The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Accusations against Rep. Madison Cawthorn multiply

Some increasingly frustrated Republican members privately hope voters penalize Cawthorn so they don’t have to do it.

Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas on July 9, 2021. (Emil Lippe for The Washington Post)

Since taking office nearly 16 months ago, Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) has been accused of many things.

Soon after he was sworn in, authorities said they confiscated a gun from the freshman lawmaker at an airport security checkpoint, which Cawthorn’s spokesman said was a mistake. It happened again last week, which Cawthorn said was a “flat out mistake.” The 26-year-old was charged with driving with a revoked license in March in North Carolina, following speeding citations in January and October, and his spokesman said he expected these “traffic matters to be resolved quickly.” Fellow House members accused Cawthorn of lying to a Capitol Police officer late last year to sneak a GOP candidate onto the House floor, which Cawthorn has declined to comment on. And fellow North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis last month called for a “thorough and bipartisan inquiry” of allegations of insider trading against Cawthorn, which he has yet to directly address. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) declared that Cawthorn “did not tell the truth” when he claimed that respected Washington leaders invited him to an orgy and snorted cocaine, but Cawthorn has yet to publicly retract his story.

In between, Cawthorn called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a “thug” and the Ukrainian government “incredibly evil,” claimed to have been armed during the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, and decided to run in a different congressional district this year before changing his mind and running in his original district, angering Republicans in his state.

Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a “thug” and said the Ukrainian government is “incredibly evil" at a recent event. (Video: WRAL)

For now, Cawthorn hasn’t faced any major consequences on the Hill. McCarthy has publicly said the embattled freshman has lost his trust — but Cawthorn hasn’t lost his committee assignments and there are no widespread calls for him to step down.

Although House Republicans have dutifully tried to present a united front, especially as regaining the majority in the midterm election this fall seems in reach, a growing number have publicly expressed their dismay with Cawthorn’s behavior — and, privately, several Republicans have said they hope voters in Cawthorn’s district penalize him in the May 17 Republican primary so Cawthorn’s colleagues don’t have to do something themselves.

“The voters of western North Carolina, ultimately, have to make that decision ... if they won’t, it’s up to leadership to deal with it,” said Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.). “For our side, it’s a leadership issue for us. … Lead on the issue, do the right thing.”

Cawthorn has broadly cast these accusations and others — including the release of some potentially embarrassing images — as part of a “coordinated drip campaign” and “coordinated assault” by liberals and members of “the North Carolina political establishment” who he says want to stop the agenda of former president Donald Trump.

The Making of Madison Cawthorn: How falsehoods helped propel the career of a new pro-Trump star of the far right

In response to a request for comment Friday, Cawthorn’s office forwarded a tweet in which the congressman expressed confidence he would survive the myriad accusations against him.

“I believe in some pretty aggressive government reforms. I want to change the GOP for the better, and I believe in America First,” he said. “I can understand the establishment attacking those beliefs, but just digging stuff up from my early 20s to smear me is pathetic.”

Tillis has made his frustrations known and endorsed one of Cawthorn’s Republican primary challengers, state Sen. Chuck Edwards (R) — the first time he said he has endorsed someone challenging a Republican incumbent. Tillis said Cawthorn lacks good judgment and “situational awareness” and appears to be failing his constituents in North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District, which includes liberal Asheville and deep-red Appalachia.

“I partner very well with most of the members of the delegation” from North Carolina, Tillis said last week. “Many of them call me when they need help for constituent service or for projects, grants, those sorts of things. Cawthorn’s been there for a year and a half, and I haven’t received a single call. Makes me wonder how much he’s focusing on the district and how much he’s focusing on his political career.”

He continued: “I’ll give you a classic example. When we had the floods in western North Carolina last year, our office is very good at responding to disasters, working with FEMA. We know the playbook. It was another example, not a single call from the member who represents that area.”

Tillis said that he understands that “people make mistakes” and learn from those mistakes.

“He’s a freshman member,” the senator said. “But I don’t, I don’t see much in the way of learning and growth.”

Edwards has cast himself as a serious lawmaker who can replace the “Instagram famous” Cawthorn. An ad released last week featured photos of Cawthorn smoking a cigar, drinking, working out and boxing a tree, then Edwards saying: “I’ll take the fight to Congress and leave social media to the other guys.”

Cawthorn has raised the most money of any candidate from either party running in the district, having collected more than $3.5 million, according to recent federal filings. Democrat Jasmine Beach-Ferrara has raised more than $1.4 million, Republican hotel and restaurant operator Bruce O’Connell has raised nearly $1.2 million and Edwards has raised nearly $650,000. As of the last filing date, late last month, Cawthorn had $242,304 cash on hand with $126,729 in outstanding debt.

Then there’s the “Fire Madison Cawthorn” effort launched by the American Muckrakers PAC, started by David B. Wheeler, a Democrat who has run for state Senate in western North Carolina, and Moe Davis, the Democrat Cawthorn beat in 2020.

In July, the super PAC obtained and released a Transportation Security Administration recording from the Asheville Regional Airport Authority of agents finding a Glock handgun in Cawthorn’s bag as he raced to catch a plane in February 2021. A spokesman said last year the congressman made a mistake. The next month, the group formally asked the Justice Department to conduct “an investigation into Rep. Cawthorn’s past and ongoing insurrectionist activities.” The month after that, they circulated photos that they said showed Cawthorn had taken a combat knife into several educational facilities in North Carolina, including to a school board meeting, prompting a county sheriff’s office to inform him that weapons are not allowed. They’ve also called attention to a letter signed by 150 of Cawthorn’s former college classmates just before the 2020 election that accused him of “gross misconduct towards our female peers, public misrepresentation of his past, disorderly conduct,” which Cawthorn has denied.

