Why a Florida congressman invited a notorious alt-right troll to SOTU

Matt Gaetz is pictured. | Getty Images

“I had no idea who he was,” Rep. Matt Gaetz said Wednesday, disavowing some of the racist views attributed to his invited guest Chuck Johnson. | Alex Wong/Getty Images

His Florida colleagues invited hurricane survivors, and the family of a hostage in Iran. Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz, however, invited a far more inflammatory guest to the State of the Union address: Chuck Johnson, a alt-right troll who’s been banned from Twitter and accused of Holocaust denying and white nationalism.

“I had no idea who he was,” Gaetz said Wednesday, disavowing some of the racist views attributed to Johnson, which the congressman said he learned of after they met earlier this week.

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But even after Gaetz found out just how controversial Johnson was — the Capitol Police had flagged the name and called Gaetz to inquire about Johnson in a mysterious unrelated matter — the first-term congressman decided not to pull his ticket to President Trump’s speech.

The two have similar libertarian views on cryptocurrencies and marijuana, Gaetz said. A provocative and increasingly ubiquitous cable news guest, Gaetz has become a leading House voice criticizing the federal investigation into President Trump.

Johnson said he loves what he hears from Gaetz.

“I like weird guys with a fuck-you attitude. And Matt Gaetz is one of those dudes,” said Johnson, noting he and Gaetz are both young: Johnson is 29 and Gaetz is 35. His appearance as Gaetz’s guest was first reported by The Daily Beast.

For once, Gaetz said, he wasn’t trying to troll the left when he unwittingly invited the infamous right-wing troll. He said his pairing with Johnson was a coincidence. And if anything is ultimately to blame or credit for the situation, Gaetz said, it’s Tallahassee.

Gaetz had planned to take his father to the State of the Union to celebrate his 70th birthday on Tuesday. But Don Gaetz, a former Florida Senate president when Matt Gaetz served in the Florida House, couldn’t go because, while serving on the state’s Constitutional Revision Commission, he contracted bronchitis in Tallahassee. [State legislators are in the notoriously moldy, pollen-ridden city for the legislative session.]

Just as he was absorbing the news Monday about his dad, Gaetz said “another member [of Congress] sent Chuck to me to talk about cannabis and cryptocurrency. So in walks this guy, younger than me, redhead, and we got to talking.”

Neither Gaetz nor Johnson would name the member who introduced them.

Johnson, Gaetz said, had heard about his dad’s illness while in the congressman’s office and hinted at wanting the spare ticket to go to the speech.
“He kind of got the sense of what was going on. He kept mentioning his interest in the president laying out his agenda,” Gaetz said.

“Hey, I’ve just got an extra ticket to the State of the Union. Would you like to go?” Gaetz recalled asking.

“I’d be honored,” Johnson replied.

After Johnson left, a Gaetz staffer did a Google search on Johnson. And the results were a surprise, the congressman said.

“I then found out he was quite famous for his activity online,” Gaetz laughed. “I didn’t know much about him. I learned he’s in conflict with technology companies and has said some rather infamous things. Unquestionably I don’t agree with everything Chuck Johnson has said and done. That needs to be said on the record. But he was a perfectly polite guest.”

Johnson doesn’t deny being an infamous troll. But, he says, he’s not a Holocaust denier and “they call me a white nationalist and I’m not.” Before he was banned from Twitter, Johnson said, he repeatedly used the n-word to study the site’s algorithms. He said he does believe in physical and mental differences between races and ethnicities, but said he didn’t want to relitigate the issue.

Gaetz said he could have pulled Johnson’s ticket, but he was intrigued by him. Johnson has a crowd-funded website called Got News and is a Bitcoin and marijuana investor.

“I don’t only associate with people who hold all my views,” Gaetz said. “I have friends on the right and the left. I don’t have an ideological purity test.”
While submitting Johnson’s information as a gallery guest to Capitol Police, Gaetz said another red flag went up.

“Capitol Police called us immediately and said they wanted to speak to my guest. Not about any challenges or something related to the state of the union, but they thought he could help them with on some other matter,” Gaetz said.

