Hey, Tony, he said to a janitor. Hi Robin, hope you’re having a good morning, to some congressional staffer with a laminated ID swinging from a lanyard. It had only taken Cawthorn a few weeks in Washington to become a widely-recognized figure, what with the cutting profile and ever-present wheelchair and the events of Jan. 6 still echoing off the tan glazed bricks lining the corridors.
Cawthorn pushed the elevator button as he exchanged hellos with two maintenance men who’d called his name. Once inside, the doors closed and the floor lurched skyward and a gentle hum droned through the shaft. Nary a year ago the gregarious Cawthorn, like a magnet, first pulled all the attention and energy away from a half-dozen has-beens, wanna-bes and never-would-bes, all of whom had designs on then-Rep. Mark Meadows’ vacant seat at a Jackson County Republican Party event in Dillsboro.
SEE ALSO: The Inauguration in pictures
It was that aura that propelled Cawthorn, then an unknown 24 year old from Henderson County, through a field of a dozen Republican primary opponents and into a March runoff against a candidate endorsed by Meadows, President Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Jim Jordan. During the four-month stretch from runoff to General Election, Cawthorn didn’t so much campaign as he did shepherd a deep red movement that ultimately sent him to Washington by a decisive margin over an eminently qualified moderate Democrat who’d spent more time as an Air Force lawyer than Cawthorn had spent outside the womb.
Jerking open, the elevator doors slowly revealed sunlight playing through paneled windowpanes against the soft mustard walls, down onto brass-capped iron railings in a corner stairwell on the ground floor of the Cannon Building, a five-story, 113-year-old Beau Arts gem that houses the offices of hundreds of members of Congress representing millions of Americans. The long, wide hallway to Cawthorn’s office was serene and deserted, like much of Washington was. Most federal employees were told to work from home during inaugural week due to lingering threats from insurrectionists, the sheer onerousness of the ominous concentric perimeter of fencing secured by scads of National Guardsmen and — oh yeah — COVID-19.
Behind a handsome desk, jotting notes on a pad in his relatively unadorned office, Cawthorn sits with his back to a window through which soldiers can be seen loading out for home on this, the first full day of Joe Biden’s presidency. To Cawthorn’s right, a deep red wall. To his left, deep blue. High above his head, a white ceiling completes a motif evocative of North Carolina’s flag. On the floor, a pair of dumbbells. Propped up against a wall, a small mattress.
When Cawthorn first entered the race in December 2019, he’d perhaps envisioned himself in this place, at this time. Then, it was highly likely he’d be serving under a Republican president and a Republican Senate.
Now, after a historic election, an insurrection, two impeachments, a global pandemic and an inauguration, he’s a freshman member of a minority party in a government under unified Democratic control and constituents are already demanding his removal, as are other members of Congress.
In office for less than a month, Rep. Madison Cawthorn’s already been besieged with distractions. Jeffrey Delannoy photo
Getting to Madison Cawthorn in his Cannon office on Thursday, Jan. 21, would have been easier had it been during any of the previous 57 inaugurations that have taken place in Washington, D.C., but in response to the violence of Jan. 6, the town appeared as if under military occupation as early as Jan. 17. More than two-dozen thousand National Guardsmen had been summoned to staff the miles and miles of perimeter fencing that ringing a vast streetscape that included the Capitol, the National Mall, the Washington Monument, the White House and, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.
Streets were empty on the evening of the 18th. Garbage cans gone. Hotels at reduced capacity. Airbnb cancelled all reservations. Metro trains slipped through stations strategically closed. Capitol Police, mourning the loss of one of their own with black bands on their brass badges, lingered near the checkpoints. No one, they said, was to be allowed inside the perimeter except for members of Congress and credentialled staff, by order of the Sergeant-At-Arms of the United States Senate.
