The sordid stories of Rep. Cawthorn’s life in Congress frustrate the GOP leadership

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Updated April 2, 2022 10:26 a.m. ET

Madison Cawthorn, the freshman Republican congressman from North Carolina, found herself in hot water with the GOP leadership after making comments — without evidence — linking members of her own party to drinking cocaine and orgies.

The 26-year-old described the “sexual perversion plaguing Washington” during an appearance on the Society of Warrior Poets podcast, saying he was asked to join a “sex encounter” at a politician’s home. Cawthorn did not provide specific details that could be used to verify his claims.

“And I’m like, ‘What did you just ask me to come?’ And then you realize they’re asking you to come to an orgy,” Cawthorn said.

He added: “Some of the people who are leading the movement to try to eradicate addiction in our country, and then you watch them do a big dose of cocaine right in front of you. And it’s like it’s wild.”

Cawthorn, who was elected in 2020, is a strong supporter of former President Donald Trump and has made a name for himself in the conservative House Freedom Caucus.

His comments prompted a backlash among his own colleagues and swift condemnation from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who berated Cawthorn at a meeting on Wednesday, as Politico first reported.

Afterwards, the GOP leader told reporters that Cawthorn’s comments were “unacceptable” and lacked evidence.

“There’s a lot of different things that can happen. But I just told him he lost my trust. He’s going to have to earn it back,” McCarthy said, as Politico reported.

It was a quicker-than-usual response from the GOP leader.

McCarthy had to step in to condemn various rhetoric and actions taken by members of his conference, decrying language used by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene that equated COVID-19 security measures with the treatment of Jews during the Holocaust and more recently. calling it “appalling” that Greene and Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona attended an event led by a white nationalist.

Democrats criticized McCarthy for not taking more decisive action against members who exhibited inappropriate behavior, pointing to Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert’s past Islamophobic comments about Minnesota Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar.

But McCarthy’s rebuke of Cawthorn came quickly and more publicly than in previous episodes, where the frontman issued statements distancing the conference from the rhetoric of far-right members.

“The difference here is that these are direct allegations or insinuations concerning [Cawthorn’s] colleagues,” said Rob Stutzman, a GOP political consultant. “Politicians will always be more self-serving than anything else. It felt a bit too personal to them, and that’s why we saw a harsher, more public reprimand than we’ve seen about other behaviors that would also seem appropriate to draw similar reprimands.”

Stutzman said McCarthy’s quick disparagement of Cawthorn indicated that a majority of the GOP conference wanted to see a strong warning from their leader.

Cawthorn’s comments are not his first foray into controversy, but he is now facing political backlash at home

In August, at a local GOP event in Macon County, North Carolina, he called those charged in connection with the January 6 attack on the United States Capitol “political hostages.” and said, “if our electoral systems continue to be rigged and continue to be robbed, then it’s going to lead to one place and that’s bloodshed.” Facing the backlash, Cawthorn introduced a resolution broadly condemning the political violence.

Cawthorn opened a legal expense fund in March to help defray costs associated with legal challenges to his re-election bid, after a group, citing a constitutional provision, sought to brand him an “insurgent” for his comments leading up to January 6, and have him disqualified for the ballot.

More recently, Cawthorn called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a “thug” and has two charges in his home country for driving with a revoked license.

“Cawthorn doesn’t have quite the same stardom that Taylor Greene has developed, or Matt Gaetz, or even Lauren Boebert,” Stutzman added. “It’s a bit of a different product that probably doesn’t have as strong a footing outside of the device as some of these other members.”

Republican Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina officially endorsed a primary challenger, State Sen. Chuck Edwards, following Cawthorn’s latest comments.

“The 11th Congressional District deserves a congressman who is completely dedicated to serving his constituents,” Tillis’ statement said. “Unfortunately, Madison Cawthorn falls far short of even the most basic standards western North Carolina expects of its representatives.”

But if losing Tillis’ endorsement and a reprimand from House leadership was meant to temper Cawthorn’s actions, it doesn’t seem to have worked.

Cawthorn tweeted a campaign ad Thursday, writing that “the radical left, the establishment and the media want to bring me down”, before promising: “I am not going anywhere”.

Friday night, Cawthorn tweeted a statement claiming that his podcast comments have been used by “the left and the media to disparage my fellow Republicans and falsely insinuate their involvement in illicit activities”.

Cawthorn did not acknowledge that it was his own words that implicated his fellow Republicans.

While the GOP leadership appears skeptical of Cawthorn’s future in the party, Cawthorn could get a boost from support from Trump himself, who has announced the North Carolina Republican will join him in taking speak at a rally next weekend.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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