Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) owes his political rise to Fox News. Politicians gain power in the modern GOP by grabbing and holding the attention of the base, and the easiest way to do that is through its most trusted media outlet. The Florida backbencher understands this structure and gained a national profile in his first two terms by fervently supporting Donald Trump and denouncing the former president’s foes in near-constant appearances on the right-wing network. He also won the favor of Trump himself, who watches Fox regularly and appreciated the congressman’s zeal.
It seems, however, that Fox has now abandoned Gaetz at his moment of greatest need.
Gaetz has been engulfed in scandal following The New York Times’ March 30 report that he has been under federal investigation for alleged sex trafficking. The congressman has spent the last week denying that he had sex with a minor or paid women of legal age for sex, declining to comment on reports that he showed nude photos of women he claimed to have had sex with to other members on the House floor, and drawing lackluster defenses from colleagues speaking on the record and descriptions of “cartoonishly scandalous” behavior anonymously. But Fox devoted a mere 45 minutes to the Gaetz saga through Tuesday -- and nearly three-quarters of that coverage came in the first 24 hours, with the network providing sparse coverage of subsequent revelations.
Perhaps the most notable absence from Gaetz’s defense is prime-time host Sean Hannity. Even as Gaetz responded to the allegations by spinning the sort of convoluted tale of deep state conspiracy and right-wing victimhood that seems tailor-made for Hannity’s program, the Fox star has seemingly left him for dead.
Gaetz is a Hannity fixture. Since August 2017, he made 127 appearances on the program, roughly 41% of the 310 interviews he gave the network overall (including a disastrous turn on Tucker Carlson Tonight to respond to the initial Times report), according to Media Matters’ database of weekday programming. Gaetz is the 11th most-frequent Hannity guest over that period, and ranks second to Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) among guests who have not served as paid Fox contributors.
Moreover, Hannity’s relationship with Gaetz extends beyond the congressman’s constant presence in his show’s green room. He campaigned with Gaetz and then-Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), who successfully ran for governor, on July 2, 2018, in stops at Fort Myers, Tampa, and Pensacola. The Fox News host promoted the events online, while Gaetz’s campaign posted a promotional video of Hannity praising him on Fox to its Facebook page (the video was later removed).
REP. MATT GAETZ (R-FL): I’ve got to thank Sean Hannity, you know, because, you know, you all just gave me this job about 18 months ago. I took the position. And you probably don't see too many freshmen members of Congress out there as frequently and working as hard and making sure that we're holding people accountable. But Sean Hannity gives me a platform almost every night to get out there and tell it like it is. And I thank him for that.
Hannity, in turn, repeatedly described Gaetz as the Mickey Mantle of Congress, a reference to the legendary New York Yankees slugger, and said:
SEAN HANNITY: We have as a result of the policies that these two men have also fought, and I know because I'm working the phones every day and it's the Freedom Caucus, it's this young Mickey Mantle over here. And it's your next governor over there. They're the ones fighting the hardest for the president, it's not -- listen, I'm pretty disappointed with a lot of Republicans. I'll be honest. There are a lot of RINOs, yes. The Freedom Caucus literally is the lifeblood of what is making Congress work today, and they're in the heart of it. And I'm very thankful to both of you for what you do every day, which is why it's an honor to share the stage with both of you.
Gaetz subsequently claimed to have won “the endorsement of Sean Hannity” in a post-event Facebook post.
Campaigning for politicians in this manner technically violated the ethics rules Fox would later claim it had for network employees, but its enforcement for stars like Hannity has proven haphazard at best.
Hannity, who spent the Trump administration operating as a sometime political fixer for the then-president and his associates, has also strategized with Gaetz behind the scenes. Texts between the two, revealed by the House Ethics Committee during its investigation of Gaetz’s February 2019 tweet threatening former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen with retaliation on the eve of his House testimony, show Hannity counseling the congressman on how to respond to the mounting furor. The Fox host praised Gaetz for quickly deleting the tweet and suggested he lay low for “a while.”
Trump himself, after a week of ignoring Gaetz’s scandals while his former aides anonymously savaged the congressman, finally weighed in on Wednesday after the Times reported that Gaetz had sought a blanket pardon from him in the waning days of his presidency. “Congressman Matt Gaetz has never asked me for a pardon," Trump said in a statement. "It must also be remembered that he has totally denied the accusations against him.”
Perhaps that will be the spark that gets Hannity to finally address Gaetz’s predicament. Or perhaps Hannity will stick with the advice he texted Gaetz amid the Cohen drama: “It will pass. Attention span of people is zero.”