The next morning, Capitol Police reiterated that policy when they rebuffed our insistence that we’d been invited to Cawthorn’s office. Even Cawthorn’s scheduler came out and couldn’t talk us in; he said they’d been given conflicting messages about who was permitted, and who was prohibited. We agreed to try to meet off-site later, or tomorrow, frustrated but grateful for the abundance of security.
Of course, that security might not have been a thing but for the Jan. 6 rally at the Ellipse, where Trump, Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks, Cawthorn and others spoke, encouraging the crowd to “fight” and as Trump said, “ … walk down to the Capitol, and we’re going to cheer on our brave senators, and congressmen and women. We’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong. We have come to demand that Congress do the right thing and only count the electors who have been lawfully slated, lawfully slated. I know that everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol building to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard. Today we will see whether Republicans stand strong for integrity of our elections, but whether or not they stand strong for our country.”
Trump’s since been impeached for inciting the insurrection, but a day of reckoning may also come for Cawthorn and other elected officials who joined in the call to action that resulted in the massive inaugural security presence.
Those security concerns were also felt by people on the other side of the fence — especially journalists. Later that day, we visited an Alexandria, Virginia, military surplus store that told our photographer Jeffrey Delannoy by phone that they specialized in selling personal protective equipment for media use.
“It’s body armor — both soft handgun protective and the level three/four ballistic plates to protect against rifle fire — ballistic helmets, and the big item is gas masks,” said Mark Richards, co-owner of Full Metal Jacket since 1988. “We stock, actually a good mask. It’s perfect for journalists. It’s a full-face, easy to see, and it’s not terribly expensive and it’s real dummy-proof and they love them, and that’s why I stock them and we keep them, we keep them in stock year-round.”
Richards’ establishment looks like almost any other Army-Navy store with the usual racks of jackets and packs and canteens and hats that can be found in such establishments across the country.
On the day before the inauguration it was buzzing with activity.
“I would say our media business is through the ceiling,” he said. “Normally it’s like selling umbrellas. If it ain’t raining, they ain’t buying umbrellas. So if there’s not a threat, they ain’t buying body armor. In the last, like say two weeks, it’s been up hundreds of percent in media sales.”
Later that night, sitting down for the first time all day in a sports pub, I noticed a missed call and voicemail from a Virginia number. Reading through the iPhone’s low-quality voicemail transcription, a few words stuck out: “police … Arlington … talk … soon.”
Stepping outside to return the call, I reached the Arlington County Police Department and the first words that came through the phone were just as unnerving as the worrisome prophecy from the surplus store owner earlier that day.
“Housekeeping at the Ritz-Carlton found your body armor,” the detective said. “I’d just like to ask you a few questions about that.”
Prior to the insurrection of Jan. 6, federal law enforcement agencies had received tips that some of the people Trump had invited to Washington for his Ellipse rally might not have the most peaceable of intentions. Those federal tips filtered down to county and local governments in the two states that surround D.C. Local law enforcement had reasoned that if thousands of people were coming they’d all need a place to lay their heads, so they reached out to hotels, warning them to be on the lookout for people bringing weapons, weapon cases or military-style gear.
That’s right, the first line of defense against domestic terrorism was a bunch of minimum-wage hotel housekeepers. After Jan. 6, their vigilance continued.
In true detective fashion, the officer who called already knew the answers to the questions he’d been asking. Yes, we’re journalists. No, we didn’t bring weapons. Yes, we’d only hoped to return safely to our homes and families after the inauguration, just like you.
As Inauguration Day then dawned, it was quickly apparent that “The Storm” and “The Kraken” — Qanon parlance for some supposed uprising by right-wing domestic terrorists — was not coming. Apparently those “patriots” felt far more comfortable scrapping with a bunch of overmatched Capitol Police on Jan. 6 than facing off against an armed military force larger than America currently had in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria combined on Jan. 20.
