WASHINGTON — Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., was one of President Donald Trump’s most vocal allies during his term, publicly pledging loyalty and even signing a letter nominating the president for the Nobel Peace Prize.
In the final weeks of Trump’s term, Gaetz sought something in return. He privately asked the White House for blanket preemptive pardons for himself and unidentified congressional allies for any crimes they may have committed, according to two people told of the discussions.
Around that time, Gaetz was also publicly calling for broad pardons from Trump to thwart what he termed the “bloodlust” of their political opponents. But Justice Department investigators had begun questioning Gaetz’s associates about his conduct, including whether he had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old that violated sex trafficking laws, in an inquiry that grew out of the case of an indicted associate in Florida.
It was unclear whether Gaetz or the White House knew at the time about the inquiry, or who else he sought pardons for. Gaetz did not tell White House aides that he was under investigation for potential sex trafficking violations when he made the request. But top White House lawyers and officials viewed the request for a preemptive pardon as a nonstarter that would set a bad precedent, the people said.
Aides told Trump of the request, though it is unclear whether Gaetz discussed the matter directly with the president. Trump ultimately pardoned dozens of allies and others in the final months of his presidency, highlighting his willingness to wield his power to help close supporters and lash out against the criminal justice system.
In recent days, some Trump associates have speculated that Gaetz’s request for a group pardon was an attempt to camouflage his own potential criminal exposure.
Either way, Gaetz’s appeal to the Trump White House shows how the third-term congressman sought to leverage an unlikely presidential relationship he had spent years cultivating.
Few Republicans in Congress became more closely associated with Trump during his presidency than Gaetz. Though he had initially supported his fellow Floridian Jeb Bush in the 2016 Republican primary race, Gaetz latched his political fortunes to Trump during the campaign and found stardom in the Republican Party, becoming one of Trump’s greatest defenders.
This account of Gaetz’s dealings with the Trump White House is based on interviews with four people briefed on the exchanges about his pardon request and other Trump confidants. A spokesperson for Trump declined to comment.
Gaetz has denied having sex with a 17-year-old or paying for sex. A spokesperson denied that he privately requested a pardon in connection with the continuing Justice Department inquiry.
“Entry-level political operatives have conflated a pardon call from Rep. Gaetz — where he called for President Trump to pardon ‘everyone from himself, to his administration, to Joe Exotic’ — with these false and increasingly bizarre, partisan allegations against him,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “Those comments have been on the record for some time, and President Trump even retweeted the congressman, who tweeted them out himself.”
Although Gaetz had little formal power in the House, where he remains a backbencher, he offered Trump what he craved and what Republican congressional leaders would not always offer: fierce loyalty and a taste for bare-knuckle political combat.
In his memoir published last fall, “Firebrand: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the MAGA Revolution,” Gaetz recalled his first one-on-one phone call with the president in late 2017. Trump had seen Gaetz on Fox News attacking Robert Mueller, the special counsel, and thought he had heard an ally.
“I need warriors, you know what I mean?” the president told him.
Gaetz knew precisely. Though he came from the more conservative Florida Panhandle, the young congressman shared Trump’s taste for boasts, particularly about sexual exploits, and a knack for self-promotion. Neither was particularly impressed by the trappings of traditional power in Washington, and both were sons of powerful men. Gaetz’s father, Don Gaetz, was the president of the Florida Senate and a wealthy businessman, and Trump’s father was a successful real estate developer in New York.
After Democrats took back the House in 2018 and began cranking up pressure on the Trump administration, Gaetz emerged as a standout in what he called the “warrior class” of lawmakers who made it their mission to protect the president.)“The president has called me when I was in my car, asleep in the middle of the night on my Longworth Office cot, on the throne, on airplanes, in nightclubs, and even in the throes of passion (yes, I answered),” Gaetz boasted in his book.
When Democrats called Michael Cohen, the president’s former fixer, to testify against him in early 2019, Gaetz threatened to reveal what he said were extramarital affairs by Cohen. Democrats accused him of witness intimidation and the Florida Bar, of which Gaetz is a member, investigated.
Gaetz brought the first impeachment investigation into Trump, later that year, to a halt, albeit briefly, when he led dozens of Republican lawmakers into investigative hearing rooms and refused to leave.
Trump publicly singled out Gaetz, saying he was a “great talent, young, handsome,” thanking him for his advocacy on the president’s behalf and predicting Gaetz was “going places.”
Gaetz’s rise caught the Republican establishment off guard.
“He was not on people’s radar until he started showing up next to Trump at rallies,” said Alex Conant, a Republican political strategist and a former senior aide to Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
“The president would see him on Fox, defending the president, which was a good way to get close to the Trump White House,” Conant added. “A lot of members tried to do that. Matt Gaetz did exceptionally well.”
Gaetz embraced his role after the president lost last year’s election, trying to discredit the result and overturn it in Congress. He also privately and publicly attacked Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, a leading Republican critic of Trump’s incitement of the Capitol rioters.
But by then, federal investigators were asking witnesses about Gaetz’s ties to a 17-year-old girl whom investigators believed had sex with Gaetz and was paid, people close to the investigation have said. The interviews grew out of a case the Justice Department began making last summer against a local Florida tax collector who has been indicted on a range of charges, including sex trafficking of a minor. He has pleaded not guilty and is set to go to trial this year.
Two weeks after Trump lost reelection, Gaetz called on him to “pardon everyone” before he left office or they would be targeted by the “radical left.”
“He should pardon the Thanksgiving turkey,” Gaetz said of Trump on Fox News. “He should pardon everyone from himself to his administration officials to Joe Exotic if he has to,” Gaetz added, referring to the gun-toting zoo owner in the Netflix series “Tiger King” who was convicted in a murder-for-hire plot.
Gaetz added, “You see from the radical left a bloodlust that will only be quenched if they come after the people who worked so hard to animate the Trump administration with the policies and the vigor and the effectiveness that delivered for the American people.” He later tweeted the clip.
Shortly after Trump left office, Gaetz publicly floated the idea of quitting Congress to defend Trump in impeachment, but Trump’s advisers showed no interest.
Since the existence of the investigation was publicly revealed last week, Trump and his close allies have mostly remained silent. Trump’s advisers have urged him to stay quiet and sought to distance the former president from Gaetz.
Though Trump wielded his clemency power in self-serving ways unlike any other president, a blanket pardon for Gaetz would have stood out because it failed to specify the crimes being pardoned and lacked the “public healing” justifications for rare such past exercises of the pardon authority, said Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard Law School professor who tracked Trump’s pardons.
“If Trump had granted it, which he didn’t,” Goldsmith said, “the pardon would have on some dimensions been the most audacious of his many audacious pardons.”