Before the luxury travel, before the payroll padding at taxpayer expense, before the sexually suggestive photos and social-media messaging, they were the “douche crew,” the name 20-year-old Madison Cawthorn gave to himself and his buddies.
Cawthorn assembled his circle of friends as a student at Patrick Henry College in northern Virginia in the fall of 2016, and he remains at the center of its successor pack as the high-profile, far-right, Trump-embraced congressman representing North Carolina’s 11th District, which covers most of the state’s western mountain counties.
Cawthorn was “the ringleader of a cohort of, let’s be honest, rich kids … a group of classmates known as ‘The Douche Crew’,” one schoolmate wrote on the website Medium. The tightly knit gang became well known on campus for frat-boy pranks, for parties at Cawthorn’s off-campus house, and for suspected acts of vandalism. “Cawthorn frequently asked female students to join him on ‘joy rides’ in his sporty Dodge Challenger,” the classmate wrote. “He would take the women to secluded areas, lock the doors, and proceed to make unwanted sexual advances.”
He tried school politics and ran for student government on a platform promising “so we can all be happier ….”
He lost. Not long after, he dropped out of college, failing to complete his freshman year.
Now, just six years after coming together at a conservative private college for home-schooled Christian students, Cawthorn, along with two of his “Douche Crew” friends, are enjoying power, deluxe international travel, celebrity-level perks, and generous salaries and bonus payments.
This is a story of the remarkable and unorthodox rise to the center of American power by a charismatic young man and his loyal posse of “bros,” despite their having no discernible experience or qualifications.
We’ll know soon whether Cawthorn’s rise can continue for two more years, following a barrage of controversies and the leaked publication of embarrassing photos, videos, and texts.
On May 17 Cawthorn faces voters for re-nomination in a GOP primary election that has drawn global attention. The outcome is being watched by the national media, late-night TV comedians, Republican and Democratic party leaders, Russian propagandists, tabloid publications and — maybe most of all — Donald J. Trump, who many times has lauded Cawthorn as the future face of the new Republican Party.
On that primary Election Day, Cawthorn — and his close circle of friends — face a reckoning with their livelihoods and their many privileges on the line.
The Cawthorn Crew
The members of Madison Cawthorn’s trusted inner circle include:
William Blake Harp, age 24. Like David Madison Cawthorn, Blake Harp prefers to use his middle name. A founding “bro” in the Patrick Henry College circle, Harp held the title as Cawthorn’s campaign manager and is now his congressional chief of staff.
In an image posted on his private Instagram account after the election, he poses near the White House. Cawthorn writes, “Yeah baby! You got us here.”
The chief of staff position typically is held by men or women with years, even decades, of experience on Capitol Hill. Harp’s post-college resume consists of working at Bubba’s Boom Boom fireworks stand, erected alongside a Texas freeway.
Blake Harp’s mother, Suzanne Harp, an investment banker in Dallas, was defeated March 1in a GOP primary race for Texas’s 3rd Congressional district as a “conservative, pro-Trump, America First candidate.”
Her campaign website says, “Suzanne considers her most significant accomplishment raising and homeschooling her four children in Judeo Christian values with her husband, Bill, of 27 years. They carefully raised the four kids to cultivate a relationship with the Lord by studying God’s Word alongside the great philosophers to developing a Biblical Worldview, a deep understanding of the Constitution, and the blessings of being an American. Today, her children have gone on to serve the Lord’s calling in their life as congressional staff and working in the counter human trafficking space.”
During her campaign she posted on her Twitter account a photo taken with former President Trump, writing “Everything was better under Trump.”
Last year, Harp registered as managing partner of a new limited liability corporation in Richardson, Texas, called EMP Strategies. Filings with the Federal Elections Commission show that the Cawthorn campaign pays EMP Strategies $5,000 a month for “strategic consulting,” in addition to Harp’s congressional salary.
