By Jim Bleyer
Severe but not fatal—that’s the prognosis for the professional and political future of Donald Trump acolyte and Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz after he verbally attacked government witness Michael Cohen on Tuesday.
That was one day before Cohen gave damning testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that depicted the President as a racist, con man, and law breaker. Due to the timing of the Tweet, Gaetz was accused by many politicians and social media lions of engaging in witness tampering.
Here is Gaetz’ Twitter attack that mainstream media almost universally refers to as a “smear”:
Hey @MichaelCohen212,” Gaetz tweeted, tagging Cohen’s Twitter handle. “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…”
Gaetz removed the Tweet hours after posting it and apologized on Twitter for having written it, saying that while he wanted to “create context around the testimony of liars like Michael Cohen,” it “was NOT my intent to threaten as some believe I did.”
“I should have chosen words that better showed my intent. I’m sorry.”
That relatively quick backtrack probably saved Gaetz major professional problems but the political fallout will be longlasting, according to seasoned observers.
The Florida Bar immediately opened an investigation of Gaetz. On Thursday, the Democratic Coalition, a political action committee, said it had filed a complaint against Gaetz with the Office of Congressional Ethics alleging the congressman’s tweet violated federal criminal law, the House Code of Official Conduct, and House rules.
Naturally, social media also chimed in. The following post and other similar ones have gone viral:
“Matt Gaetz is a licensed attorney in Florida. His Bar Number is 48962. He violated 18 U.S.C. § 1512. He could be charged with a felony for witness tampering but this is also grounds for disbarment. Feel free call the Florida Bar and file an official complaint. The number is 1-866-352-0707. Please copy and repost.”
Despite the uproar, mostly from the left, two legal experts interviewed by Tampa Bay Beat firmly believe a Gaetz disbarment is a wild long shot.
A prominent Tampa Bay attorney asserted that Gaetz’ expeditious apology mitigated what could have become a far worse professional outcome for the Panhandle Congressman.
”Gaetz’ Tweet can easily be construed as a threat to a witness, something the Florida Bar takes extremely seriously,” the attorney said. “Even so, I would be surprised if punishment goes beyond a severe reprimand.”
Someone familiar with Florida Bar practices said its Lawyer Regulation Department has wide latitude in deciding whether or not to aggressively pursue an investigation of Gaetz. Discipline imposed, if any, would ultimately be up to the Florida Supreme Court.
“My gut feeling is that it won’t go very far and that even if there is ultimately some sort of sanction, it would be light,” the source suggested. “Additionally, the U.S. House could refer the matter to its Ethics Committee.”
Both sources said a Gaetz disbarment is difficult to imagine.
Politically, Gaetz’ future is far more cloudy. Yes, his district constituents could continually re-elect him but his stock has already fallen from rising star to shooting star. Once mentioned as having the inside track on a high-profile job within the Trump administration, a Gaetz appointment now carries baggage of Pullmanesque proportions.
The two-term Congressman represents a deep red district in Florida’s Panhandle. He won with 69 percent of the vote in 2016 and 67 percent in 2018.
During his Congressional tenure, Gaetz has served as a member of the Budget Committee, the Armed Services Committee, and the Judiciary Committee.