Lynne Patton, a Trump administration official, was a surprise guest at Wednesday's House Oversight Committee hearing with Michael Cohen. Her attendance prompted a tense exchange late in the hearing, with a Democratic member saying her presence was a racist act.
Hours before that exchange, Patton sat behind and was introduced by Republican Rep. Mark Meadows during the hearing and stood up when Meadows began his questioning. Meadows presented Patton, an African-American woman, as a refutation of Cohen's claim that Trump is a "racist."
Patton is a longtime associate of the Trump family who is now a high-ranking political appointee to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. She was introduced to the family by Cohen, and Patton became ingratiated in Trump's world. She served as vice president of the Eric Trump Foundation. Patton worked as an event planner for the Trump family and planned Eric Trump's 2014 wedding.
Patton was among the speakers at the Republican National Convention in 2016 and was a surrogate for the Trump campaign. After the election, Patton began working at HUD, taking over as the regional administrator for the New York and New Jersey HUD office in June 2017. Critics of Patton's appointment at HUD have pointed to her lack of experience in federal housing policy.
Her tenure at HUD has been marked by her outspoken and controversial personal tweets. Patton called White House correspondent April Ryan "Miss Piggy" on Twitter, for which she later apologized.
She also accused CNN of manufacturing coverage of Hurricane Florence and commented approvingly on an Instagram post mocking an alleged sexual assault victim.
Patton's appearance Wednesday on Capitol Hill appears to be on her own time.
"Lynne is on leave today and is at the hearing in her personal capacity," HUD spokesman Raffi Williams told CNN. Patton's office is based in Manhattan.
In a Twitter post Wednesday morning, Patton stated she was there "in support" of President Trump and the truth.
Asked by CNN why Patton was there, Meadows said "she has information." But Patton did not speak during the hearing or provide that information.
As the hearing neared its end, Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the final Democratic questioner, criticized Meadows for bringing Patton.
"The fact that someone would actually use a prop, a black woman, in this chamber in this committee is alone racist in itself," Tlaib said.
Meadows immediately accused Tlaib of breaking decorum and asked for her words to be taken down. After several minutes of discussion with the chairman of the committee, Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings, of Maryland, Tlaib said she only meant to describe the action as racist, not Meadows himself. Meadows accepted this explanation.