Streets remained empty and there was no noticeable uptick in passengers on the Metro trains slinking through shuttered stations bound for downtown during what would usually be morning rush. We’d talked about getting to Madison Cawthorn in his office on Wednesday morning, or evening, but both were fantasy on such a busy day so we spent the morning combing the perimeter, looking for signs of trouble.
Thankfully, there were none. Right about the time National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman was challenging Americans to see and to be the light that would soon banish the shade, a small throng of peaceful demonstrators gathered just north of the perimeter, holding signs and shouting support for the new administration. Radical Christian extremists who’d set up with banners and a bullhorn told the crowd that homos go to hell, masturbation makes you gay and today’s liberated women need to embrace a more biblical role of silence and service, back in the kitchen where they belong. They were trolled mercilessly by the crowd, members of whom posed for selfies in front of them, middle fingers extended. A man waved a Biden/Harris flag in their faces. Two women engaged in a deep, sloppy kiss.
The next morning, Jan. 21, we made our way back down to Capitol Hill to find a somewhat different air about the place. The sun was shining, skies were blue, winds had diminished and workers busied themselves removing sections of the outer perimeter fencing. Others rolled up the U.S. flags used in the festivities on the Mall the previous night. The internal perimeter around the Capitol and office buildings remained intact, as did the checkpoints, but after a short wait Cawthorn himself rolled out to the street with a staffer and greeted us warmly.
“These gentlemen with you?” a cop asked him.
Making our way up South Capitol Street with Cawthorn, Capitol dome looming dead ahead, we were soon through the metal detectors and into the Longworth House Office Building. Down the tan glazed brick tunnels and through the rotunda — Hey Dennis, good to see you, how’s your mom? — and up the elevator and into the Cannon building, sunshine now streaming through hushed mustard hallways with soft reverence, it was an idyllic moment that belied the turmoil taking place everywhere else, including Cawthorn’s nascent political career.
“I always did imagine that Democrats would not like me,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of what I would typically call ‘blue dog’ Democrats in my district, some of the old school Democrats who I think right now are probably rushing to register as independents.”
Democrats certainly don’t like him. In the aftermath of his rally speech on Jan. 6, the chair of the Democratic Party in his North Carolina district sent a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi asking for an investigation into what they called sedition. Missouri Democratic Rep. Cori Bush is calling for his expulsion. A petition for removal on www.change.org now has more than 82,000 signatories. A group called the Sunrise Movement picketed his Hendersonville office and another group called Women Invest Now NC (WIN) is sending him snarky postcards and has plans to raise money, form a PAC and rent billboards.
Cawthorn did say in retrospect that if he had a crystal ball he may have added a few lines to his Ellipse rally speech, but he wouldn’t have removed any. He felt he’d been straightforward when he said he was going down to the Capitol to speak on behalf of a people who’d lost their collective voice, and that the battle lie in the halls of Congress and not in the streets.
“This is exactly what happened in the Revolutionary War,” he said. “We just felt like we didn’t have any representation so people wanted to go and fight because of that. But I believe I made it very clear. I’m going down to the Capitol to be your representative. Your voice is being heard. This debate will be had, and I, I will partake in this debate on your behalf.”
The debate is focusing more and more on words — the semantics of insurrection. As Biden remarked on Jan. 6, “You heard me say before in a different context, the words of a President matter no matter how good or bad that president is. At their best, the words of a president can inspire. At their worst, they can incite.”
Back in 2011, when Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot along with 18 others — six of whom died, including a federal judge and a nine-year-old — serious discussion ensued regarding the removal of the language of combat from political campaigns. Terms like “targeted” districts. Battles. Fights. That vocabulary seems to have crept back into the lexicon.