In April, the super PAC filed a complaint with the North Carolina State Board of Elections alleging misplacement of campaign signs and published the audio of a 16-minute call it had with a former Cawthorn staffer who alleges the congressman refused to give her time off during a family crisis, which a spokesman for Cawthorn said is “verifiably false.”

On Wednesday, the super PAC formally asked the Office of Congressional Ethics to investigate Cawthorn on seven possible violations of House ethics rules, including having a loaded gun at an airport. Under House rules, the office can launch an investigation based on such complaints and send any findings to the House Ethics Committee, which could determine a punishment. But the office has limited investigative authority during an election year, which means that the case — if it is accepted — may not take place swiftly. The committee declined to comment last week.

“I’m very proud of my constituents who are seeing through, kind of, this political, just, shenanigans and I’m very confident that we’re going to be able to win our reelection,” Cawthorn said in a video posted to Instagram on Tuesday.

In remaining defiant, Cawthorn has a powerful ally: Trump.

Cawthorn said he decided to run for office after watching Republican lawmakers block parts of Trump’s agenda. During the primary, Trump endorsed Lynda Bennett, an ally of his chief of staff, Mark Meadows, who previously represented the district. After Cawthorn handily beat Bennett by more than 30 percentage points, Trump quickly embraced the young, devoted candidate, and Cawthorn’s social media feeds were soon full of photos and videos of the two together. Cawthorn was also friends with Blake Meadows, the son of Mark Meadows.

Cawthorn spoke at the 2020 Republican convention and other major conservative gatherings, and he is a regular guest on conservative radio and podcasts, helping him build a national following and a fundraising war chest. Cawthorn spoke at Trump’s Jan. 6, 2021, rally that preceded an attack on the Capitol, telling the crowd: “The Democrats, with all the fraud they have done in this election, the Republicans, hiding and not fighting, they are trying to silence your voice.”

Cawthorn’s participation was enough for a group of lawyers to challenge his candidacy this cycle, arguing in a lawsuit that the freshman was disqualified from running after being “engaged in insurrection,” citing Section 3 of the 14th Amendment in the Constitution. A federal judge dismissed the case in early March. An attorney for Cawthorn called the lawsuit a “despicable attempt by the Democrats to undermine democracy.”

Republican leaders have been careful in trying to reprimand Cawthorn and other pro-Trump members for fear of losing the support of Trump supporters or further dividing their splintered party.

McCarthy tries to navigate splintering divide among House Republicans

McCarthy prefers to handle the misdeeds of his members in private — but then in an interview with the “Warrior Poet Society” podcast in late March, Cawthorn detailed the “sexual perversion that goes on in Washington.”

“I mean, being kind of a young guy in Washington, where the average age is probably 60 or 70 — you know, I look at all these people, a lot of them that I’ve always looked up to through my life, always paid attention to politics, guys that you know. Then all of the sudden you get invited to, like, ‘Oh hey, we’re going to have kind of a sexual get-together at one of our homes. You should come,’ ” Cawthorn said. “And then you realize they’re asking you to come to an orgy.”

Cawthorn also claimed that he had witnessed “people that are leading on the movement to try and remove addiction in our country” consume “a key bump of cocaine right in front of you.”

This time, several Republican members refused to keep their anger hidden and demanded that McCarthy do something. The Republican leader called Cawthorn to his office for a private meeting, then publicly rebuked Cawthorn for, he says, not telling the truth and making a series of mistakes.

“I mean he’s got to turn himself around,” McCarthy said before noting that Cawthorn must now work to regain his trust. “This is unacceptable and there is no evidence to this, he changes what he tells and that’s not becoming of a congressman. He did not tell the truth.”

Two days later, Cawthorn was announced as a speaker at Trump’s next political rally. The following week, the young congressman gave a fiery speech to hundreds of Trump supporters in Selma, N.C. He declared that Washington is “controlled by dark forces,” called President Biden a “geriatric despot” who should be impeached and said that Anthony S. Fauci, who has been the face of this pandemic over two administrations, should be imprisoned.

And as he often does at political events, the lawmaker told of the car accident that left him paralyzed and using a wheelchair and then, with the help of two aides, pulled himself up and delivered the rest of the speech standing as the crowd roared in approval.

“God spared my life! He has given me the strength to stand before you today!” Cawthorn yelled. “So do not lecture me on what is impossible!”

When Trump took the stage later that day, he said: “He loves his country, and he loves his state, and I’ll tell you that he’s respected all over the place … He’s got a big voice, Madison Cawthorn.”

Clips of the remarks were soon on Cawthorn’s social media accounts.

On Wednesday — a month after McCarthy says he sternly told Cawthorn to turn his life around — TSA officials said they confiscated a loaded gun that was in Cawthorn’s bag at the Charlotte airport.

On Friday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said McCarthy needs to recognize that some of his members can pose a safety risk and take action. In doing so, she echoed reporting of audio recordings from after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack of McCarthy expressing fear that several far-right members would incite violence against other lawmakers.

“It just seemed inconsistent to me, especially now that one of his members was seen taking a gun into an airport,” Pelosi said of McCarthy, without naming Cawthorn. “I thought you were arrested for that, trying to take a gun on a plane. I guess … his member was treated differently.”

Cawthorn acknowledged the incident in an Instagram post on Thursday, writing: “I made a mistake yesterday, no excuse for it, just a flat out mistake.” In an accompanying video, he reminded everyone that early voting had started in North Carolina and said with a smirk: “Fly safe, make sure you don’t have a gun in your bag.”

Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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