Did a Republican member of Congress just commit a felony crime?
On Tuesday afternoon, on the eve of Michael Cohen’s public appearance before the House oversight committee, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) tweeted out this threatening message: “Hey @MichaelCohen212 – Do your wife & father-in-law know about your girlfriends? Maybe tonight would be a good time for that chat. I wonder if she’ll remain faithful when you’re in prison. She’s about to learn a lot…”
Commenters on Twitter immediately raised the question of whether Gaetz had engaged in witness tampering, which is a federal crime. Within minutes, Walter Shaub, the former director of the Office of Government Ethics, tweeted out the part of the federal criminal code that could apply:
It notes, “Whoever knowingly uses intimidation, threatens, or corruptly persuades another person, or attempts to do so, or engages in misleading conduct toward another person, with intent to…influence, delay, or prevent the testimony of any person in an official proceeding…shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.”
The code’s definition of an “official proceeding” includes congressional proceedings.
Gaetz has been one of the most vocal Trump backers in the House, scheming with other Republican legislators to undermine the Trump-Russia investigation by promoting false conspiracy theories about the deep state. But this move goes beyond the deployment of diversionary distraction. It’s a heavy-handed and brazen attempt to intimidate a witness poised to provide explosive testimony about President Donald Trump. And it’s possible it’s a crime—which makes it a very Trumpy way of dealing with the president’s Cohen problem.
Gaetz’s office did not respond to a request for comment, but the Florida Republican denied to a Vox reporter that he was tampering with a congressional witness. “I’m witness testing,” Gaetz said. “We still are allowed to test the veracity and character of witnesses, I think.”
Cohen’s lawyer, Lanny Davis, said in a statement, “We will not respond to Mr. Gaetz’s despicable lies and personal smears, except to say we trust that his colleagues in the House, both Republicans and Democrats, will repudiate his words and his conduct. I also trust that his constituents will not appreciate that their congressman has set a new low—which in today’s political culture is hard to imagine as possible.”