“Just as the rudder steers the ship, so too the tongue directs what happens in life,” Cawthorn said, paraphrasing a Bible verse. “We do need to have a consideration of what our verbiage is leading to. I think that the word ‘fight’ can be defined in many ways. It can mean fisticuffs, a physical confrontation, but it can also mean you’re having a fight with your wife and you’re going back and forth and yelling about who put the spatula in which drawer. Obviously you’ve got to fight back against the onslaught that comes from the other side and if they’re gonna be using aggressive language and aggressive rhetoric, obviously I believe we might have to match that. But I think that there is a discussion that needs to be had on the verbiage and the lexicon that we do use in political speak.”
Americans tend to take their daily security for granted, much like Giffords may have right up until that man walked into that Tuscon parking lot and put a round from a Glock 19 into her skull. The Jan. 6 insurrectionists killed a cop and unwittingly compelled thousands of Americans from across the country — bankers and bakers, veterans and veterinarians, mommies and daddies — to rustle up their gear and report for a week’s worth of Guard duty in Washington.
How do they explain all this to their children? A lesson on what happens when pathos and passion triumph over logos and law?
“The number one thing that I believe everyone should care about is personal responsibility and that boils down to self-control,” he said. “Whether you’re frustrated about an election, whatever the reason is, you can never let rage or anger take over and decide your decisions. Making decisions based on emotion is a terrible way to move forward. I’ve described these people [the insurrectionist mob] as weak-minded, pathetic people because their minds and their ability to control themselves was so limited that they got enraged and now five people are dead. It’s disgusting and sad.”
One of the biggest issues that came out of the insurrection for Cawthorn was when he told The Smoky Mountain News on Jan. 7 that he was armed during the insurrection. News outlets immediately seized on his assertion , questioning the legality. Laws regarding possession by Members of Congress can be murky at times, but Cawthorn finally told SMN on Jan. 21 that he wasn’t armed on the House floor (where it’s prohibited), however he was able to retrieve a firearm from his office (where it’s permissible).
In short order, metal detectors suddenly appeared in the House. Some Republicans objected to the measure, including Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, who was shot by a left-wing domestic terrorist while practicing for a charity baseball game in 2017. Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert has made a show of ignoring the metal detectors and has thus been slapped with fines. Cawthorn doesn’t seem to be taking the same path.
“I think it’s not super-necessary, but obviously Nancy Pelosi is the Speaker of the House. It was the will of the people to elect Democrats to be in the majority and that’s what she wants to do. That’s her House over there,” he said. “Obviously I do think that we should be able to carry on the House floor. I think that people are safer when people carry, but you know what, that’s the way our laws are, and I respect our laws.”
Indeed, Cawthorn has called for accountability for those who stormed the Capitol, but he seems less eager to call for accountability from those within government alleged to have incited the insurrection, including himself. He’s also called for unity, and not what he says is the majority party’s “bend the knee” kind of unity.
“When it comes to the impeachment trial for former President Trump, that is dangerous, and that is something that cannot happen. If we’re saying that the Senate can now start going after citizens, that is an awful precedent to set that will become politically weaponized right away. It’s something that we cannot allow to happen,” he said. “And then people calling for myself, [Florida Rep.] Matt Gaetz or Mo Brooks or many other Republicans to be kicked out of Congress now, that is exactly what I just said about the way [Democrats] want to have unity is by silencing all voices of dissent and by removing the representation of the 730-odd thousand people in Western North Carolina that I represent.”
Jeffrey Delannoy photo
Cawthorn’s up for reelection in November 2022, which means that his campaign will likely start up again about a year from now. Judging by Trump’s approval rating upon leaving office, some Republicans have since turned away from him. Cawthorn has been an ardent supporter of Trump’s and benefitted from various local Trump/Trump surrogate appearances during the campaign. For now, Trump appears to be biding his time in Mar-a-Lago, but rumors of a 2024 run, a media network and a third-party leave Republicans with a choice: continue to defend the Trump presidency, or try to move on from the imagery of Jan. 6 that will forever be associated with it.