Blake Harp’s EMP Strategies has another client besides Cawthorn, according to FEC filings: his mom. Suzanne Harp’s congressional campaign paid EMP Strategies nearly $50,000, the records show.
Harp’s wife, Alyssa, also stirred controversy in a Facebook posting three days before the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol and attempts to disrupt the Electoral College vote count to prevent certifying the election of Democrats Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.
Alyssa Harp urged her readers to pray for her husband and Cawthorn in “this scary week” where they would be “fighting for our future in the midst of all this chaos.” She said she would “pray that our Lord would keep them strong physically and give them the mental fortitude to stand strong and fight for what they believe …”
When some commenters wrote that her post implied that she was complicit in the insurrection by having advance knowledge of its planning, she deleted the post.
Stephen L. Smith, age 23. Smith is Cawthorn’s younger cousin and his nearly always-present companion. He and Cawthorn have lived together since at least 2017, when Cawthorn first mentioned their “blood” connection in a 2017 court deposition. On current voter registration records in Henderson County they both list the same address. According to Cawthorn’s 2017 testimony, Smith “works at Chick-fil-A as a hospitality professional,” the same job Cawthorn held before the car accident in 2014 that made him a paraplegic.
Once elected, Cawthorn appointed Smith, with no known experience in public service, to be his congressional office scheduler. On top of his government salary, Smith receives regular bonus payments from Cawthorn’s 2022 re-election campaign, and government payments to serve as the congressman’s physical aide under the American Disabilities Act.
Micah Bock, age 26. A douche crew alumnus from Patrick Henry, Bock was home-schooled in Indianapolis, Indiana, and played soccer for the Christian homeschool club team Indy Warriors. He joined Cawthorn’s congressional office as “Senior Communications and Policy Advisor” immediately after graduating from Patrick Henry in 2020.
Bock left Cawthorn’s staff in August 2021 to work for Rep. Victoria Spartz (R-IN). In January 2022 he left Capitol Hill and now, according to LinkedIn, is “Director of Operations” for Jenna Ellis, Trump’s former campaign lawyer and, alongside Rudolph Giuliani, a purveyor of Trump’s stolen-election lie.
Luke T. Ball, age 26. Bock’s successor as Cawthorn’s press secretary is Luke Ball, a graduate of Wilmington Christian Academy and Pensacola Christian College. He briefly worked for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Cawthorn’s friend and ally, Rep. Matt Gaetz, both Republicans.
Like Cawthorn’s chief of staff Harp, Ball serves double duty — and draws a double salary — working as Cawthorn’s official spokesman in both the House and the re-election campaign. He did not respond to repeated requests by Asheville Watchdog for comment on this story.
And also like Harp, Ball has also set up his own company that generates outside income. He is listed as the founder and chief executive officer of RightLife Media (“Our content is despised by the Left,”) and RightLife News (“We’re here to fight the mainstream media’s lies, promote truth, and cut through the noise of Washington”). His company produces messaging videos for Cawthorn and other right-wing politicians and causes.
Reputation Is Catching Up
How did a collection of professionally inexperienced buddies, just out of college, end up with senior posts in a congressional office? And how did a college dropout, rejected a few years before in a school election, rise to win a seat in the House of Representatives and become a household name?
One possible answer, according to those who have known him since college: It takes a while for reputations to catch up.
“I must admit that one of the reasons I ever got in a car with Madison Cawthorn was because I knew nothing of his reputation,” said Caitlin Coulter, his Patrick Henry classmate, who said she fended off Cawthorn’s advances after she accepted his offer to go for a ride.
She told Asheville Watchdog that she “hadn’t been warned about Madison and the douche crew” and she “did not realize how they were perceived across campus until afterward.”
The “afterward” may be catching up with Cawthorn.
In October 2020, during his first election campaign, more than 100 classmates and alumni of Patrick Henry signed an open letter accusing Cawthorn of predatory sexual aggression, writing that Cawthorn “made our small, close-knit community his personal playground for debauchery.” A spokesman for Cawthorn denied the accusations as a “mix of half-truths, untruths and potentially fabricated allegations.”
