Hours after the New York Times first reported that Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) was under investigation by the Justice Department, he appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program to defend himself.

That defense itself came as a surprise: Gaetz not only claimed his innocence in the federal inquiry but also that he and his family were the targets of an extortion scheme. Last month, he said, his father had received a text message offering to help make the investigation go away for a payment of $25 million.

Carlson asked Gaetz how long the Justice Department investigation had been going on, with Gaetz indicating that he didn’t know. Then Carlson asked when Gaetz first learned about it.

Gaetz paused for a second.

“Again,” he replied, “I — I really saw this as a deeply troubling challenge for my family on March 16th when people were talking about a minor, and that there were pictures of me with child prostitutes. That’s obviously false. There will be no such pictures because no such thing happened. But really on March 16th was when this got going from the extortion standpoint.”

That's not what Carlson asked. He asked when Gaetz knew about the investigation. Gaetz's response did provide an answer to some extent: pretty clearly before March 16.

But when? Another story published by the Times on Tuesday suggests that it may have been in January when Gaetz reportedly asked President Donald Trump for a pardon.

“In the final weeks of Mr. Trump’s term,” the paper reports, Gaetz “privately asked the White House for blanket pre-emptive pardons for himself and unidentified congressional allies for any crimes they may have committed, according to two people told of the discussions.”

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) first got involved in politics a decade ago. It didn't take him long to find stardom in the Republican Party. (The Washington Post)

A spokesman for Gaetz claimed that “entry-level political operatives” were presenting an inaccurate case to the Times based on Gaetz's having publicly — and jokingly — called for blanket pardons of nearly everyone in the Republican Party. Trump, he said in an appearance on Fox News in November, should “pardon everyone from himself to his administration officials, to Joe Exotic if he has to,” referring to the star of a Netflix series.

“The president ought to wield that pardon power effectively and robustly,” Gaetz said then.

That, though, was not really in the “final weeks” of the Trump administration, nor was it a private ask. Trump did acknowledge Gaetz’s comments by retweeting them, but it’s hard to match these televised comments with the Times’s report.

Shortly after Trump left office, Gaetz floated the idea of resigning his House seat, an unusual comment from a lawmaker. He was appearing on former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon’s podcast, where the two were discussing Trump’s upcoming second impeachment trial. If Trump wanted, Gaetz said, he would “absolutely” resign his position to serve as defense counsel.

“I would leave my House seat,” Gaetz said. “I would leave my home. I would do anything I had to do” to ensure that Trump got a “full-throated defense.”

This is obviously hyperbolic, but it certainly seems as though it could have been hyperbolic in the way that someone might “joke” about something they want to do in hopes that their audience actually agrees.

This appearance was Feb. 3, about six weeks before the text message that Gaetz has marked as the first point at which he’s willing to acknowledge awareness of the investigation. If Gaetz was aware of the inquiry then, why might he have wanted to resign? One obvious reason is that he believed his political career might come to an ignominious end; resigning early in defense of Trump would both endear him to the former president and allow him to depart on his own terms.

It’s easy to look backward and pick out signals that suggest that Gaetz may have known more about the legal risk he was facing than the public knew. Perhaps his comment to Bannon was simply an off-the-cuff joke and not something being run up the flagpole. Maybe it was just a play to cement himself more firmly in Trump’s universe.

But some signals were stronger than others. Such as this tweet, which at the time seemed like a bit of standard social media engagement and now reads differently.

Gaetz acknowledges that he knew about the Justice investigation by this point or, at least, that someone was trying to wring money from him alleging that such a probe existed.

Less than a week later, Gaetzgate emerged into the light. Shortly before it did, though, another rumor about Gaetz was reported by Axios.

“Gaetz has told some of his allies he’s interested in becoming a media personality, and floated taking a role at Newsmax,” Alayna Treene wrote. “One of the sources said Gaetz has had early conversations with the network about what a position could look like.”

That certainly fit with the image Gaetz had presented. He is one of a new cadre of lawmakers who seem to view Congress as a media platform as much as a legislative one. Decamping for the klieg lights was on brand.

But — again recognizing the toxic influence of pattern-seeking here — that Gaetz was publicly discussing that move at the moment the story about the federal investigation was about to boil over does reframe his February overtures. To Carlson, Gaetz claimed that his father had been about to crack the extortion plot wide open and that, as a result, the Times had been given the story to leak. Gaetz knew that his position was about to change and, at that moment, stories about his resigning emerged in the media. Particularly when combined with the Times report about the pardon, why would we not assume that Gaetz knew about the probe in early February?

There are other parts to this timeline. Speaking to Carlson, Gaetz revealed that a former girlfriend had been contacted by the FBI, although he didn’t indicate when that had happened. Other staff members have been interviewed, including one who left Gaetz’s office in October and who spoke to the media (with Gaetz’s blessing) this week. That encounter happened recently but, if the investigation has been going on for months, it’s likely that other interviews happened earlier.

In this story’s tight competition for weird plotlines, the likely winner took place away from Gaetz’s apparent knowledge. Between the March 25 “Gaetzgate” tweet and the Times’s first report about the probe, an employee of the Israeli consulate in New York City reportedly contacted the conservative creator of the cartoon “Dilbert” to inform him that Gaetz was under investigation. The American Conservative, a right-wing blog, published the messages, in which the consulate employee told Scott Adams that Gaetz was “the subject of a secret Grand Jury probe of sex with minors” — a claim roughly matching the Times report. That message appears to have been sent March 27.

To some extent, the timing here matters largely because it helps us better understand what Gaetz was doing and what he sought from the Trump administration. Like his benefactor the former president, Gaetz was operating for some period of time under a cloud, the difference in Gaetz’s case being that only a few people knew it existed.

That’s the other reason that it’s useful to know when Gaetz knew: How did he find out about it and who else did he inform?