The mere possibility of scandal used to be reason enough to end political careers with surprising speed. That no longer happens.
Suddenly involved in a sex trafficking investigation, Rep. Matt Gaetz denies any wrongdoing, rules out resigning and presents himself as the victim of a smear campaign.
The legislator joins a growing list of politicians from both parties – almost exclusively men – who are reformulating the response to a controversy. Instead of humbly apologizing, they behave as if nothing was wrong, insist that they did not commit irregularities, and bet that everything will be forgotten in the next election.
“Clearly this is a new strategy that people are using to respond to a crisis,” said Brent Colburn, a Democratic strategist who worked for the Barack Obama administration. “It’s a new chapter in the manual.”
Gaetz’s political future remains in doubt and will depend on the direction the investigation takes. But after being for several years one of the main defenders of Donald Trump, now he follows to the letter the formula that the former president used so many times.
When a video circulated late in the 2016 presidential campaign in which he bragged about touching the intimate areas of several women, Trump said he apologized “if anyone was offended” and played down the episode, saying they were “Wardrobe nonsense”. He ignored requests from his own party to withdraw his candidacy and a few weeks later he won the elections.
As president, Trump responded to scandal after scandal by looking forward, preventing people from focusing on a single issue for too long, even if it meant generating another controversy.
The pressure on Gaetz mounts. In a hearing on Thursday, it was revealed that one of his political allies, Joel Greenberg, is negotiating a deal with investigators, which might not be good for him.
For now, though, Gaetz repeats Trump’s script and seeks the support of his most ardent supporters. On Friday he was speaking at an event at a Trump golf club in Miami.
“Trump sees in Matt Gaetz what he would want to see in the whole world,” said Republican strategist Rick Wilson, adding that, in many ways, the legislator is “the son he never had.”
Gaetz is not the only one who refuses to give the arm to twist in the middle of a political storm.
New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo refuses to resign despite several allegations of sexual abuse that prompted some of his closest allies to call for his resignation.
Virginia’s Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam also remained in office in 2019, after a school yearbook was circulated in which he was painted black, along with someone in the robes of the Ku Klux Klan. Northam admitted that the person painted black was him and apologized, although days later he denied that it was him.
The storm eased, Northam remained in office and was praised for his handling of the coronavirus crisis.
Men seem more likely than women to use these tactics. Representative Katie Hill resigned in 2019 after admitting to an inappropriate relationship with two members of her team.
“The men of both parties do these things. They are doubling down, denying and waiting for the storm to subside, ”said Democratic strategist Nicole Brener-Schmitz. “Women are criticized if they resort to these resources and also if they do not.”
Meredith Conroy, a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino and the author of several books, including “Masculinity, Media, and the American Presidency,” said the scandals they harm women more than men.
“Women in general, and especially in politics, are considered more honest and trustworthy,” Conroy said. “When they don’t fit into that image, they are the target of criticism.”
One exception is Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, who defends her positions through thick and thin. She was stripped of her seat on the lower house appropriations committee and forced to apologize for supporting QAnon and other conspiracy theories and for making racist comments.
But he refused to resign, raised more money than before, and is increasingly popular in some conservative circles.
Gaetz remains popular in his Florida district as well, although there are some who are beginning to question him within the Republican party itself.
Party affiliate Steve Jacobson says Gaetz “likes to make waves, but not really that long. He is interested in being in the newspapers more than helping people ”.
“They say he showed photos of sexual content on his phone to another legislator … If a boy does that at school, he gets expelled. And the guy does it in the same Congress. Is that okay? ”Jacobson asked.
Gaetz, on the other hand, asked the White House to issue a pardon in the final days of Trump’s presidency, according to a person familiar with the administration.
The insider said it was a preventive measure sought by him and other Republican lawmakers. Gaetz made the request as the Justice Department was investigating his conduct and trying to determine whether he had violated sex trafficking laws. It is unclear whether Gaetz touched on that topic when making his request.
Trump claims that Gaetz never apologized to him.
It is noteworthy that the leadership of the Republican party did not come out in defense of Gaetz and that there is already a Republican representative, Adam Kinzinger, who asked for his resignation.