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Lemon calls Gaetz tweet witness intimidation
04:24 - Source: CNN
Washington CNN  — 

Democratic Rep. Kathleen Rice of New York, a former federal prosecutor, has asked the House Ethics Committee to investigate a statement Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz made about Michael Cohen, saying that she believes the GOP lawmaker’s comments could rise to the level of witness tampering and intimidation.

Gaetz, a close ally to the President, tweeted at Cohen on Tuesday, saying, “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.”

The statement – which came the day before Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer, testified publicly before Congress – sparked an immediate backlash, including from some House Democrats who suggested that it amounted to witness intimidation.

In a letter sent to the chairman and top Republican on the House Ethics Committee on Tuesday, Rice asks for the panel to “immediately open an investigation” into the statement.

“As a former District Attorney and federal prosecutor, I believe this statement is in violation of 18 U.S. Code § 1512, which clearly defines witness tampering and intimidation,” the Democratic lawmaker wrote. “According to the Department of Justice (DOJ), this statue applies to proceedings before Congress.”

Rice walked over to the Republican side on the House floor during votes Tuesday night and raised the issue in a face-to-face conversation with the Florida congressman, according to a source familiar with the discussion. Later, she sent the letter to the Ethics Committee.

In her letter, Rice wrote, “After the House Committee on Ethics thoroughly investigates this matter, I urge you to make any and all appropriate referrals to DOJ.”

On Tuesday evening, Gaetz posted a follow-up statement to Twitter saying that he had decided to delete his earlier tweet and apologizing.

In response to a tweet from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi saying that lawmakers should 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,” Gaetz tweeted, “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.”

Gaetz then tweeted on Wednesday he had personally apologized to Cohen.

“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,” he said on Twitter.

Cohen is testifying publicly before the House Oversight committee on Wednesday at a blockbuster hearing that is ongoing.

The President’s former attorney and fixer has given testimony about his dealings with Trump and has been harshly critical of him, saying in his opening statement that the President is “a conman,” “a cheat” and “a racist.”

The White House has attacked Cohen’s credibility, labeling him as someone who cannot be trusted after he already pleaded guilty to lying to Congress.

Gaetz’s congressional office did not immediately respond to a CNN request for comment on the letter sent by Rice requesting an ethics probe.

A spokesman for the House Ethics Committee declined to comment on the letter.

ABC News was first to report on the letter.

Gaetz defended his statement to reporters on Tuesday night, saying that it did not constitute a threat. “Absolutely not. I’m not threatening anyone,” Gaetz said.

The GOP lawmaker also said that his message was not witness-tampering, but rather, “witness-testing.”

“This is not witness-tampering. It’s witness-testing,” Gaetz said. “We have an obligation in the Congress to test the truthfulness of people who come before us.”

Lanny Davis, an attorney for Cohen, said in a statement on Tuesday, “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 also said that the “congressman has set a new low — which in today’s political culture is hard to imagine as possible.”

The chairman of the House Ethics committee, Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch of Florida, declined to comment Tuesday night in an interview with CNN on what the committee might do regarding the tweet, but he said “members should certainly be aware of the rules of the House.”

“The Ethics Committee takes seriously our responsibility to enforce House rules. I cannot comment on any matters that may come before us. But certainly we’re well aware and members should certainly be aware of the rules of the House that everyone is subject to,” Deutch said.

CNN’s Jeremy Herb and Kate Sullivan contributed to this report.