Gaetz said he asked if Johnson would be a problem as a guest. Capitol Police said he wouldn’t be.

Did Capitol Police tell the congressman what the issue was?

“They did not,” Gaetz said. “And I did not ask.”


U.S. puts Hamas leader on terrorist blacklist

Ismail Haniyeh is pictured. | Getty Images

Ismail Haniyeh, who has reportedly been linked to attacks against Israeli and American citizens, became the political leader of Hamas in 2017. | Said Khatib/Getty Images

The U.S. State Department added to its official terrorist blacklist on Wednesday, designating the head of the Palestinian militant movement Hamas along with three other groups, and imposing sanctions on all of them.

In a statement, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that “these designations target key terrorist groups and leaders — including two sponsored and directed by Iran — who are threatening the stability of the Middle East, undermining the peace process, and attacking our allies Egypt and Israel. Today’s actions are an important step in denying them the resources they need to plan and carry out their terrorist activities.”

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Hamas, which as a group was first placed on the blacklist in 1997, responded from Gaza, calling Wednesday’s move a “failed attempt to pressure the resistance” and saying it wasn’t discouraged by the label.

Ismail Haniyeh, who has reportedly been linked to attacks against Israeli and American citizens, became the political leader of Hamas in 2017. He called for protests in Gaza in December following President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

“The American decision is an aggression on our people and a war on our sanctuaries,” Haniyeh said in a speech at the time. “We want the uprising to last and continue to let Trump and the occupation regret this decision.”

By being placed on the blacklist, Haniyeh — a former prime minister of the Palestinian National Authority who was removed from the post in 2007 during his faction’s conflict with rival Fatah — will see any U.S.-based assets frozen, and will be prohibited from having any partnerships with the U.S.

Three other groups — the Iranian-backed Harakat al-Sabireen and two Egypt-based groups, Liwa al-Thawra and Harakat Sawa’d Misr — were also put on the list.

The State Department also said the purpose of the designations was to track terrorist groups that pose a threat.

“Today’s actions notify the U.S. public and the international community that Ismail Haniyeh, Harakat al-Sabireen, Liwa al-Thawra, and Harakat Sawa’d Misr have committed, or pose a significant risk of committing, acts of terrorism,” the department said in a statement. “Terrorism designations expose and isolate organizations and individuals, and deny them access to the U.S. financial system. Moreover, designations can assist the law enforcement activities of U.S. agencies and other governments.”


Immigration torments GOP as feel-good retreat kicks off

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va — Congressional Republicans arrived here Wednesday for their annual retreat dogged by internal divisions over immigration — and seemingly intent on avoiding the issue altogether.

The schedule for the three-day gathering at a luxury 11,000 acre-resort in the Appalachia does not include a single session on immigration. This despite a deadline barely a month away to extend protections to hundreds of thousands of young immigrants facing deportation — and the logjam that dilemma has caused for Republican priorities like boosting defense spending.

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Instead, Republicans — rattled by the deadly crash of their train with a garbage truck en route to the retreat — are set to hold sessions to congratulate themselves for tax reform, talk about infrastructure, and learn how to make care packages for troops.

Leadership’s unwillingness to confront the internal divide over immigration comes as Republicans are turning on each other in a battle for the soul of their party. The Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program expires March 5, though a recent court action has softened that deadline. Trump decided last fall to terminate the program, and the Senate is preparing to take up an immigration debate in February.

But the party is all over the place on how, or even whether, to act to shield the beneficiaries.

The internal tensions threaten to overshadow the entire year in Congress and color the midterm election, with control of both chambers on the line. If Republicans can’t get past immigration, it’s possible they won’t be able to address spending, infrastructure or other priorities that are already seen as reaches in an election year. The standoff over immigration is at the heart of the ongoing fight over government spending, too — the latest deadline to prevent another shutdown is now only a week away.

“That’s a pretty big schism, between the House and the Senate,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 3 GOP leader. “And so I just think that we need to be really aware, if we want to get a result, what the limitations are in both bodies.”

It’s hard to see where an immigration compromise might lie.

