debate was attested to by his now-defunct AOL address, which began with “MLG2debate”).
He was born into affluence: His father, Don Gaetz, co-founded a national chain of hospice programs that he sold in 2004 for approximately $400 million.
As the elder Mr. Gaetz went on to find a second career in Florida politics — from the Okaloosa County superintendent of schools to president of the Florida Senate — his son, a graduate of Florida State University, was entering William and Mary Law School. One classmate, Carolyn Fiddler, recalled Mr. Gaetz as bright and hard-working but also someone who found opportunities to tell everyone of his family’s stature in northwest Florida.
“In property law class, he brought up the fact that his dad owned the house where Jim Carrey lived in ‘The Truman Show,’” Ms. Fiddler said. More than 30 of his fellow class of 2007 law school graduates, including Ms. Fiddler, would later sign a petition denouncing Mr. Gaetz as “the antithesis of a citizen lawyer.”
Mr. Gaetz went on to practice civil litigation in a northwest Florida firm headed by Lawrence A. Keefe, a registered Republican who also donated to Democrats, including Hillary Clinton. (In 2019, Mr. Keefe was appointed U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Florida by Mr. Trump, thanks to heavy lobbying on the part of Representative Gaetz.)
Less than three years into his legal career, Mr. Gaetz followed his father (and his grandfather Jerry Gaetz, a former North Dakota state senator) into state politics when he won a special election for a vacant Florida House seat by 635 votes. After three terms as a standard-issue conservative who received A grades from the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Mr. Gaetz ran for Congress in 2016 in the state’s deeply conservative First District.
Though his first campaign ad positioned him as a “fighter” against “spineless politicians” and “lawless bureaucrats,” Mr. Gaetz received hundreds of thousands in donations from a who’s who of national trade associations and Washington lobbying groups.
Within months as a congressman, Mr. Gaetz found a wider audience by styling himself as a self-described “tireless defender of President Trump” and as a cohort of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus, though he chose not to be an actual member. His résumé as a resident Capitol thespian during the Trump years would include barging into a secure facility where the House Intelligence Committee was hearing testimony during the 2019 impeachment inquiry and strolling onto the House floor wearing a biohazard mask during the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020.
Mr. McCarthy’s Majority Committee PAC had contributed $10,000 to each of Mr. Gaetz’s first two congressional campaigns, but relations between them were never warm. They worsened, Mr. Gaetz’s friends say, when the legally embattled congressman took note of Mr. McCarthy’s tepid defense of him when the sex-trafficking investigation became public.
“Right now, Matt Gaetz says that it’s not true, and we don’t have any information,” Mr. McCarthy said at the time. “So let’s get all the information.”
Animus between them intensified this past April, when audiotapes were released of a conversation four days after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, in which Mr. McCarthy could be heard telling fellow House Republican leaders that Mr. Gaetz’s denunciation of Trump critics like former Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming was “putting people in jeopardy.”
The second-ranking Republican leader, Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, had chimed in that Mr. Gaetz’s rhetoric after the riot was “potentially illegal.” Mr. Gaetz fired back, “This is the behavior of weak men, not leaders.” A day later, Mr. Scalise offered a public apology — with the result, according to a close associate of the two men, that they had made peace. The same did not hold true with Mr. McCarthy, the associate added.
To what extent those personal misgivings factored into the recent speaker showdown carries implications for how Mr. Gaetz will work with Mr. McCarthy going forward. From the outset, Mr. Gaetz framed his opposition as a matter of principle. After Mr. McCarthy initially rejected the list of concessions that Mr. Gaetz had presented, 19 to 20 Freedom Caucus members and allies proceeded to oppose him through three days and 11 rounds of voting. Mr. Gaetz was the most vocal among the dissidents, but also the most tactically agile.
“He was the intellectual and emotional spear to demand more and to withhold longer,” Mr. McHenry said.
At the same time, Mr. Gaetz’s dislike of the aspiring speaker — “I’m never voting for you,” he vowed to Mr. McCarthy a day after voting began — had become a hindrance in negotiations. By midweek, the McCarthy team turned to Representative Chip Roy of Texas as the preferred stakeholder among the Never Kevin group. Mr. Gaetz and his chief ally, Representative Lauren Boebert of Colorado, were excluded from the Wednesday night discussions, which yielded nearly all the concessions originally demanded by the hard-liners.
“Everything got fruitful with the Freedom Caucus when he stopped being included in the meetings,” Mr. McHenry said of Mr. Gaetz.
By Friday afternoon, Mr. Roy and 13 others had thrown their support to Mr. McCarthy. Yet Mr. Gaetz, Ms. Boebert and four other Republicans continued to hold out through two more rounds of voting that carried on past midnight.
On the 15th ballot, Mr. Gaetz and his five allies finally all voted “present,” which enabled Mr. McCarthy to eke out victory. Mr. Gaetz told reporters he dropped his opposition because “I ran out of things to ask for,” but Mr. McHenry said Mr. Gaetz had not asked for or received any “things” that had not already been handed over. What he had done instead, Mr. McHenry said, was demonstrate his singular ability to bring everything to a screeching halt.
“And in that crucial moment, when everything came down to him, he knew the gig was up and saw that the deal on the table was the best he was going to get,” Mr. McHenry said.
If Mr. Gaetz’s principal aim was to cement his reputation as the right’s pre-eminent warrior, he appears to have achieved that objective. “He showed that he was the one with the cojones to take all the blows,” said Mr. Kassam, the National Pulse editor.
A week after the final speaker votes were cast, the Florida congressman became the first sitting member to guest-host the former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon’s “War Room” podcast. It was the ultimate reward in the MAGA universe, a fellow Republican member ruefully observed, for Mr. Gaetz’s obstructionist antics.