The Republican efforts to keep their distance from Gaetz also offer him a lifeline within the GOP conference, as he appears safe at the moment from facing retribution within the party unless formal charges are filed.
House GOP leaders say they’re waiting to see what comes of the Justice Department investigation before deciding on any action to take against Gaetz. And rank-and-file Republicans are trying to avoid answering questions or to change the subject when asked about their Florida colleague’s possible legal troubles.
“Right now, it’s hard to speculate on rumors, but if something really formal happens from Justice we would of course react and take action,” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Republican, told reporters Wednesday when asked if he had confidence in Gaetz.
For Republicans, the allegations surrounding Gaetz amount to a major distraction as they try to push the Biden administration over the record number of unaccompanied minors at the border and the President’s plans for a massive infrastructure package. As Gaetz has built up little goodwill with his colleagues, few are eager to rush to his defense even as he denies the allegations against him. CNN spoke with more than a dozen GOP lawmakers, who largely tried to avoid getting into the allegations, while noting that Gaetz has few friends in the conference willing to defend him.
“He’s not a team player,” said one senior House GOP member, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about a colleague. “He’s not someone who contributes to the caucus. Most of us don’t really know him. If he did it and gets indicted, so what? A new Republican will replace him in that district and probably be a better member of Congress.”
In addition to the federal investigation into his conduct, the House Ethics Committee on Friday opened its own examination of whether Gaetz broke the law and House rules.
Gaetz returned to Washington on Tuesday as House gaveled back into session after a two-week recess. Leaving and entering the Capitol for votes, he would not address the allegations Tuesday, instead attacking CNN in response to its questions about the Justice Department investigation.
Gaetz again declined to comment on Wednesday as he shuttled between committee hearings.
Two GOP sources say Gaetz didn’t attend the House Republican Conference’s weekly meeting Wednesday morning – and there was no discussion of his conduct. It’s the latest sign of House Republicans keeping their distance from Gaetz amid the swirling allegations.
During the House’s long vote series Wednesday, Gaetz was quietly chatting on the House floor with a handful of his GOP allies.
After arriving at the vote as it started, Gaetz sat by himself for a bit until a fellow staunch defender of former President Donald Trump sat next to him: Jody Hice of Georgia. A few minutes later, Tennessee GOP Rep. Tim Burchett sat down next to him on the other side. Burchett had greeted Gaetz earlier with a fist bump.
A handful of other conservatives came to greet him, including Scott Perry, a Pennsylvania Republican who had joined Trump and Gaetz in trying to overturn the election result. Perry also gave Gaetz a fist bump. Rep. Mike Kelly, another Pennsylvania Republican who had tried to throw out the electoral results, also greeted Gaetz.
As the House paused to give a moment of silence to the late Rep. Alcee Hastings, Gaetz stood by the Florida delegation. Afterward, he returned to his seat, where California Rep. Doug LaMalfa was sitting next to him and chatting him up.
Gaetz later moved down the down the row and engaged in a back-and-forth with Texas Rep. Pete Sessions. Rep. Claudia Tenney of New York was also seen talking to the two of them. Gaetz had what appeared to be an animated conversation with Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top Judiciary Committee Republican and another Trump ally.
GOP leaders quiet on Gaetz
When the investigation was first revealed two weeks ago, House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy said the allegations were serious and he planned to speak to Gaetz about the matter. The California Republican did not respond to questions from CNN on Tuesday evening about whether he’d spoken to Gaetz, and it’s unclear if that conversation has happened yet.
Scalise told reporters Wednesday he had not yet spoken to Gaetz but also planned to do so.
“Look, I haven’t talked to him to get his explanation of what’s alleged, serious things alleged, obviously we want to get the facts,” he said.
If Gaetz is indicted, he would be removed from his committees, which is what occurred when former GOP Reps. Chris Collins of New York and Duncan Hunter of California were indicted on insider training and campaign finance charges, respectively. Collins and Hunter each won reelection while under indictment before they resigned after pleading guilty to the charges against them. Both were pardoned by Trump.
So far, only one Republican, Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, has called for Gaetz’s resignation. Even prominent Republicans Gaetz has attacked, like House GOP Conference Chair Liz Cheney of Wyoming, have stopped short of calling for his removal from Congress.
But most Republicans would rather just avoid the subject.
“Isn’t he from Florida? I’m from Colorado,” GOP Rep. Lauren Boebert said in response to questions about Gaetz.
“I don’t have anything to say on it, honestly,” Rep. Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio, one of the 10 House Republicans to vote to impeach Trump in January, told CNN.
“if it’s true, the least of his concerns will be Congress,” Gonzalez added, saying the Justice Department investigation should play out.
Rep. Jeff Van Drew, a New Jersey Republican, said of the investigation, “If the allegations are proved to be true, through a court of law or however it’s done, then I do, I do think that’s unacceptable.”
“We do have to go through the investigation. Everybody always deserves their day in court, right?” Van Drew added.
Jordan, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, has been one of the few Republicans who have publicly defended Gaetz. He told CNN on Tuesday that he still stands by the Florida congressman.
“Yep,” Jordan said when asked if he still believes Gaetz. “I’ve never called for people to resign; I’ve never called for people to be kicked off committees.”
Gaetz’s home state senators, Republicans Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, have also avoided commenting on the allegations, saying they will wait to see what comes of the Justice Department investigation.
“I’ve read about it, but I’ve read what people report, I’ve read what he’s denied. How can anybody opine on something I don’t know anything about firsthand?” Rubio said.
Two Republicans who face potentially tough reelection races, Reps. David Valadao of California and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, have taken steps to distance themselves from Gaetz, returning or donating his campaign contributions to them.
“I’ve given the money back,” Fitzpatrick told CNN when asked if Gaetz should resign. “I’m a career FBI agent. Let the process play out.”
This story has been updated with additional developments Wednesday.
CNN’s Daniella Diaz and Ryan Nobles contributed to this report.