Madison Cawthorn was rising star in GOP ranks, two years later missteps threaten political career

House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy met with Cawthorn over his recent controversial statements and said: “He’s lost my trust. He’s going to have to earn it back.”

Updated: April 1, 2022 - 9:25am

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

Rep. Madison Cawthorn was a rising star in the GOP ranks just two years ago – elected at age 25 to become the youngest Republican to join the House. But a continuing series of missteps has thrown his political future into jeopardy, with some of his party's most influential members now poised to punish him or show him the door. 

His most recent comments about fellow lawmakers doing cocaine and inviting him to orgies resulted in a sit-down Wednesday with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

McCarthy emerged from to the meeting to say Cawthorn, now 26, had "lost my trust" and would have to regain it.

"He’s going to have to earn it back," McCarthy said.

The California Republican also said Cawthorn had failed to tell the truth and suggested further disciplinary action could be coming. 

However, that wasn't enough for other members of the GOP congressional conference, including North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis, who is backing a May 17 primary challenge to Cawthorn. Tillis announced that he's endorsing state Sen. Chuck Edwards for the seat.

"Mr. Cawthorn hasn't demonstrated much in the way of results over the last 18 months," Tillis said glumly. 

Edwards also has the backing of North Carolina state Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore.

Arkansas GOP Rep. Steve Womack said reprimanding Cawthorn for his latest controversial statements fell short of what's needed.

"Frankly, if western North Carolina is not going to fix the problem, then leadership will have to," he said.

Georgia GOP Rep. Austin Scott said Thursday on the John Solomon Reports podcast: "If the [Cawthorn] accusation is found to be true, then that member needs to be disciplined."

There's also reportedly been concern about Cawthorn's actions within the House Freedom Caucus, the chamber's most conservative group.

Cawthorn's office did not return a request for comment for this story. 

Cawthorn acknowledged last December, when he and his wife of eight months announced their pending divorce, that after winning in 2020 "overnight our lives changed."

"That change has been both hectic and difficult," said Cawthorn, who was paralyzed from the waist down at 18 after a car accident. "It's neither the pace nor the lifestyle we planned for."

While the past several weeks have been a political downward spiral for Cawthorn – including a charge on March 3 for driving on a revoked license – he exhibited questionable behavior even before Election Day 2020.

In the later stages of his 2020 campaign, a 2017 Instagram post surfaced with a picture of him at Eagle’s Nest, Hitler’s vacation home, and Cawthorn referring to Hitler as "the Fuhrer." He also said the spot was on his "bucket list."

The incident nearly put his solid-red district in jeopardy with about three month left before the General Election. 

Cawthorn rebounded quickly, winning praise from then-President Trump for helping the GOP keep the House seat previously held by Mark Meadows, who went on to serve as Trump's chief of staff. 

To be sure, his story has captivated voters, many of them young conservatives, as well as the political class.

"At 20, I thought about giving up. However, I knew I could still make a difference. My accident gave me new eyes to see, and new ears to hear," he said from the stage of the 2020 Republican National Convention. "At 20, I made a choice. In 2020, our country has a choice. We can give up on the American idea or we can work together to make our imperfect union more perfect."

The Washington Post later dubbed him the "new pro-Trump star of the far-right."

Over the past few weeks, however, Cawthorn seems to run into a constant stream on controversy.

Earlier this month, he referred to Ukraine President Zelensky as a "thug" and called the Ukrainian government "incredibly evil," amid Russia's unprovoked invasion of neighboring Ukraine. 

He promptly issued an apology in which he called the actions by Russia and its leader Vladimir Putin "disgusting," but the damage had already been done. 

"Madison is wrong," McCarthy said. "If there's any thug in this world" it's Putin.

Then, just as the dust started to settle on the Ukraine comments, Cawthorn said on a podcast that he was invited to parties by members of Congress involving orgies and cocaine – allegations that could not be proven.

"I look at all these people, a lot of them that I’ve looked up to through my life, I've always paid attention to politics," he said. "Then all of the sudden you get invited to: 'Well hey we’re going to have kind of a sexual get-together at one of our homes, you should come,' "

"I’m like: 'What did you just ask me to come to?' " Cawthorn continued. "Then you realize they are asking you to come to an orgy."

Cawthorn also said some of the people leading the movement to tackle addiction in the U.S. are using illegal drugs.

"You watch them do, you know, a key bump of cocaine right in front of you, and it’s like 'Wow, this is wild,' " he said.

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