The White House proposed giving 1.8 million Dreamers a pathway to citizenship in exchange for a border wall with Mexico and several conservative immigration policy changes. But while Senate Republicans believe the plan tacks too far to the right, saying its steep cuts to legal immigration will never win over Democrats, many immigration hawks in the House have dismissed Trump’s pitch as “amnesty.”

“I don’t think [Americans] want amnesty or anything that looks like amnesty encouraging people to come here illegally,” said Freedom Caucus Conservative Scott Perry (R-Pa.). “[T]he White House proposal is not what they think they signed up for. It’s not what I signed for.”

Trump further divided Congress with his remarks on immigration in his State of the Union speech. Though some Republicans praised him for offering a pathway to citizenship and a concrete plan to fund the border, Democrats were alarmed by his “demonization of Latino immigrants,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.).

In the House, conservatives are pushing Speaker Paul Ryan’s team to essentially ignore the White House proposal, which they find too moderate. Instead, they want a vote on a more conservative bill authored by House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte.

But that bill is a “non-starter” in the Senate, said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).

GOP leaders are arguing internally that the Goodlatte measure goes well beyond the president’s proposal, with its controversial requirements that all companies verify the legal status of their employees. They argue the bill would never pass the Senate’s 60-vote threshold — let alone win the united support of a House GOP conference that’s split over its merits.

But immigration hawks say Ryan should move the Goodlatte bill to the floor, anyway. Freedom Caucus members made leaders promise to try to whip the needed 218 votes on the immigration bill in order to win conservative votes on the deal to fund the government. Now, they feel leadership hasn’t done enough to advocate for the measure and are threatening to vote against a bill extending government funding that expires next week.

“I’m for the Goodlatte plan,” said Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), a Freedom Caucus member.

As for the Senate’s dismissal of the legislation, he jabbed: “If you look at Senate tactics and outcome on health care, how did it go? The Senate’s all grandstanding. [Sen.] Lindsey Graham and whoever, waiving a plan every other day: ‘Come over here with the shiny object!’ … Then, they faceplant.”

A bipartisan group of senators is meeting regularly on immigration, even as talks have stalled among a group of congressional whips also working on finding common ground. Senators say the only way to get an immigration deal is for their chamber to take the lead: To win a big bipartisan majority for a plan and then pressure the House and Trump to get on board.

“If the president gets behind what the Senate does, then that means a lot of” House Republicans will fall in line, Flake said. “The House isn’t going to get out in front of the president. We’ve known that. The Senate’s going to have to move ahead and then see what the House does.”

But Republicans in both chambers are wary of that view. In 2013, the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill with 68 votes, only to watch the House ignore it.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 3 GOP leader, predicted the bipartisan plan being kicked around in the Senate would be too moderate to pass muster in the other chamber. “That’s not a bill that passes the House.”

House Republicans agree that a Senate “gang” won’t dictate what they do. Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) said the House should pass the Goodlatte bill and leave the Senate to figure out what to do.

“Is there a bill [Senate Democratic Whip] Dick Durbin is going to like that Jim Jordan, Dave Brat, Mark Meadows are going to like? That’s the dilemma,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a Freedom Caucus founder. “But I know what the American people want: They didn’t vote for a Durbin bill [on the 2016 ballot]; they voted for a Goodlatte bill.”

But senators pride themselves on coming together in times of crisis to solve problems. And after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) vowed to take up an immigration bill in February, the group of senators holed up in Sen. Susan Collins’ (R-Maine) office each afternoon are pledging to put the upper chamber in the driver’s seat.

They are skeptical that the House will ever send them something that Senate Democrats can accept, and believe that they can score an endorsement from the president if they can wrack up a legislative victory by a overwhelming margin.

“The best way that we can deal with that is if we can get a bill that has 65 or 70 votes and the president supports it. I think that’s our best chance for House support,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.).

Yet despite optimism from Alexander, Collin and other members of the burgeoning gang, some senators are skeptical that anything related to immigration can pass the Senate, period.

“I’ve heard a lot of talk. And I’ve seen a lot of people talking to cameras,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.). But “I don’t think there’s 60 votes there, for anything.”

Heather Caygle contributed to this report.