“Any infighting that is going on inside of our party right now is misguided. I think that we all need to support each other. We all need to back each other up,” Cawthorn said. “A lot of people are calling for the removal of Liz Cheney just because she voted to impeach Donald Trump. I think that that is ill-advised. I voted for Liz Cheney to be, I believe, secretary of our conference. And I am someone who does not, when the going gets tough, when the wind starts blowing, I don’t say, ‘You know what? We need a new captain of this ship. Let’s put somebody else into it.’ You don’t do that.”
But that’s exactly what retired Henderson County Sheriff George Erwin is now doing. Cawthorn had the support of Erwin, a Republican, until Erwin made an alarming social media post about Cawthorn less than a week after the insurrection.
“I apologize to all of my law-enforcement friends, other politicians, family and friends — I was wrong, I misled you,” Erwin wrote, before going on to call Cawthorn a “show horse” who was mismanaging his office budget and spending exorbitantly on inexperienced staffers who’d worked on his campaign.
Erwin later told Blue Ridge Public Radio’s Lilly Knoepp that one of the biggest reasons he’d had the change of heart was because of Cawthorn’s remarks at the Ellipse.
“You can’t talk about you support blue lives matter and support the blue when you are firing up people who are harming law enforcement officers,” Erwin said.
Cawthorn said he wasn’t certain what was behind Erwin’s newfound opposition.
“I still definitely have the support from all my law enforcement friends in Western North Carolina. I believe that he might just lean a little bit more moderate. There were talks about him becoming my district director. We decided to go with [former Dan Forest aide] Hal Weatherman and so whether he’s upset about that, I’m not sure,” Cawthorn said. “I think he’s a great guy. He did a great job for Western North Carolina as sheriff of Henderson County. I always respect his opinion and I have a lot of respect for law enforcement, so why he wanted to attack me publicly again, I’m not really sure.”
Whether or not Cawthorn will retain the support of the law enforcement community is an important question, because Cawthorn’s strongest challenge in the next election cycle may not even come from his district’s Democrats. Hendersonville businessman Chuck Edwards is a popular three-term Republican state senator who raised a substantial sum of money during his successful reelection campaign last year. Because this is a redistricting year, Edwards will have a hand in drawing the state’s new legislative and congressional maps for the 2022 elections, and he’s already called out Cawthorn not once but twice since the events of Jan. 6.
“There’s a right way and wrong way to conduct yourself as a legislator, and I’m incredibly concerned about Congressman Cawthorn’s conduct,” Edwards said in a statement released Jan. 13. “Like many people, I share serious concerns about Americans’ confidence in our election system’s integrity. I intend to work with my colleagues in Raleigh this year to pass legislation to address the concerns I hear from North Carolinians. Congressman Cawthorn’s inflammatory approach of encouraging people to ‘lightly threaten’ legislators not only fails to solve the core problem of a lack of confidence in the integrity of our elections system. It exacerbates the divisions in our country and has the potential to needlessly place well-meaning citizens, law enforcement officers, and elected officials in harm’s way. As a legislator, I don’t need to be threatened to do the job the voters hired me to do.”
Members of Congress want him gone. Democrats want him gone. Constituents want him gone. Former backers want him gone. Some Republicans even want him gone from that red, white and blue office in the Cannon building ringed with fencing and barbed wire and checkpoints and soldiers and empty streets. As the youngest elected member of Congress, ever, sits behind that handsome desk working on rural broadband appropriations it wouldn’t be unusual to wonder if any of this is actually getting to Madison Cawthorn.
“I look forward to the challenge. I think that people of Western North Carolina will make the right decision. I respect Chuck Edwards. Why he’s deciding to attack me in the press, attack a fellow Republican, I think it’s kind of asinine, looking at what we’re up against with Roy Cooper, Joe Biden, a Democrat-held Congress. I think it doesn’t make much sense. I mean, he’s my state senator in Henderson County,” Cawthorn said. “If you want to fight me in my hometown — come on, any time.”