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The many controversies surrounding Madison Cawthorn

Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) appears at a Trump rally in April in North Carolina. (Allison Joyce/Getty Images)
7 min

Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) recently lost the primary for his seat after the Republican Party (save, notably, Donald Trump) turned against him over his many scandals, and voters in his deep-red district ousted him in favor of a quieter, more traditional Republican.

Now, Cawthorn is under investigation from Congress’s ethics committee. So what did he do to draw the ire of so many in his party and what could happen to him? Here’s a running list.

First, who is Cawthorn? At 26, he is the youngest member of Congress. He got elected in 2020 to a very conservative seat in North Carolina after emulating Trump’s politics.

Cawthorn has repeatedly lied about his personal history, saying he was accepted into the U.S. Naval Academy when he was not and misrepresenting details of the car accident that left him in a wheelchair. Multiple women have accused him of sexual misconduct.

During his campaign, Cawthorn traveled to the Mexican border and said without any evidence that children were being sold “on a sex slave market.” On social media, he shared photos of himself featuring symbols associated with such far-right groups as the Oath Keepers.

In Congress, he has closely aligned himself with the right wing of the party, protesting House mask mandates alongside Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.).

Here are the major controversies he has been involved in, roughly in order of what has been most offensive to Republicans.

1. He accused Washington Republicans of hosting orgies and using cocaine

In a March podcast, Cawthorn said people he “looked up to” in Washington used cocaine and invited him to orgies: “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.”

This, more than anything else, seems to have broken Republicans from Cawthorn: Without naming names or providing any proof, Cawthorn cast his colleagues as characters out of “House of Cards.” Some Republicans said they heard from constituents wondering whether their lawmaker had participated in these alleged gatherings. House GOP leaders met with Cawthorn to address his remarks.

“He’s got a lot of members very upset,” McCarthy said, publicly lecturing him and calling Cawthorn’s claims a lie. McCarthy indicated Cawthorn acknowledged he was exaggerating, but Cawthorn has yet to publicly walk back his comments.

2. He called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a “thug”

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)

“Remember that Zelensky is a thug. Remember that the Ukrainian government is incredibly corrupt, and it is incredibly evil, and it has been pushing woke ideologies,” Cawthorn told supporters in North Carolina in March.

Zelensky addressed a joint session of Congress in March and received bipartisan applause. Republicans in Congress regularly push the Biden administration to offer Zelensky more military assistance.

Cawthorn’s comments irritated Republicans: “It’s not the time to toss accusations around like that,” Rep. Roger Williams (R-Tex.) told CNN.

How far will Biden go to help Ukraine?

3. He tried to carry a gun onto a plane, twice

In April, Cawthorn was cited by Charlotte police for trying to bring a loaded gun — in the photo above — onto a plane. He had the gun in his carry-on bag, and Transportation Security Administration agents caught it. This was the second time in recent months that Cawthorn has tried to do this.

Democrats have asked the TSA for more details and pushed the TSA to punish repeat offenders.

Cawthorn has also claimed that he had a weapon in the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, during the insurrection, though it is unclear whether this broke any rules.

4. He has been cited for driving without a license, twice

In March, police pulled Cawthorn over in rural North Carolina and found he was driving with a revoked license. He was charged with the same thing in 2017, reports the Asheville Citizen Times.

5. He’s been recently cited for speeding, twice

It’s not clear why his license had been revoked. But we do know he’s been cited twice for speeding in recent months (and other times in past years). He was cited in October for speeding — driving 89 mph in a 65-mph zone — and in January for going 87 mph in a 70-mph zone.

He faces a Friday court date for driving without a license; he has a June court date for speeding. State troopers just released footage of them pulling over Cawthorn and taking his license: “Is that so?” he says, after police tell him it had previously been revoked.

6. He’s under congressional investigation for insider trading

The Washington Examiner published a photo of Cawthorn from December with the creator of a cryptocurrency that Cawthorn owns, reporting that in an Instagram comment the next day, he predicted the currency would “go to the moon.” It did, raising questions of whether Cawthorn illegally used his knowledge and connections to make money.

Less than a week after Cawthorn lost his primary, the House Ethics Committee announced it was investigating Cawthorn for insider trading. One of Cawthorn’s biggest critics, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), had called for them to investigate last month.

7. A former aide filed a workplace complaint against him

She alleges that Cawthorn refused to let her take leave during a family medical crisis, which included her husband having a heart attack. A PAC trying to oust Cawthorn has leaked audio of this former employee saying he is “just a bad person,” Smoky Mountain News reports.

8. He allegedly lied to bring a friend onto the House floor

The House of Representatives has strict rules about who can be on the House floor — limiting it mostly to the lawmakers themselves. But in December, Cawthorn brought someone running for Congress on the floor. The Hill reports Cawthorn lied to security and said this person was a staffer. It rankled at least one Republican lawmaker, who told The Hill that they were caught off guard to see someone running for Congress trying to chat with them.

9. Some of his own voters sued him to try to stop him from serving in Congress

The voters, led by a campaign finance group, called Free Speech for People, argued in court that Cawthorn and Greene are ineligible for office because they had violated a Civil War-era rule that says a member of Congress can’t serve if they “engaged in insurrection or rebellion.”

Cawthorn attended the rally that preceded the Jan. 6 riot and has endorsed Trump’s false voter-fraud claims. He has denied any involvement in planning the rally, either by him or his aides.

A federal judge sided with Cawthorn on a technicality but didn’t offer a judgment whether there was a reasonable suspicion that he helped the insurrection. (A federal judge let Greene’s case proceed, and she had to testify in court last week.)

This story has been updated with the latest news.