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Rep. Matt Gaetz apologizes, deletes tweet seen by some as warning to Michael Cohen ahead of hearing

GOP rep tweets cryptic warning to Cohen

Republican Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz issued what was seen by many observers as a cryptic warning to President Trump's former personal attorney and fixer, Michael Cohen, in advance of Cohen's high-profile public testimony Wednesday on Capitol Hill. Cohen is expected to tell the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that Mr. Trump a racist, cheat and conman, and to say then-candidate Trump knew in advance about the release of hacked Democratic National Committee emails.

Gaetz isn't on that panel.

Gaetz, a staunch White House ally, apologized late Tuesday and deleted the controversial tweet. He was under heavy pressure.

In his earlier tweet, Gaetz said:

But Gaetz later relented, citing pressure from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, among others:

The earlier tweet by the conservative firebrand from Florida was sharply criticized by Democrats, including New Jersey Rep. Bill Pascrell, who accused Gaetz of attempting to intimidate a congressional witness and called on the House Ethics Committee to launch an investigation. 

"One of my colleagues, a duly elected member of Congress, has taken to twitter to intimidate a witness. This is grossly unethical and probably illegal (18 USC § 1512(b))," Pascrell tweeted Tuesday evening. "House Ethics must investigate this disgrace and stain on our institution."

The statute Pascrell cited reads in part, "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—(1) 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."

Matt Gaetz
U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Florida, seen Sept. 26, 2018. Getty

Asked by reporters outside his Capitol Hill office if his ominous tweet could be considered a threat against Cohen, Gaetz replied, "Absolutely not. We are witness testing, not witness tampering, and when witnesses come before Congress, their truthfulness and veracity are in question and we have the opportunity to test them."

In a statement to CBS News, Lanny Davis, one of Cohen's attorneys, said he expects lawmakers to "repudiate" Gaetz's 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," Davis said. "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."

Cohen concludes first day of congressional testimony marathon