Conservative congressional candidate Madison Cawthorn, scheduled to speak Wednesday at the GOP national convention, traveled to Texas last month to visit a private border wall and echoed discredited child sex trafficking claims promoted by the extremist conspiracy theory movement.
The July 30 event, billed as a “political seminar,” was held at the border wall built by the crowdfunding campaign whose organizers, most notably former Trump-adviser Stephen Bannon, were charged last week with defrauding hundreds of thousands of donors.
In a campaign video posted on Instagram, Cawthorn invoked an unsubstantiated claim popular among fringe conspiracy theorists.
“Sure, there are children being human-trafficked across our border north into our country for sex slavery and many things that are unspeakable and terrible to think of,” a somber Cawthorn said. “But what’s really going on is we are having a large group of cartels coming into our country, kidnapping our American children and then taking them to sell them on a slave market, on the sex slave market.”
“Tens of thousands of our children are going missing every year,” he continued, “and it’s because of cartels like MS-13 coming into our country and doing harm.”
Cawthorn did not provide the source of his information or respond to questions about why he went to the border wall some 1,500 miles from his district, who paid his expenses, or how he knew the organizers.
AVL Watchdog has previously reported on Cawthorn’s use of symbols associated with white nationalists, then on a misleading narrative he promoted implying he was on his way to the U.S. Naval Academy if not for a serious car crash that left him in a wheelchair. A deposition Cawthorn gave proved that narrative false — he’d been rejected before the accident.
His trip to the border wall and friendly social media exchanges with known supporters of debunked conspiracy theories now take him deeper toward the far-right. And Cawthorn’s response fits a pattern: when asked to back up his claim, he did not.
Data from the government and nonprofits that track human trafficking do not support Cawthorn’s sex trafficking statement.
The F.B.I.’s National Crime Information Center, the central repository for all missing children reports, recorded 421,394 cases last year, about average for the past decade. The vast majority are teen runaways, and most are eventually found and returned safely, statistics show.
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a nonprofit that assists the F.B.I., local law enforcement and families on cases, “nonfamily abductions” accounted for fewer than 300 missing children last year across the country.
And Cawthorn’s claim is notably absent from human trafficking reports by nonprofits and the government, including the U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons global assessment, most recently issued in June.
Polaris, which operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline, said in a statement to AVL Watchdog it “has not seen a trend in reports that would suggest this is happening.”
“In the vast majority of cases of child sex trafficking we know about, the child knew the trafficker. The trafficker was a family member, family friend, or had formed a relationship with the child…Children also often wind up in trafficking situations when they have run away from home and are easy prey for traffickers promising safety and shelter.”
Jamie Gates, a professor at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego who has researched gangs and sex trafficking on the border and served on a human trafficking council, said Cawthorn’s statement is “way out on the fringe.”
Several sheriffs along the border with Mexico told AVL Watchdog that children coming from Latin America are sexually exploited and used as pawns by immigrants posing as families to illegally cross into the U.S. But they were unaware of cartels kidnapping American children en masse.
“It’s not happening in any way, shape or form that way,” said Sgt. Frank Medrano, spokesman for the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office in Texas. “I’ve heard about it…It’s just not happening in our county.”
Clint McDonald, executive director of the Southwestern Border Sheriff’s Coalition, said cartels are involved in sex trafficking on both sides of the border, but he could recall only one instance in 35 years of American children disappearing — two girls whose case was never solved and “we don’t know what happened.” Asked if Cawthorn’s claim was exaggerated, he said, “I would have a hard time repeating that myself.”
Through his research, Gates said he has heard of MS-13 gang members kidnapping American youths but found no evidence of that. Some families told him their children had been taken out of the country, usually by somebody they knew.
“More often, it’s a dating relationship that turned into an exploitative relationship,” he said. “But this idea of kidnapping and running away with thousands a year just is so far out of the profile.”
Gates said he has heard claims similar to the one Cawthorn made “in QAnon circles.”
The QAnon conspiracies emerged on the fringes of the Internet in 2017 when an anonymous writer “Q” began posting coded messages. Q claimed to have insider knowledge that elite Democrats, Hollywood celebrities, and a “deep state” of bureaucrats — all of them part of a Satanic child sex ring — were plotting against President Trump. There is no evidence that this is true.
Cawthorn spokesman John Hart told AVL Watchdog that the candidate “categorically disavows ‘QAnon.’ ”
Asked for the source of Cawthorn’s statements, Hart sent a link to a March 2019 news release by the Department of Homeland Security titled, “Humanitarian and Security Crisis at Southern Border Reaches ‘Breaking Point.’ ” It summarized data on border crossings and detentions but did not mention sex trafficking of American children by cartels.
In the video he taped at the border wall, Cawthorn pledged his support for spending taxpayer money to combat what he described as the cartel kidnappings of American children.
“I think we need to start diverting federal funding to end this trade,” he said. “And I want to set free all of the American children who have so tragically been taken from us.”
Wall group linked to QAnon
At the border wall, Cawthorn mingled and exchanged social media posts with people who embrace debunked conspiracy theories.