Just since March — atop such earlier controversies as lying about an appointment to the Naval Academy and being a Paralympics athlete, bragging about a “bucket list” trip to Adolph Hitler’s World War II vacation retreat, cheering on the Jan. 6 Capitol rioters, vowing “there will be blood” if the Biden administration tries to bring its “tyranny” to North Carolina, and carrying switchblade knives into school buildings — Cawthorn has spurred new headlines.
- Being caught and charged with attempting to carry a loaded pistol onto a commercial flight in Charlotte, which followed an earlier attempt to carry a pistol onto a commercial flight in Asheville (he received a warning).
- Being accused — by North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis — of insider-trading for allegedly “pumping-and-dumping” crypto currencies.
- Abandoning the western North Carolina mountain district that elected him, in order to run in another district with more media exposure … only to reverse course.
- Skipping one court appearance for speeding and facing another court appearance before primary-election day for driving with a revoked license.
- Being scorned globally for calling Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a “thug” following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, although the comments earned Cawthorn praise on Russian state television.
- Being accused in a Congressional ethics complaint, filed by the president of a political action committee devoted to removing Cawthorn from office, of “not properly filed House financial disclosures regarding gifts and loans to Mr. Stephen L. Smith.” The complaint, filed late last month, alleges that Cawthorn and Smith are living together, as they did in 2017.
But the incident that might turn out to be most damaging to his career is telling an interviewer about “sexual perversion” in Washington, including allegations that he personally witnessed colleagues he formerly “admired” — presumably not Democrats — engaged in sexual orgies and cocaine parties. The comments brought furious rebukes from House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy and members of the House Republican Caucus.
Cawthorn later said he had “exaggerated,” but he has not retracted his allegations about drug use and sex parties among his peers.
It wasn’t long after the cocaine and orgies comments that media outlets, including Asheville Watchdog, began receiving leaked photos, videos and online messages depicting Cawthorn — a self-proclaimed evangelical Christian who frequently cites scripture on his social-media posts — in sexually suggestive situations. Cawthorn has acknowledged the authenticity of some of the photos but insists they depict him trying to be funny.
One widely circulated photo, first published by Politico, features Cawthorn wearing a chemise, a woman’s bra, and jewelry. Cawthorn dismissed it as a “goofy vacation” picture “that didn’t change my gender.”
Asheville Watchdog looked into Cawthorn’s explanation of what has now become known as the “lingerie photo,” and found it was taken in mid-2017, a few months after he dropped out of college and went on a long trip to Europe, including Russia.
Cawthorn’s 2017 trip included a cruise on the Royal Caribbean ship “Harmony of the Seas” that stopped in such Baltic Sea ports as St. Petersburg, Copenhagen, Denmark, and Amsterdam, Netherlands. Included in the ship’s late-night entertainment was an adult-only game called Quest, a kind of risqué scavenger hunt where teams of players go in search of such items as bras, lipsticks and lingerie, and then dress a male passenger in the outfit.
Cawthorn, who posed for the photos, was the featured male passenger in one game.
Smith, his cousin, accompanied Cawthorn on the ship and documented on Instagram the cruise and a subsequent trip through Europe. The photos depicted the two young men together in a sauna, the pair riding a snowmobile in the Alps, and Cawthorn’s now well-known visit to Hitler’s Bavarian Alps vacation home, the Eagle’s Nest.
According to a screen-grab included in an ethics complaint filed against Cawthorn by a North Carolina group formed to oppose his re-election, Smith and Cawthorn exchanged messages during the trip using Venmo, a money-transfer application. Smith wrote in the subject line of one payment that it was, “For loving me daily and nightly.” It followed two messages from Cawthorn to Smith, the first saying a payment was for “Getting naked for me in Sweden” and the other for “The quickie at the airport.”
