“I don’t want to talk about that on the record,” Whatley said twice in a brief phone conversation when asked about Cawthorn.
Similarly, top members of the national Republican Party have said nothing publicly about the Cawthorn case. A spokesman for House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) did not reply to a request for comment.
The contrasting approach to Burr and Cawthorn starkly illustrates the dichotomy within the Republican Party as it navigates its future after the Trump presidency. Those who are perceived as attacking Trump are being disowned by the party’s leaders. Those who are seen as embracing the former president — notwithstanding serious allegations such as those against Cawthorn — are embraced or at least tolerated.
“It is what you would expect from a Trumpified party,” said Peter Wehner, a former official in the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. “One of the regrettable lessons Republicans have learned from the Trump years is there’s no need to apologize. The shame or embarrassment can get in the way of your political ascendancy. They don’t feel the need to explain themselves because might makes right.”
Bob Orr, a former elected justice of North Carolina’s Supreme Court who was a leading Republican in the state for 45 years, said he switched his party registration to unaffiliated last month after the censure of Burr. He said he could no longer tolerate the party’s allegiance to Trump, and he said he is not surprised that no party leader has raised concerns about Cawthorn. Burr did not respond to a request for comment.
“I think hell freezes over before they say something” about Cawthorn, said Orr, a resident of Cawthorn’s 11th District in western North Carolina. Noting that Cawthorn last week was a featured speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Orr said: “He’s a Trump ally. He’s a darling of CPAC. And so they are in no way, shape or form going to be saying or doing things that are potentially detrimental to Cawthorn or anybody else that supports Trump.”
Cawthorn, who at 25 years old is the youngest member of Congress, was the subject of a recent investigation by The Washington Post, which quoted three women on the record saying that he had acted inappropriately toward them, including one who said he forcibly kissed her in what she called an assault.
More than 150 former students and graduates from Patrick Henry College, which Cawthorn attended for one semester before dropping out, signed a letter during the campaign alleging that he was a sexual “predator.”
The article also examined a litany of false statements Cawthorn made about his background, including his campaign claim that an auto accident derailed his plans to attend the Naval Academy. In fact, Cawthorn said in a deposition that his application was rejected before the crash.
The 2014 accident happened when he was a passenger in a vehicle driven by a friend who said he dozed off at the wheel. Cawthorn said in a 2017 talk at the chapel at Patrick Henry College that his friend fled to the woods and left him to die in the “fiery tomb.” The friend, Bradley Ledford, told The Post in his first interview about the chapel speech that Cawthorn’s account was false and that he pulled him out of the wreckage.
Cawthorn, who is partially paralyzed and reliant on a wheelchair as a result of the accident, has declined interview requests from The Post and a number of other media outlets in recent days.
But on Tuesday, Cawthorn appeared on the television network Newsmax, which is friendly to pro-Trump Republicans. He was asked by the anchor whether the allegations against him were being raised by Democrats to distract attention from reports that New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) acted inappropriately with a number of women.
“Do you see that the political Democrats, socialist operatives at places like CNN and MSNBC and others are trying to use this old story to try to give cover to Governor ‘covid’ Cuomo?” Newsmax’s Chris Salcedo asked Cawthorn.
“Oh, absolutely,” Cawthorn responded, referring to “allegations of his own that are coming out. And you know what? I believe that everyone’s innocent until proven guilty, but it just makes so much sense that they’re going to start attacking a Republican because . . . they’re unable to defend their own governor in New York.”
Cawthorn said on the Newsmax program that the allegations of sexual harassment against him are “patently false.” Cawthorn did not respond to a request for comment.
Unlike the silence from Republican leaders about the allegations against Cawthorn, a number of leading Democrats have called on Cuomo to resign or be the subject of an investigation about allegations made by three women.
One former aide said Cuomo asked whether she would have a relationship with an older man; a second former aide said he kissed her without consent; and a third woman said he put his hands on her face at a wedding reception and asked whether he could kiss her. Cuomo has apologized for making “people feel uncomfortable” and has said he will cooperate with an investigation to be conducted by an outside law firm selected by New York’s attorney general.
In Cawthorn’s case, one woman told The Post that he forcibly kissed her in what she now considers an assault. A second woman said he took her on a drive during which she said Cawthorn became angry when she rejected his advances. A third women, Leah Petree, said that she rejected his offer to go on a “fun drive” because it implied some kind of sexual activity. She said he later called her a “just a little, blond, slutty American girl.”
Petree said via email that she hopes members of both political parties will act beyond reproach. “I hope that Rep. Cawthorn’s patterns of sexism, inappropriate behavior, and overall lack of integrity will no longer be tolerated or swept under the rug,” she wrote. “We are & can do better than Rep. Cawthorn. I specifically hope those from my hometown (Asheville, NC) and fellow conservatives will see his true character.”
George Erwin, a former sheriff of Henderson County who lined up a number of key endorsements for Cawthorn but has since become disillusioned with him, said he has heard a number of Republicans privately express concerns but said they won’t go public.
“I cannot speak for the GOP, but many I have talked to are concerned and feel that all the attention on Cuomo by Republicans and conservative publications, why not Cawthorn?” Erwin said. “They feel that it is hypocritical and that regardless of your party, if someone is a sexual predator, justice needs to prevail. However, if someone is innocent, that, too, should come to light.”
Chuck McGrady, a Republican who was a state representative in part of Cawthorn’s district until last year, said he finds Cawthorn to be “embarrassing.” But he said Republican leaders are not likely to criticize Cawthorn because that would lead to questions about loyalty to Trump.
Cawthorn is “just mimicking Trump in how he approaches things,” McGrady said. “Step away from the cult of personality and then you get criticized. There seems to be very little in the way of accountability.”
The Democratic Party in Cawthorn’s district has called upon Congress to investigate what it called Cawthorn’s seditious behavior, referring to his speech at the same Jan. 6 rally at which Trump spoke before a mob stormed the Capitol.
Moe Davis, the Democratic nominee who lost the race to Cawthorn, said via email that Cawthorn’s “role in fomenting an insurrection that got people killed should be investigated as a crime.” So far, however, no such probe has been launched, and no effort has been made by a member of Congress to try to investigate or censure Cawthorn.
As reports of Cawthorn’s actions have received more notice in Asheville and other areas that he represents, the campaign for his seat in 2022 is already beginning. The Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, a member of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, announced Wednesday that she planned to seek the Democratic nomination. A number of Republicans are privately discussing whether to launch a primary challenge.
Cawthorn, meanwhile, on Wednesday authorized the creation of the Cawthorn Triumph Committee, which is designed to raise funds both for his reelection committee and the National Republican Campaign Committee, according to campaign filings and the Triumph group’s treasurer.