WASHINGTON -- Matt Gaetz isn’t backing down.
The two-term congressman from the Florida Panhandle laughed off a Florida Bar inquiry into his tweets, which claimed, the night before former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen testified in a congressional hearing, that Cohen had extramarital relations, statements that invited claims of witness intimidation.
And he also vigorously denied claims that he’s been in touch with anyone at the White House regarding Cohen’s testimony this week, after a reporter said Gaetz had a phone conversation with President Donald Trump while the president was in Vietnam negotiating with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un. Recent conversations between Trump and Gaetz could mean that the president is coordinating with allies to discredit Cohen.
Gaetz, who said any reporting of phone conversations with the president this week was #FakeNews, paused when asked if he spoke with anyone at the White House this week.
“Not this week,” Gaetz said. “Wait I take that back, I had an unrelated conversation about trade with someone. Nothing about Cohen or any of that.”
Gaetz is one of Trump’s biggest defenders in Congress, frequently appearing on cable television and earning Trump’s respect and trust. He later apologized for his Cohen tweet and said Thursday that he reached out to Cohen via text message.
“I told him I was sorry and I shouldn’t have mentioned his family,” Gaetz said. “He appreciated that I acknowledged that mistake on my part. He asked me to publicly ask folks to leave his family alone and I thought that was a fair request.”
But that doesn’t mean Gaetz thinks Cohen, who detailed multiple illegal acts on behalf of Trump during his testimony, is credible.
“In my experience trying cases you put your best evidence up front. It’s noteworthy that when there was an attempt to surveil people close to president Trump the evidence [Democrats] put up front was the dossier,” Gaetz said. “And its notable that as Democrats begin the impeachment process the evidence they put up was Michael Cohen.” Gaetz was referring to a dossier containing explosive information about Trump complied by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a press conference on Thursday that pursuing a Trump impeachment is not an option for Democrats at this time, though some liberal members of her party disagree.
Gaetz said the Florida Bar’s preliminary investigation into his tweet is a formality because they received multiple complaints about it. He expects the inquiry to go no further.
“The Florida Bar has to investigate,” Gaetz said. “If I said [a reporter standing next to him] purposely wears striped ties because he knows they intimidate me and if I filed a bar grievance against him for that purpose, they would have to investigate, so I’m not concerned.”
There are layers of investigation that must be completed before Gaetz could face any formal punishment from the Bar, and he has a chance to formally respond. The inquiry announced Wednesday is a first step.
Gaetz tried to formally join Wednesday’s Oversight Committee hearing to question Cohen even though he is not a committee member, but he said Democrats blocked his request. Members often join committee hearings they are not a part of when they are particularly interested in an issue. The request is usually granted.
Florida Sen. Rick Scott said Gaetz’s actions in recent days were “embarrassing.”
“We shouldn’t be doing that stuff up here, you might not like what somebody is going to say but you shouldn’t be trying to intimidate them or their family, it’s wrong,” Scott said. “I think it’s disgusting and I’m glad he apologized.”
The 36-year-old lawmaker represents a Pensacola-based district that is the 15th most conservative in the United States based on recent presidential election votes. He was also an early supporter of Gov. Ron DeSantis and a critic of then-Gov. Rick Scott’s final days in office.
But he’s known for his theatrics in Washington.
Gaetz said Cohen isn’t credible and that it’s hard to take any of his statements that contradict news reports seriously, like his claim that he never visited Prague during the 2016 campaign to collude with the Russians. But he wants Cohen to keep talking, and Republicans to keep questioning him.
“I always want to hear more.”