‘He’s Not OK’: The Entirely Predictable Unraveling of Madison Cawthorn


Back home in North Carolina, he made a “vision board,” or goal board. “Congressman Cawthorn,” it said. Cawthorn’s congressman at the time was Mark Meadows, and he had gotten a part-time job as an assistant in Meadows’ Hendersonville office, starting in January of 2015. He had said during the deposition he was full-time — he would tell the Asheville Citizen-Times the same thing during the campaign — but he wasn’t. Even in his part-time capacity, according to a fellow member of that staff, he didn’t do much. “He worked for us and answered the phone, and couldn’t even do that, just to be honest,” this person said.

Cawthorn was more than a year removed from the most intense stretch of rehab. That didn’t mean he was recovered.

“I didn’t feel like a man,” he once said. “I felt very weak, and I felt very feeble,” he explained. “If somebody attacked me at the time, if somebody attacked my family, literally they would be in more danger if I was there than if I wasn’t.” He described that as “the most emasculating thing.”

“What’s my purpose?” he wondered. “Do I have any value?”

“One day my dad had a really tough conversation with me,” Cawthorn said, “and it was basically saying, ‘Son, you’re going to need to make a decision. You either need to give up or you need to move on.’” That night, he said, he stayed up for more than four hours making a list of “pros and cons of staying alive.”

And Cawthorn in this telling made his decision. “I took the thought of suicide completely out of my mind,” he said.

“I decided I was going to live my life,” he said.

In the fall of 2016, he enrolled at Patrick Henry College, a school in Loudoun County, Va., with fewer than 400 students that “exists to glorify God” and prepare “Christian men and women who will lead our nation and shape our culture.” The Saturday of Thanksgiving, a few weeks after Trump’s election, Cawthorn struck a pose in front of the U.S. Capitol. “As a child I thought I wanted to rule the world,” he said in an Instagram post. “As a young adult I know I do.”

But his time on campus was a disaster. His “average grade in most classes was a D,” he later said in a deposition. In a speech he made to the student body in a chapel on campus, he falsely suggested he had gotten into the Naval Academy before the accident, and he said Ledford had left him to die in the car “in a fiery tomb” — when Ledford in fact had helped pull him out. Most seriously, though, in his short time at PHC Cawthorn “established a reputation for predatory behavior” and “gross misconduct towards our female peers,” taking them on “joy rides” to secluded areas where he locked the doors and made “unwanted sexual advances,” according to an open letter 148 former students wrote and signed. “He was a wolf in sheep’s clothing who made our small, close-knit community his personal playground of debauchery.” (“I have never done anything sexually inappropriate in my life,” Cawthorn has said.)

In October of 2017, in a second deposition in a separate accident-related lawsuit, Cawthorn admitted under oath that what he had said in his first deposition about having been accepted to Harvard and Princeton wasn’t true. He was no longer living with his parents but in an apartment in Asheville with Stephen Smith, a slightly younger distant cousin who was becoming his best friend and primary helper who provided the assistance Cawthorn needed in part because of thick carpet that made it hard to wheel around. He didn’t have a job. He wasn’t going to school.

“Tell me,” one of the attorneys said to Cawthorn, “just sort of what you have been doing, you know, on a daily basis, since you got back to North Carolina.”

“Well, sir,” he said, “I think it’s mainly just trying to figure out what I want to do with my life.”

“If you finish your degree at some point in political science, do you plan on going into politics?”

“That’s the plan, sir,” he said. “You know, politics is always a changing game, so I can’t speak as to the future. But that would be the plan.”


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