Rep. Madison Cawthorn calls Zelensky a ‘thug,’ says Ukrainian government is ‘incredibly evil’

Cawthorn, 26, is on his first term in the House and is a vocal supporter of former president Donald Trump, who has recently praised Russian President Vladimir Putin’s handling of the invasion as “genius” and “savvy.”

Rove said Cawthorn had made the remarks Saturday at a town hall in Asheville, N.C. He said Cawthorn and a handful of other Republican candidates who are “echoing Mr. Trump’s isolationism, and Kremlin apologetics are out of sync with GOP voters.”

In a statement, Cawthorn spokesman Luke Ball said the lawmaker was referring to pro-Ukraine misinformation.

“The Congressman was expressing his displeasure at how foreign leaders, including Zelensky, had recently used false propaganda to entice America into becoming involved in an overseas conflict,” Ball said. “He supports Ukraine and the Ukrainian President’s efforts to defend their country against Russian aggression, but does not want America drawn into another conflict through emotional manipulation.”

Volodymyr Zelensky has vowed to remain in Ukraine as Russia continues its advance. The president’s past life as an actor may have prepared him for this moment. (Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

He also pointed to a Twitter thread Thursday afternoon in which Cawthorn shared a link to a blog detailing some pro-Ukraine misinformation being spread online.

“The actions of Putin and Russia are disgusting. But leaders, including Zelensky, should NOT push misinformation on America,” Cawthorn said in a tweet. “I am praying for Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. Pray also we are not drawn into conflict based on foreign leaders pushing misinformation.”

Later Thursday afternoon, Cawthorn sent a tweet from his campaign account appearing to blame President Biden for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

“It should shock no one that Putin wasn’t afraid of Sleepy Joe,” he said.

Democrats quickly seized on Cawthorn’s town hall comments, with the Democratic National Committee noting that “the overwhelming majority of the party sided with Trump when he tried to withhold military aid from Ukraine.”

“It’s only natural that a Republican Party led by Donald Trump, who regularly praises Vladimir Putin as a ‘genius’ and ‘savvy’ as he launches an unprovoked and unjustified war on the Ukrainian people, would evolve to attack the democratically elected president of Ukraine who has shown true heroism in the face of Russian aggression,” DNC spokesperson Ammar Moussa said in a statement.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee weighed in as well. “Putin Republican shows his true, disgusting colors. Another day, another anti-democracy tirade from the House GOP,” the House Democratic campaign arm said in a tweet.

Some Senate Republicans also criticized Cawthorn during a news conference Thursday, with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) calling him an outlier “in the largest sense possible on our side.” Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) called Putin “an actual murderous thug” and reminded Cawthorn that it was Russia who invaded Ukraine, not the other way around.

Cawthorn was also one of 15 House Republicans who voted this week against banning oil imports from Russia.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll last month showed a large and bipartisan majority of Americans supports economic sanctions on Russia for its military invasion of Ukraine. Members of both parties are relatively unified in their negative views of Russia as well. More than three-quarters of Democrats and Republicans regard Russia negatively, including 47 percent of Democrats and 40 percent of Republicans who view it as an “enemy,” the poll showed.

Zelensky in particular has drawn widespread praise from around the world for his resilience, determination and his fight for Ukraine’s sovereignty against the invading Russian forces. He received a standing ovation from the British Parliament on Tuesday when he addressed them virtually and praise from U.S. lawmakers who have described him as a hero.

Spokespeople for House Republican leaders — House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (La.) and Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik (N.Y.) — did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Cawthorn’s remarks.

McCarthy and Stefanik, however, have been vocal about their support for Ukraine in recent days.

McCarthy on Wednesday said he doesn’t think “anything’s savvy or genius about Putin,” declining to echo Trump’s praise for the Russian leader. McCarthy also said he agrees with a statement last week by former vice president Mike Pence that there is no room in the Republican Party for “apologists for Putin.”

“Your bravery, sacrifice and resistance against a gutless, bloodthirsty authoritarian dictator is a beacon of hope for freedom and democracy around the world,” Stefanik said in the video to Ukrainians.

She also noted that, as a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, she led a bipartisan group of congressional members to Ukraine in 2018, where she “saw firsthand the importance of the security partnership between our two countries to counter Russian aggression, combat Vladimir Putin’s disinformation and defend democracy and freedom.”

“Never stop fighting for a sovereign self governing and free Ukraine,” Stefanik said.

Scalise has recently drawn criticism for attempting to reframe the relationship between Trump and Zelensky, in particular the phone call between the two that led to the former president’s first impeachment.

On Tuesday, Scalise was asked if he had new thoughts on Trump’s decision to withhold foreign aid from Ukraine in hopes that it would lure Zelensky into launching an investigation into Biden and his family. Scalise then said Zelensky called Trump “to thank him for the leadership that he provided.”

“In fact, when Zelensky got elected, he said he modeled his campaign after President Trump’s — and ultimately he got the relief money he was asking for,” Scalise said.

Zelensky did not call Trump to thank him for his leadership — it was Trump who called Zelensky to congratulate him for winning the election. Scalise also ignored the portion of the call in which Trump tied aid to Ukraine with efforts to affect Biden’s 2020 campaign.

Donna Cassata and Scott Clement contributed to this report.

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