Three years ago this month, Rep. Matt Gaetz went a little too far ahead of a congressional hearing. Former Trump Organization executive Michael Cohen was poised to testify before the House Oversight Committee, and the Florida congressman thought it’d be a good idea to taunt the witness, publishing a tweet about Cohen possibly going to prison.
Almost immediately, Gaetz was accused of witness tampering, causing the Republican firebrand to quickly retreat, delete the tweet, and issue an uncharacteristic apology.
The House Ethics Committee nevertheless concluded in 2020 that Gaetz violated House rules, and the panel issued a smack on the wrist.
The incident came to mind again this week after Republican Rep. Clay Higgins of Louisiana suggested to former Twitter executives during a committee hearing that they’d eventually be arrested.
According to the far-right Louisianan, the former Twitter employees deliberately interfered with the 2020 presidential election. “That’s the bad news: It’s going to get worse,” Higgins told the witnesses during an Oversight Committee hearing. “Because this is the investigation part; later comes the arrest part. Your attorneys are familiar with that.”
At face value, the rhetoric was quite bonkers. The entire hearing was designed to advance GOP conspiracy theories about Hunter Biden and social media, but the discussion proved largely the opposite of the points Republicans hoped to make. The idea that the proceedings generated evidence that would lead to arrests was impossible to take seriously.
And yet, there was Higgins, either unaware that the hearing was a flop or indifferent to what had transpired, suggesting to witnesses that they might want to prepare for prosecution. (Donald Trump, true to form, promoted a video of the comments through his social media platform.)
The problem, however, was not just that the GOP congressman was wrong. With the Gaetz/Cohen incident in mind, there was a related question: Had Higgins’ nonsense crossed a line of propriety? A Washington Post analysis added:
Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.) raised a point of order, declaring what had happened “awfully close to witness intimidation” and asking Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) to intervene. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) asked for clarification on the rules about accusing someone of a crime. Both labeled what transpired a “threat.” Comer said he didn’t see “any witness threatening” and merely urged members to observe decorum and treat witnesses with “respect.”
It’s certainly possible that Higgins will follow the Gaetz example and express some degree of contrition. It’s also possible that Republican politics is so badly broken that the Louisianan will turn the incident into a fundraising appeal.
Either way, even the congressman is struggling to defend his own conduct. When Higgins appeared on Fox News last night, Laura Ingraham asked the Republican what crimes he believes the former Twitter executives committed, he made vague references to some kind of unproven FBI conspiracy, but failed to point to anything specific.
If the House Ethics Committee reaches out, the far-right congressman might need a better response.