House Republicans have remained conspicuously quiet since the Justice Department’s investigation into Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida first became public two weeks ago, but they’re likely to face new questions about their colleague’s future as the chamber returns to Washington on Tuesday.
One House Republican has called for Gaetz to resign from Congress, while just a couple of Gaetz’s GOP colleagues have come to his defense in the face of a federal investigation into whether he broke federal sex-trafficking and prostitution laws and had sex with a 17-year-old girl.
When it was first revealed that Gaetz was under investigation by the FBI, the House was in a two-week recess, allowing Republican leaders to largely ignore the scandal and its political implications. Now the House is returning Tuesday to major debates on President Joe Biden’s massive infrastructure plan and the record number of unaccompanied minors on the southern border, but questions about Gaetz threaten to distract from Republicans’ messaging.
Two weeks ago, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, said the allegations being investigated were serious, adding that he planned to speak with Gaetz about them. It’s not yet clear if that conversation has happened, and McCarthy hasn’t said anything since.
Gaetz has denied the allegations, and he was defiant in a speech Friday at former President Donald Trump’s National Doral golf resort in Miami, saying the allegations were “smears” spread by his political enemies and vowing that he wasn’t going anywhere.
But even before the allegations surfaced, Gaetz didn’t have many friends in the House Republican Conference. He quickly rose to prominence through conservative cable television by tying his fortunes to former President Donald Trump and openly challenging Republican establishment leaders like House GOP Conference Chair Liz Cheney of Wyoming.
Gaetz is also now facing a House Ethics Committee investigation involving both the criminal allegations and potential violations of House rules, including a CNN report that he allegedly showed nude photos of women he said he had slept with to his colleagues while on the House floor.
With his political future under threat, Gaetz has received only tepid support from Trump. The former President issued a statement saying Gaetz had not asked him for a pardon, adding, “It must also be remembered that he has totally denied the accusations against him.”
CNN reported Sunday that Gaetz was recently denied a meeting with Trump at Mar-a-Lago. A spokesman for Gaetz and a Trump spokesman denied Gaetz had requested a meeting.
Trump has not forcefully defended Gaetz like he did in 2018 when another close House GOP ally, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, faced accusations that he had known about the sexual abuse of wrestlers at Ohio State University. “I don’t believe them at all. I believe him,” Trump said of Jordan’s accusers on Air Force One.
Jordan was one of the few House Republicans who have publicly defended Gaetz since the allegations became public.
Some of Trump’s allies recognize Gaetz’s legal peril is real. “I think everyone’s trying to keep it off their plate right now,” said a former Trump campaign official. “I think everyone thinks that this is going the wrong direction for him.”
Still, it’s not yet clear whether any House Republicans will mount an effort to push Gaetz out of Congress or urge him to resign. One House GOP source said Gaetz was likely to only lose his committee posts if he were indicted.
Cheney, who won a vote to keep her position as the No. 3 House Republican after Gaetz and others pushed for her ouster following her vote to impeach Trump, said Sunday that the allegations against Gaetz were “sickening” but stopped short of calling for his resignation.
“As the speaker noted, there is an ethics investigation underway, there are criminal investigations underway, and I’m not going to comment further on that publicly right now,” Cheney said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
Sen. Rick Scott stopped short of calling for any punishment for his fellow Florida Republican, saying there needs to be an investigation first.
Asked if Gaetz should resign, Scott told CNN: “The allegation is pretty serious. So I think there should be a thorough investigation.”
Asked if he were concerned about what he’s reading about Gaetz’s alleged conduct, Scott said: “On stuff like that, I think there ought to be a real thorough investigation.”
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican who has also been targeted by Trump’s allies for his impeachment vote, was the first Republican to call for Gaetz’s resignation last week.
While House Democrats had moved to strip controversial GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia of her committee posts, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Sunday that it was up to McCarthy to decide how to handle the allegations involving Gaetz.
“We, in the Congress, in the House, have Rule 23, which says in the conduct of our duties we are not to bring dishonor to the House of Representatives. I think there has been a clear violation of that, but it is up to the Ethics Committee to investigate that and it is up to the Republican leader, Mr. McCarthy, to act upon that behavior,” the California Democrat said on “Face the Nation.”
One question looming is whether Gaetz returns to Washington on Tuesday for House votes. He submitted a letter to the House clerk last month allowing him to vote by proxy – which is allowed under House rules due to the pandemic – but it’s not clear if he will use it. Rep. Michael Waltz, the Florida Republican designated as his proxy, had not been asked to cast votes on Gaetz’s behalf as of Sunday evening, according to Waltz’s office.
Gaetz’s office did not respond to a request for comment on whether he will be in Washington this week.
CNN’s Manu Raju and Alex Rogers contributed to this report.