The ‘How-I-Met-My-(ex)Wife’ Question
The Baltic cruise also factored in Cawthorn’s brief marriage to fitness athlete and nursing student Cristina Bayardelle. After his 2020 election, Cawthorn told interviewers that the relationship had its origins on the European trip, where, on a whim, he said he “and a bunch of friends” bribed Russian border-patrol guards with liquor so they could sneak into St. Petersburg and go to a casino.
There, according to Cawthorn’s interview with the Daily Caller, he met and befriended a “captain in the Army” from Miami. Months later, Cawthorn said he was traveling to Miami on business and reached out to the captain who, according to his story, persuaded Cawthorn to attend a CrossFit workout. “It was all a sham,” he said, staged so he could meet Bayardelle.
“We hit it off and it has been a magical situation ever since,” Cawthorn told a reporter.
Cawthorn, who has missed more votes in Congress than any other first-term House member, went to Dubai for their honeymoon, as Cristina Cawthorn documented on her (now private) Instagram feed..
Their marriage, in April 2020, lasted just eight months.
Asheville Watchdog found discrepancies in Cawthorn’s account, among them: No visa is needed by cruise passengers to visit St. Petersburg (entry is arranged by the cruise lines), and casinos are outlawed in St. Petersburg. The cruise ship had a casino, where Cawthorn might have met the “captain,” who was Todd Thomason, an Army reservist and family nurse practitioner in Cooper City, Florida.
Thomason and his wife, Kimberly, were on the cruise. Instagram photos posted by Kimberly Thomason aligned with many of those posted by Smith during that period. The Thomasons did not respond to requests for comment.
“Digging Up Stuff From My Early 20s”
The many revelations about Cawthorn are fueling attacks by both Republican and Democrat opponents, forcing his once-high-flying campaign into a defensive crouch. Cawthorn complained on Twitter that the torrent of incriminating material now being used against him was unfair because “just digging stuff up from my early 20s to smear me is pathetic.”
Still loyal to him is his circle of friends, the descendants of the crew from college and the first campaign. The bond has proved lucrative.
In the days after his near-landslide election in 2020, several joined the congressman-elect to celebrate at a luxury resort on the Mexican island Isla Mujeres (“island of women”), off the coast near Cancun. Among the photos emerging from that trip in recent days was one capturing Smith in the embrace of Bock, both in swimsuits on a hammock suspended over a resort swimming pool.
Another shows Cawthorn drifting on a pool float, a towel covering his otherwise bare torso, as Smith rests his head on Cawthorn’s shoulder.
A recently leaked video shows Cawthorn behind the wheel of a car and Smith, apparently shooting the video, in the front passenger seat. In a theatrical voice and a jocular tone, Cawthorn — looking straight ahead through the windshield — says he “would like to feel your passion, desire, would like to see your naked body beneath my arms.” Laughing, Smith replies: “Me too.”
Then the camera pans and shows Smith putting his hand on Cawthorn’s crotch.
Cawthorn responded to the swirling news reports this week by releasing an eight-minute video on Twitter to “dispel some of the lies,” which he said were part of a coordinated blackmail campaign by “the Swamp.”
The “crotch” video was quickly followed by yet another leaked video, this one even more graphic, showing Cawthorn, naked, in bed thrusting his groin against an unidentified man. “I was being crass with a friend, trying to be funny,” Cawthorn responded on Twitter, calling the leaks “blackmail.”
Multiple Salaries and Payments
While this material creates a sensation in the media, a more relevant question may be whether Cawthorn has put his relationships with friends above his responsibility to taxpayers, constituents, and campaign donors.
Cawthorn, whose only previous full-time work experience was as a minimum-wage “hospitality professional” at a Chick-fil-A restaurant in Hendersonville, is now paid $174,000 annually as member of Congress.
Harp, his chief of staff, was paid $131,617 in salary last year for overseeing the congressional office’s operations and its budget of about $1.3 million, according to House of Representative records. He also received an average of $5,000 each month from Cawthorn’s re-election campaign. For example, on April 27, 2021, he received a $10,000 payment listed as “salary,” just three days before the $5,000 monthly check, also listed as “salary.”