He appeared in a July 30 social media post by Brian Kolfage, a disabled Air Force veteran and founder of the We Build the Wall campaign who was indicted in the donor fraud scheme last week.
Above four photos, including one featuring Cawthorn, Kolfage wrote, “Hosting our first political seminar…on the real border crisis.” The tweet included the hashtag, #wayfairchildtrafficking, a reference to a debunked conspiracy theory that Wayfair, a home furnishings e-tailer, is secretly selling children on its web site. Kolfage’s Twitter account was taken down over the weekend.
On Saturday, Cawthorn appeared in a photo tweeted by Lauren Boebert, a GOP congressional candidate in Colorado, who has expressed support for QAnon.
Standing next to Cawthorn as he gives a thumbs up, Boebert wrote that she was happy to meet him and “go over our big plans for helping set this country on the right path in January. We are the next generation of conservative leadership.”
On his trip to the border wall, Cawthorn posed for photos with Lauren Witzke, the GOP candidate for the U.S. Senate in Delaware. Two weeks later, Witzke held a rally that she called #SaveOurChildren, a hashtag linked to unproven pedophilia and sex trafficking conspiracies involving celebrities and politicians.
“I went and saw the southern border two weeks ago,” Witzke said at the videotaped rally. “I saw what was on the other side — Mexican cartels who traffic young women, rape little children.” Cartel members, she continued, come at night by the thousands. “They recycle children. They steal American children. They rape American women.”
Witzke, a QAnon supporter, did not respond to requests for comment or the source of her claims.
Cawthorn was also photographed at the border wall event with Mary Ann Mendoza, a member of President Trump’s campaign advisory board, who was disinvited from speaking at the Republican National Convention Tuesday evening after posting a QAnon-linked message on Twitter urging people to learn about a supposed Jewish plot to control the world.
In his border wall video, Cawthorn called the kidnapping and enslavement of American children by cartels “a pandemic that is attacking our nation.” He implied his information came from official channels. “I’m here meeting with a lot of ICE agents, a lot of federal agents and many sheriffs.”
Spokesmen for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not respond to requests for comment. One sheriff who spoke at the event, Mark Lamb of Pinal County, Ariz., posted a video the same day as Cawthorn’s, raising alarm over the sex trafficking “of our children.”
“Where’s the outrage?” he said.
Lauren Reimer, spokeswoman for Lamb, said the sheriff did not claim that thousands of American children were being kidnapped by cartels. “Honestly,” she said, “that’s news to me.”
‘This incredible wall’
The wall event was billed as a new mission “to secure the nation…through educating politicians,” according to a post on the Instagram account for We Build the Wall featuring a photo of Cawthorn and Lamb.
Cawthorn was clearly impressed.
“Illegal immigration has been stifled here in El Paso, Texas, thanks to this incredible wall built by the We Build the Wall group,” Cawthorn said in his video.
Cawthorn also addressed a tweet to Kolfage saying the wall “could stop a tank. Amazed with how much tech you have backing it up.”
On the same day, Kolfage retweeted a Cawthorn post — a call to elect “patriots. No more cowards. No more swamp.” Above the post, Kolfage wrote: “We need to elect stone cold killers. We will soon have a revolution in this country.”
Three weeks later, Kolfage, Bannon and two others were indicted on charges of wire fraud and money laundering conspiracy, each of which carries a maximum of 20 years in prison.
We Build the Wall raised more than $25 million. But despite promises of putting all donations toward construction of the wall, Bannon received more than $1 million, a “substantial portion” of which was for personal use, and Kolfage took more than $350,000 that he spent on home renovations, boat payments, a luxury SUV and other items, federal prosecutors allege.
In a statement to AVL Watchdog, Cawthorn said, “I have no connection to these individuals who deserve their day in court.”
He dismissed any controversy over his visit to the border wall “as catnip for conspiracy theorists. Nothing more, nothing less.”
“I make no apology for showing my support for a policy of immigration reform that celebrates legal immigration while building a wall to stifle human trafficking and drug trafficking, as well as illegal immigration,” he said.
The candidate, who at 25 would be one of the youngest members ever elected to Congress, should he win, is drawing the attention of leaders from both political parties.
Democratic Party chairman Tom Perez told AVL Watchdog that “Cawthorn is part of the world of conspiracy theorists who are trying to sow division in the country.”
Former North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue, a Democrat, said she would challenge Cawthorn “to explain to the people of the district why he would take time out to be in the presence of people with QAnon connections.”
President Trump, when asked about QAnon last week, said, “I don’t know much about the movement, other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate. I’ve heard these are people that love our country.”
During a visit to Mills River Monday, Trump said he “would have been president 20 years ago” were he as handsome as Cawthorn. “You’re going to be a star of the party,” Trump said.
AVL Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Sally Kestin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter; Tom Fiedler is former executive editor of The Miami Herald and a Pulitzer Prize-winning political reporter; and Peter H. Lewis is a former senior writer and editor at The New York Times. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.