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Under pressure, Cawthorn changes his story about orgies, cocaine

Republicans appear to be angry with Madison Cawthorn, but to fully appreciate their priorities, let’s not forget they’re still far angrier with Liz Cheney.


House Republican leaders have a near limitless capacity for tolerating misconduct. Trying to overturn a presidential election? Great. Embracing the deranged QAnon delusion? No problem. Speaking at a white nationalist event? They’ll let it slide.

Siding with Vladimir Putin as he wages a brutal and unprovoked war against a U.S. ally? Fine. Releasing a video depicting a GOP member killing a Democratic colleague? Let’s not overreact.

But as it turns out, there are still some lines House Republican leaders don’t want their members to cross. NBC News reported:

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., met with first-term Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., on Wednesday about his claims of colleagues using drugs and inviting him to a “sexual get-together.” McCarthy said he told Cawthorn that “I lost my trust in him” because of the salacious claims and that there “could be” consequences as a result. He didn’t specify what those consequences could be.

If you’re just catching up on this story, Cawthorn appeared on a podcast last week and was asked whether the TV show “House of Cards” is realistic. The 26-year-old lawmaker said he couldn’t help but marvel at the “sexual perversion” of his older colleagues.

The North Carolina Republican, who has a reputation for peddling strange nonsense, proceeded to tell stories of his congressional colleagues inviting him to orgies and doing cocaine in his presence.

While many assumed this was just the latest in a series of Cawthorn's tall tales, his House GOP colleagues took the accusations seriously and expressed their outrage. McCarthy quickly arranged a private meeting with the freshman lawmaker, and the two met yesterday in the late morning.

The House minority leader soon after told Axios that Cawthorn acknowledged during their chat that his claims were “exaggerated.” Instead of seeing members of Congress doing “key bumps” of cocaine, the North Carolinian apparently told McCarthy he thought he saw “maybe a staffer in a parking garage from 100 yards away.”

According to a Politico report, Cawthorn told McCarthy “he doesn’t know what cocaine is.”

The minority leader appeared displeased. “I just told him he’s lost my trust,” McCarthy said of Cawthorn. “He’s going to have to earn it back.” The would-be House Speaker added, “It is just frustrating. There is no evidence behind his statements.”

Rep. Madison Cawthorn departs a briefing by senior Biden officials on Ukraine and Russia, in Washington on Feb. 3, 2022.
Rep. Madison Cawthorn departs a briefing by senior Biden officials on Ukraine and Russia, in Washington on Feb. 3, 2022.Graeme Sloan / Sipa USA via AP

Comments like these may seem relatively restrained, but for McCarthy, who’s practically obsessed with promoting party unity and loath to lash out at members of his own conference in public, it was an unusual rebuke.

Part of what makes this controversy notable is what it tells the public about the party’s breaking points. As practically every fair-minded congressional observer will concede, House Republicans say outrageous things on a nearly daily basis, nearly all of which go ignored by GOP leaders.

But a known fabulist told a literally unbelievable story about cocaine and orgies, and the party wasn’t about to let that go.

That said, at least at this point, Cawthorn isn’t facing any consequences of great significance. He faced a public rebuke from McCarthy, and I have no doubt that was unpleasant, but for now the far-right freshman remains a member in good standing.

The party could announce that it’s no longer supporting Cawthorn’s re-election campaign. It could endorse a primary rival in his North Carolina district. It could withdraw all financial support for Cawthorn and his political operation. It could strip him of his committee assignments. It could kick him out of the House GOP conference. As of this morning, McCarthy and the House Republican leadership team haven’t taken any of these steps, and they’ve given no public indication that such punishments are on the table.

In other words, while the party isn’t pleased with Cawthorn, it’s still far angrier with Rep. Liz Cheney — whom the Republican National Committee has formally denounced, and whose primary rival now enjoys official GOP backing.

The Wyoming congresswoman didn’t make up any stories about her colleagues partaking in orgies and cocaine, but she did denounce Donald Trump and seek answers about the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. And for House Republicans, that’s far worse.