On the eve of Michael Cohen’s testimony before the House Oversight Committee, reports emerged that the lawyer, convicted felon, and former Trump “fixer” intends to provide evidence that his ex-boss engaged in criminal activity since becoming the president. A short time later, Trump surrogate and Florida congressman Matt Gaetz issued what appeared to be a threat to Cohen, regarding an alleged series of extramarital affairs:
Late on Tuesday night, Gaetz deleted the tweet and apologized, saying it was “NOT my intent to threaten.”
Congressman Gaetz, a career lawyer, initially told the Daily Beast that he did not consider his tweet to be an example of witness tampering. He was simply “challenging the veracity and character of a witness. We do it everyday. We typically do it during people’s testimony.” Gaetz added, in a profound misunderstanding of John Stuart Mill that “This is what it looks like to compete in the marketplace of ideas.”
But on CNN, former prosecutor Laura Coates told Wolf Blitzer she indeed considered the congressman’s tweet to be witness intimidation:
Now the idea of somebody doing this is really odd to me, given the fact that we’re very well-versed at this point in time of what intimidation looks like. There have been discussions about the president’s tweets, using Twitter as a medium to do so. This to me is a classic test example of someone saying, “Listen, I’m going to try and harass you, I haven’t proposed physical violence.” That’s not the requirement. I haven’t threatened you in some way. I haven’t said, “If you don’t do X, this will happen.” But harassment is part of the witness intimidation statutes, talking about, are you trying to somehow influence or withhold testimony. That’s doing that exact thing.
It appears that Representative Gaetz was banking on the “speech or debate” clause of the Constitution, in which lawmakers are allowed a great deal of rhetorical leeway while Congress is in session. In a text to the New York Times, Gaetz claimed he was “testing the veracity and character of Michael Cohen. That is allowed.” In a text to Vox, Gaetz told reporter Alex Ward that those watching Cohen’s testimony tomorrow should prepare for “fireworks,” possibly referring to Republicans plans to paint Cohen as an unreliable liar and convicted felon – a strategy that could backfire since Trump’s lawyer broke the law while working for the president.
But despite Gaetz’s pushback, allegations of witness intimidation continued. Gaetz eventually deleted the tweet an apologized, insisting he never meant to threaten Cohen:
In a statement issued before Gaetz’s apology, Cohen’s lawyer Lanny Davis said his constituents in Florida would “not appreciate that their congressman has set a new low.” Meanwhile, Davis’s client is preparing to give what could be the most damning evidence yet in all of the investigations into Trump’s alleged misconduct. With documents and financial statements in hand, Cohen will reportedly give testimony that Trump was an ersatz success prior to The Apprentice, and lay out in “granular detail” how the president concocted the plan to give hush money to Stormy Daniels – a payoff that resulted in one of Cohen’s two campaign finance felonies. Cohen may also reportedly discuss the president’s racist comments, as he did last year when he told Vanity Fair that Trump said to him in 2016 that “black people are too stupid to vote for me.”
Gaetz, a second-term Congressman for the staunchly Republican Florida panhandle, is one of Trump’s most outspoken advocates on the Hill, and one of the more active Twitter users in the legislative branch. “I aspire to be the conservative AOC,” the 36-year-old Congressman once said, referring in part to the upstart Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s social media savvy. However, to date, the 29-year-old Bronx lawmaker has yet to engage in potential felony action while online.
This post has been updated with Gaetz’s apology.