All told, he collected nearly $200,000 from his House and campaign work in 2021.
Cawthorn’s cousin Smith started on Cawthorn’s staff as scheduler at a monthly salary of just under $5,000. Midway through the year he was given the title of ADA Aide, which enabled him to serve as Cawthorn’s caregiver at House expense. Smith’s annual, taxpayer-funded salary for the year was $61,231.
And like Harp and Ball, Smith also collected a salary and other payments from the campaign, earning him a combined total of $92,867 in 2021.
Ball, the newest member of Cawthorn’s inner circle, is press secretary. Like his predecessor Micah Bock, Ball draws two paychecks each month, about $10,000 from the House and $1,000 from the campaign.
Daniel Weiner, who specializes in congressional issues for the Brennan Center for Justice, said in an interview with WLOS in Asheville that double dipping by Cawthorn’s staff is rare and ethically precarious. “It’s pretty unusual to see the campaign employing literally the same people who are then showing up every day collecting a government salary,” Weiner said. “If they are engaging in political activities on government time, that certainly presents ethics issues.”
Mismanaging His Money?
Cawthorn’s Republican challengers have seized on his hiring and employment practices. Bruce O’Connell, longtime owner of the Pisgah Inn on the Blue Ridge Parkway, said in an interview with Asheville Watchdog that Cawthorn has shuttered four of the five constituent-services offices in the 11th District for lack of funds, which, O’Connell says, is a sign of serious mismanagement.
“From what I can tell, [Cawthorn] has hired young people like himself to run his office,” O’Connell said. “And these are young people who, also like himself, have no experience in running any businesses.”
Cawthorn is “subsidizing his campaign on the wallets of taxpayers,” O’Connell said. “Obviously that doesn’t look good. And anything that has the appearance of impropriety will come back to bite him.”
Cawthorn is among the leading fundraisers in the House, a testament to his national profile. According to his most recent financial disclosure statements, his re-election campaign has raised nearly $3.6 million — a rare feat for a freshman, much less one from a largely rural district.
Yet in March he reported having just $242,304 on hand, and debts of nearly half of that.
An analysis of Cawthorn’s finances shows that about 80 percent of his spending went to fundraising consulting firms.
As the primary campaign enters its final days, Cawthorn appears to have far fewer funds than his leading opponents. At least two PACs are waging televised attacks against him.
“Red flags in his character”
According to one recent poll, taken before the latest leak of photos and videos, Cawthorn’s support has tumbled 11 points, putting him in danger of falling short of the 30 percent threshold needed to win re-nomination without a runoff. But Cawthorn claims he has gained more than 50,000 Twitter followers since the latest cascade of scandals broke.
It’s clear, though, that he has lost the backing of many local office holders — county sheriffs, commissioners, and state legislators — who were behind him in 2020, according to news reports.
Cawthorn dismisses those former supporters as “RINOs,” or Republicans in Name Only.
Though this could be interpreted as a stunning fall, it doesn’t surprise many who knew Cawthorn at Patrick Henry College and rejected his bid for student government.
“We as a community were able to see the ways that Cawthorn’s walk deviated from his talk,” said Caitlin Coulter, now a doctoral candidate at the University of Kentucky. “Many saw the red flags in his character.”
But, she continued: “I think the general public was unable to see all those warning signs because they were swept away by someone they wanted to be as fantastic as his public image was manufactured to be.”
CORRECTION: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed Rep. Madison Cawthorn’s Twitter defense “I was being crass with a friend, trying to be funny” to the wrong video. Cawthorn was referring to the video in which he is naked and humping another man, not to the crotch-grabbing video with his cousin. The Watchdog regrets the error.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Tom Fiedler is a Pulitzer Prize-winning political reporter and former executive editor of The Miami Herald. He lives in Asheville. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.