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Representative Madison Cawthorn seen as rising star of far right, despite past allegations of misconduct

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Representative Madison Cawthorn is currently the youngest member of Congress. He easily won his congressional district, despite having very little political and job experience. He has also faced allegations of sexual misconduct and misrepresenting his past. Michael Kranish, a national political investigative reporter for The Washington Post, discusses his recent article diving into Cawthorn's past and rise to prominence.

Video Transcript

- Freshman Congressman Madison Cawthorn is quickly becoming a rising star among pro-Trump Republicans. At 25, he's the youngest member of the House of Representatives. Cawthorn easily won his race for North Carolina's 11th district, a majority Republican area in the western part of the state. He won despite having little political and job experience. During the election, it was also revealed that Cawthorn misrepresented aspects of his past, including the accident that left him partially paralyzed. He also faced allegations of sexual misconduct from former classmates.

A recent "Washington Post" article, "The Making of Madison Cawthorn, How Falsehoods Helped Propel the Career of a New Pro-Trump Star of the Far Right" dives into Cawthorn's ascent to Capitol Hill. Michael Kranish is the author of that article and joins me now with more. Michael is a national political investigative reporter for "The Washington Post." Michael, welcome. Thank you very much for being with us.

MICHAEL KRANISH: Thank you.

- How was Congressman Cawthorn able to get elected to Congress given the controversies that you spelled out in your piece?

MICHAEL KRANISH: Well, it's really interesting. You know, this stems from the fact that you mentioned. He's the youngest member of the House at 25. That's the minimum age you can be to be elected to the US House. He had experience working at Chick-fil-A. He worked part time for former Congressman Mark Meadows. He said he was beginning a career as a real estate investor, and he was 24 years old during most of the campaign. A lot of his adulthood had been during the Trump presidency, and he followed a lot of the Trump playbook.

As you mentioned, there was a key part of his biography that was on his website and the campaign ads, and it said that the very tragic accident that left him partially paralyzed [INAUDIBLE] derailed, unquote, his plans to go to the US Naval Academy in Annapolis. In fact, he said in a deposition in a case related to the insurance regarding the crash that he had been rejected before the crash. So it simply was not true that the crash had derailed his plans. That was not known until after he won the Republican runoff. It was known during the general election.

But as you mentioned, this is a majority Republican district. And once you've won the runoff on the GOP side, basically, he'd won the race. And then after he came to Congress, sworn in on January 3rd, he attended and spoke at the January 6th rally at which President Trump also spoke and which led to the storming of the Capitol.

So that really got our attention as well and raised the question, how did this person go from being pretty unknown, not a whole lot of background in his resume, facing these allegations from classmates [INAUDIBLE]

--and won [INAUDIBLE] a lot of detail about things that occurred during the race, key contributions, all sorts of things that really tell you not just about this race, but really about how Congress works, how Washington works, how political campaigns work, and you see it through the eyes of this campaign in this unusual race.

- So when Cawthorn was headed to the general election, more than 150 alumni from his college signed a letter, and they accused him of gross misconduct toward female peers, public misrepresentation, disorderly conduct, and academic failings. Now, the letter urged voters to re-evaluate Cawthorn's candidacy. Michael, what did voters think at the time?

MICHAEL KRANISH: Well, this letter came out later in the race, and the people who signed this letter wanted to send a message to the district. These are students who went to a small, conservative Christian college in Purcellville, Virginia with Cawthorn. Cawthorn went to this college for one single semester. According to his own deposition, he got mostly Ds in that one semester. Then he dropped out, and that was the sum total of his higher education, his college education experience, so another part of his resume that was pretty thin.

I interviewed three women, two of whom went to college with him, one who knew him earlier, and they alleged on the record that he had acted inappropriately with them. One said that he forcibly kissed her and that he had she had to actually pull her hair out of his wheelchair. So these are pretty serious allegations. 150 students and alumni signed a letter. Most of them, of course, did not have direct experience like that with him, but they signed it in support based on things that they had heard, and then there were these women, as I mentioned, who are on the record about this.

- Well, after winning the seat, Congressman Cawthorn quickly became one of former President Trump's most loyal supporters, and he also repeated misinformation about the election being stolen from Mr. Trump. Is Congressman Cawthorn still standing by those claims, and how have his fellow Republicans responded?

MICHAEL KRANISH: Well, yes. He had a six minute video that appeared on December 31st, so after judges across the country basically said these claims are not valid. And in his video, he said that voter fraud is common. It's not common, and made all sorts of allegations about the election, many of which were baseless as we report on, and he basically-- he said at one point, fact check that. Fact check that.

So if you fact check it, in fact, a lot of those claims don't stand up, but he put this out there on Twitter. President Trump retweeted it saying, thank you, Madison, exclamation point, and it was viewed four million times. I asked Twitter about this, whether this met their Civic integrity standards, and they then put a warning on it saying this tweet cannot be retweeted due to threats of possible violence.

So they took it seriously after we brought it to their attention. And you can look at that video, and you can look at the warning at the bottom of it and draw your own conclusions.

- Well, Congressman Cawthorn, as you mentioned, also spoke at that rally ahead of the deadly Capitol riots on January 6th, and he also claimed that Democrats were behind the insurrection. Has the Congressman faced any backlash from his colleagues on that point?

MICHAEL KRANISH: You know, I've asked members about this. I've reached out to Republican leadership about this. You know, are you going to look at this, look at these allegations of the sexual misconduct, what he said at the rally. I so far have not seen a elected official speak out about this from the Republican Party. The Democratic Party in North Carolina from his district has asked for an investigation on what do they called his seditious behavior. So as of now, that investigation-- there's no formal investigation, and Republicans so far have not publicly announced that they want to investigate his actions.

- And Michael, did you speak to the Congressman for the article? And I wonder, has he responded since your article came out?

MICHAEL KRANISH: I certainly asked to speak to the Congressman. This was done over a period of several weeks, so they knew for quite a long time the story was being reported. They asked me to send a list of questions, which I did. They did not respond to most of them at all. They sent me a statement saying that Cawthorn denies any sexual misconduct, and they basically didn't answer most of the questions that I had asked.

Since the story has been published, I have heard nothing directly from the Congressman or his office.

MICHAEL KRANISH: And I wonder, looking ahead, Michael, based on your reporting and what you just said a moment ago about sort of the lack of some kind of response from Republican leadership, what is your sense? Will Congressman Cawthorn continue to rise in the Republican Party ranks?

MICHAEL KRANISH: Well, so far, the Republican Party has responded by appointing him to the education committee even though he only has one semester of college experience, as I mentioned. And they appointed him to the Veterans Affairs Committee, even though he was rejected by the Naval Academy. So that so far has been the way that the Republican Party has responded to him.

- All right, a really eye opening report. Michael Kranish, thank you so much for joining us.

MICHAEL KRANISH: Thanks for having me.