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Matt Gaetz’s disastrous Tucker Carlson interview, explained

Gaetz is under investigation for alleged sex trafficking. He went on Fox News and made it worse.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) Travels To Wyoming For Rally Against Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) holds a phone to the microphone as Donald Trump Jr. speaks remotely to a crowd during a rally against Liz Cheney in Wyoming on January 28.
Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

Hours after the New York Times broke the news that Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) is under federal investigation for alleged sex trafficking, he was given a platform by Fox News host Tucker Carlson to tell his side of the story. But Gaetz ended up botching the softball interview so thoroughly that Carlson ended up telling his millions of viewers it was “one of the weirdest interviews I’ve ever conducted.”

At various points during the interview, Gaetz — who denies the allegations — volunteered the existence of criminal allegations against him that aren’t yet part of the public record, brought up sexual misconduct allegations against Carlson that most of his viewers probably weren’t aware of, and went out of his way to involve Carlson in stories about his personal life.

“I can say that actually you and I went to dinner about two years ago, your wife was there, and I brought a friend of mine — you’ll remember her — and she was actually threatened by the FBI, told that if she wouldn’t cop to the fact that somehow I was involved in some pay-for-play scheme, that could face trouble,” Gaetz said. “So I do believe there are people at the Department of Justice that are trying to smear me. Providing for flights and hotel rooms for people that you’re dating who are of legal age is not a crime.”

“I don’t remember the woman you’re speaking of or the context at all, honestly,” Carlson replied.

That exchange came shortly after Gaetz told Carlson that “I’m not the only person on screen right now who has been falsely accused of a terrible sex act. You were accused of something you did not do.”

“You just referred to a mentally ill viewer who accused me of a sex crime 20 years ago, and of course it was not true. I had never met the person,” Carlson replied. “But I do agree with you that being accused falsely is one of the worst things that can happen, and you do see it a lot.”

Carlson was falsely accused of molesting a woman about 20 years ago, but was also accused of sexually harassing a guest on his show in a lawsuit filed last year. (Fox News has denied the allegations against Carlson and other hosts contained in the lawsuit.)

Although Carlson didn’t challenge Gaetz during the interview, he was less than thrilled with how he handled the interview.

Following a commercial break, Carlson seemed to throw Gaetz under the bus, saying the interview was “one of the weirdest interviews I’ve ever conducted” and adding, “I don’t think that clarified much ... I don’t quite understand it.”

Citing “a person familiar with the matter,” CNN’s Oliver Darcy reported on Wednesday that Gaetz’s effort to involve Carlson in his problems “pissed [Carlson] off.”

But more importantly than the bizarreness of the interview is the fact that Gaetz didn’t do a very convincing job trying to refute the very serious criminal allegations underpinning the federal investigation. His defense basically amounts to claims that he’s the victim of a vast conspiracy.

Gaetz is implausibly alleging officials in Bill Barr’s Department of Justice conspired to take him down

According to the Times, Gaetz is under investigation “over whether he had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old and paid for her to travel with him, according to three people briefed on the matter.” (It’s unclear whether the person that Gaetz said had dinner with Carlson and his wife is the person referenced in the Times story.)

The Times report adds that it is “not clear how Mr. Gaetz met the girl, believed to be 17 at the time of encounters about two years ago that investigators are scrutinizing.”

During the interview with Carlson, Gaetz denied improper conduct, but he did so in a very limited and specific way, using language that raised more questions than it answered.

“The New York Times is running a story that I have traveled with a 17-year-old woman, and that is verifiably false; people can look at my travel records and see that that is not the case,” Gaetz said — even though a 17-year-old is not a “woman,” the allegations go beyond mere “traveling,” and it’s unclear how “travel records” could disprove any of them.

Gaetz went on to allege that word of the investigation was leaked as part of an extortion plot, saying “what is happening is an extortion of me and my family involving a former Department of Justice official” who demanded $25 million in exchange for making the sex trafficking allegations go away.

But during an MSNBC interview a short time later, one of the Times reporters bylined on the Gaetz story, Katie Benner, debunked one of Gaetz’s central claims, saying unequivocally that the former official Gaetz accused by name of being part of an extortion plot isn’t even involved in the investigation.

That former DOJ official, David McGee, later told the Daily Beast that Gaetz’s claims are false and are “a blatant attempt to distract from the fact that Matt Gaetz is apparently about to be indicted for sex trafficking underage girls.”

Gaetz seems to be throwing defenses against the wall in hopes that something will stick. He concluded the interview with Carlson by suggesting the investigation is politically motivated, saying “I’m a well-known, outspoken conservative, and I guess that’s out of style in a lot of parts of the country right now.”

But the Times reports that the investigation “was opened in the final months of the Trump administration under Attorney General William P. Barr” — a chronology undercutting Gaetz’s suggestion that his political opponents are out to get him.

File this whole bizarre episode under “things defense attorneys wouldn’t advise”

Gaetz’s interview with Carlson came shortly after he initially responded to news of the investigation in a string of tweets, claiming he’s the victim of an extortion plot and that “my father has even been wearing a wire at the FBI’s direction to catch these criminals. The planted leak to the FBI tonight was intended to thwart that investigation.”

Gaetz has yet to provide any evidence to back up these claims, and instead posted retweets trying to discredit the New York Times and Department of Justice. But his story would be easier to buy if the Trump-loving Congress member hadn’t destroyed his credibility with false claims about antifa being responsible for the January 6 insurrection, by brazenly trying to intimidate a witness on Twitter and storming a secretive facility at the Capitol in an effort to disrupt Trump’s first impeachment trial; by inviting a notorious Holocaust denier to Trump’s 2018 State of the Union speech; and in general by behaving more like a MAGA dirty trickster than an elected official concerned with doing right by his constituents.

News of the federal investigation of Gaetz broke just hours after Axios reported that he’s “privately told confidants he’s seriously considering not seeking re-election and possibly leaving Congress early for a job at Newsmax,” a right-wing TV outlet that has distinguished itself by being even Trumpier than Fox News.

If what Gaetz told Carlson is any indication, the news surrounding the federal investigation into his conduct could get even worse for him.

“I really saw this as a deeply troubling challenge for my family on March 16, when people were talking about a minor, that there were pictures of me with child prostitutes — that’s obviously false, there will be no such pictures because no such thing happened,” Gaetz volunteered, even though the child pornography allegations were not publicly known before he brought it up.

It’s unclear if Gaetz was trying to get ahead of yet another story. But what is clear is that no lawyer would recommend responding to news of a federal investigation by going on national TV and volunteering that sort of derogatory information.

During a Fox News interview on Wednesday morning, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) said he’ll remove Gaetz from committees if the allegations against him turn out to be true, and couldn’t explain why Gaetz was the only Republican to vote against an anti-human trafficking bill in 2017.

“I have no idea whatsoever why he would vote against that,” McCarthy said.