The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Matt Gaetz, the ‘Trumpiest Congressman,’ cites principles for bucking president on war powers. Kevin McCarthy is ‘very shocked.’

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) was one of three Republicans who voted in favor of a resolution to curb President Trump's power to take military action against Iran. (Video: C-SPAN)

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) has been called “the Trumpiest Congressman in Trump’s Washington,” a judgment that he features proudly and prominently on his campaign homepage, along with quotes depicting him as “Trump’s Best Buddy,” “Trump’s Ultimate Defender” and “Rising star of the Trumpian right.”

Gaetz wants so much to impress President Trump that he sometimes wakes up around 5 a.m. so he can be on “Fox & Friends” as early as possible. That’s when “the president is watching,” he told The Washington Post’s Dan Zak. He strives to please Trump in every way, every day.

Every day except Thursday, that is.

Gaetz was one of three Republicans who voted in favor of a House resolution to prevent Trump from taking additional military action against Iran unless Congress declares war or in the event of “an imminent armed attack upon the United States.” The president and the Republican leadership vigorously opposed the measure.

Gaetz spent the rest of the day explaining himself, assuring the MAGA faithful that his vote wasn’t aimed at Trump. It was instead a matter of principle. The need for Congress to approve or disapprove of war, he said, is “something I deeply believe.”

And that left House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Fox Business Network host Lou Dobbs shaking their heads in disbelief. The “surprise there ... was Congressman Matt Gaetz,” Dobbs said. “Stunning. … I was just shocked.”

Not just “shocked,” agreed McCarthy, but “very shocked.”

It was another telling snapshot of Washington in 2020. An otherwise hyper-loyal and sometimes boisterous defender of Trump, particularly during the impeachment proceedings in the House Judiciary Committee last month, casts a vote with the other side on a nonbinding, purely symbolic resolution, citing his principles — and the leadership is shocked.

“I’ve got to ask him” why he did it, McCarthy told Dobbs.

Gaetz had answered that question repeatedly Thursday on the House floor and on Fox News.

“This resolution offers no criticism of the president, no critique,” he said on the floor. “It doesn’t criticize the president’s attack on [Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem] Soleimani. I take a back seat to no member of this body when it comes to defending the president,” he said.

Yet, “it also articulates our non-delegable duty as members of the United States Congress to speak to matters of war and peace. I represent more troops than any other member of this body,” he said. “I buried one of them early today at Arlington, and that sergeant died a patriot and a hero.

“If the members of our armed services have the courage to go and fight and die in these wars,” he continued, “as Congress, we ought to have the courage to vote for them or against them.”

Gaetz, a lawyer whose district in the Florida Panhandle includes thousands of military and ex-military constituents in and around major military bases, is serving his second term in the House.

For those who might not immediately identify Gaetz, he was the member who criticized Hunter Biden for his problems with drug addiction during the impeachment proceedings. “I don’t want to make light of anybody’s substance abuse issues,” Gaetz said, “but it’s a little hard to believe that Burisma hired Hunter Biden to resolve their international disputes when he could not resolve his own dispute with Hertz rental car leaving cocaine and a crack pipe in the car.”

For this Gaetz was called out by Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), who reminded Gaetz of his 2008 arrest for driving under the influence. “I would say that the pot calling the kettle black is not something we should do,” Johnson said.

Rep. Matt Gaetz criticized Hunter Biden for his addiction. Then he got called out for his own DUI arrest.

Gaetz does fawn over Trump, and he escalated the fawning Thursday.

“I spoke to the president today,” he told Tucker Carlson on Fox News. “He’s more antiwar than I am, and I love the president for that.” He was sure, Gaetz said, that it wasn’t Trump but “a few of the advisers of the president” who “are trying to slow-walk the president into a war.”

In fact, Gaetz’s position on war powers should have come as no shock. In July, he joined Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and other Democrats, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), in sponsoring an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act to bar expenditures on military action against Iran without congressional authorization. The amendment did not survive.

Thursday’s House resolution, which does not require a presidential signature, has no legal force. While taking care to condemn Iran as a “leading state sponsor of terrorism” and to criticize Soleimani, who was killed Jan. 3 in a Trump-ordered drone strike, it was meant by Democrats, if not by Gaetz, not only as a rebuke of Trump. It was also a symbolic effort to reclaim Congress’s constitutional war-related authority.

The three Republican “aye” votes, cast by Gaetz and Reps. Thomas Massie (Ky.) and Francis Rooney (Fla.), made no practical difference. The Democratic-controlled House passed the resolution 224 to 194. But those Republican votes allow Democrats to tout the resolution as bipartisan.

That, in turn, may help parry Republican smears, that supporters of the resolution are somehow “in love with terrorists” or are Soleimani sympathizers or are “emboldening the enemy,” as Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said this week in response to Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Rand Paul (Ky.). They have said they will vote for a Democratic-sponsored Senate measure to constrain Trump’s authority to launch future military actions without authorization.

Debates over congressional vs. presidential war powers have historically produced splits in both parties, as well as between parties, with fault lines reflecting partisan, institutional and constitutional interests.

Most modern presidents have jealously guarded their “commander in chief” roles, resisting most efforts by Congress to involve itself as unconstitutional, even though the Constitution gives the legislative branch numerous war-related powers. President Barack Obama faced criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike for not seeking congressional authorization before deploying U.S. air power in Libya in 2011.

The fault lines were visible on Fox News’s website as well as on-air. During an interview with Tucker Carlson on Thursday, Gaetz said it thought it “ludicrous to suggest that we are impairing the troops from doing their job by not doing our job articulated in the Constitution to speak to these matters of war and peace.”

“I think the Constitution requires that,” Carlson said. “I think it’s pretty obvious that it does.”

Judge Andrew Napolitano, in his own opinion piece, agreed.

Dobbs, meanwhile, along with National Review contributing editor Andrew McCarthy, flayed those who question presidential authority to wage war.

As the night wore on, Gaetz’s fate preoccupied a segment of Twitter.

But Gaetz also had his fans. “You’re doing the right thing here,” one person said in a tweet. “And it’s pretty clear … that a large share of your followers have never read the Constitution.”