The Florida Bar is investigating Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who is licensed to practice law in the state, for his incendiary tweet accusing Michael Cohen of infidelity.
Hours after he posted the message, Gaetz apologized and deleted it, insisting that he did not intend to threaten President Trump’s former lawyer on the eve of his highly anticipated testimony before Congress. On Wednesday, Gaetz said that he’d personally apologized to Cohen as well and issued a plea to his Twitter followers to “leave the Cohen family alone.”
“The Florida Bar is aware of the comments made in a tweet yesterday by Rep. Matt Gaetz, who is a Florida Bar member, and I can confirm we have opened an investigation,” spokeswoman Francine Andía Walker said in a statement to The Washington Post.
After the investigation, the bar will decide whether to file charges against Gaetz with the Florida Supreme Court, Walker said. “If rules have been violated, the Florida Bar will vigorously pursue appropriate discipline,” she said, declining to comment further.
In an email to The Post, a spokesperson for Gaetz downplayed the regulatory agency’s investigation.
"It seems that the Florida Bar, by its rules, is required to investigate even the most frivolous of complaints,” said Jillian Lane Wyant, Gaetz’s chief of staff.
In the tweet in question, Gaetz suggested without evidence that Cohen, who is married, had “girlfriends,” prompting some legal observers and Democrats to accuse the Florida Republican of engaging in witness tampering. About seven hours later, he issued a mea culpa in a tweet addressed to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who had earlier issued a statement obliquely admonishing the congressman.
“While it is important 2 create context around the testimony of liars like Michael Cohen, it was NOT my intent to threaten, as some believe I did,” he wrote just before midnight. “I’m deleting the tweet & I should have chosen words that better showed my intent. I’m sorry.”
Speaker, I want to get the truth too. While it is important 2 create context around the testimony of liars like Michael Cohen, it was NOT my intent to threaten, as some believe I did. I’m deleting the tweet & I should have chosen words that better showed my intent. I’m sorry. https://t.co/Rdbw3sTQJD— Matt Gaetz (@mattgaetz) February 27, 2019
After Cohen’s testimony on Wednesday, Gaetz took to Twitter to note that he’d apologized to Trump’s former attorney.
I’ve personally apologized to @MichaelCohen212 4 referencing his private family in the public square. Regardless of disagreements, family members should be off-limits from attacks from representatives, senators & presidents, including myself. Let’s leave the Cohen family alone.— Matt Gaetz (@mattgaetz) February 28, 2019
His apologies may not appease Democrats, who demanded action against Gaetz. Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.) sent an official request to the chairman and ranking Republican of the House Ethics Committee on Tuesday asking them to open an investigation into Gaetz. Rice suggested that his tweet may violate a federal statute against witness tampering and intimidation.
“After the House Committee on Ethics thoroughly investigates this matter, I urge you to make any and all appropriate referrals to DOJ,” Rice wrote in the letter.
Gaetz, a staunch Trump ally who frequents the Fox News circuit to defend the president, has a history of making inflammatory remarks and pushing conspiracy theories, such as claims that Democrats in Florida tried to steal the November midterms with illegal ballots. In 2018, Gaetz invited a right-wing Internet troll as his guest to the State of the Union address and appeared on a radio show hosted by Alex Jones of Infowars.
When The Post reached Gaetz by phone after he sent the tweet, he made no apologies, maintaining that his message wasn’t meant to intimidate Cohen but, rather, to question his truthfulness.
“Challenging the credibility and veracity of a witness is something that happens every day in America,” he said, “and we need more of that in Congress when people intend to come and lie to us.”
Democrats have charged that Trump, his subordinates and other Republicans have been trying to silence Cohen as he has turned on his former boss. On Tuesday, Gaetz took to the House floor to question whether Cohen even “lies to his own family,” saying his “web of lies are not to be believed.”
But Gaetz’s tweet drew swift rebuke from Democrats and legal observers, who argued that he crossed a line.
“This isn’t a scene from Godfather II,” Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.) tweeted at Gaetz. “Witness intimidation is not going to work.”
“Hey @mattgaetz: Do you know about 18 U.S.C. § 1512(b), which prohibits tampering with witnesses to official proceedings?” Stephen I. Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law, wrote on Twitter, mimicking Gaetz’s tweet to Cohen.
“Hey @mattgaetz,” began Ryan Goodman, former special counsel to the Defense Department and now a New York University law professor. “Does your personal attorney know you’ve just engaged, very clearly, in the crime of witness tampering? Maybe tonight would be a good time for that chat.”
Pelosi did not directly condemn Gaetz’s tweet. But in a statement issued on Twitter to all House members around 6 p.m., she said: “I encourage all Members to be mindful that comments made on social media or in the press can adversely affect the ability of House Committees to obtain the truthful and complete information necessary to fulfill their duties.”
She urged that the House Ethics Committee “should vigilantly monitor these types of statements,” which she said may not be constitutionally protected speech.
Gaetz apologized and deleted his tweet about six hours later.
Cohen testified Wednesday morning before the House Oversight Committee and called Trump “a racist,” “a con man” and “a cheat” who had advance knowledge of the WikiLeaks plot to publish stolen emails from the Democratic National Committee.
Republicans in turn questioned Cohen’s credibility. Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison in December after being convicted of financial crimes and lying to Congress, in what U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley III described as a “veritable smorgasbord of criminal conduct.”
Cohen testified Wednesday that he lied to Congress in previous testimony about Trump’s business dealings in Moscow. He also said Trump did not directly instruct him to lie but implicitly suggested that he should.
In a statement Tuesday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said, “It’s laughable that anyone would take a convicted liar like Cohen at his word.”
Tim Elfrink contributed to this story.