Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) said that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is a “thug” and denigrated the Ukrainian government.
Karl Rove, a Republican strategist, first mentioned Cawthorn made the remarks while speaking to a crowd in Asheville recently before WRAL-TV published footage of the first-term lawmaker speaking.
“Remember that Zelensky is a thug,” Cawthorn was seen saying. “Remember that the Ukrainian government is incredibly corrupt and it is incredibly evil and it has been pushing woke ideologies. It really is the new woke world empire.”
Other GOP lawmakers were quick to denounce Cawthorn’s statement, accusing him of favoring Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Like 90 percent of the country is with Ukrainians and is opposed to Putin,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who last week came under fire for calling for a Russian “Brutus” to assassinate Putin. “So when you see a member of Congress say things like this, the one thing I want you to know: they’re outliers.”
“To my colleague in the House, I would push back and say it’s not Ukraine that is invading Russia,” responded Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa). “It is Russia invading Ukraine.”
Two North Carolina Republicans hoping to defeat Cawthorn in the GOP primary later this year also took the opportunity to condemn Cawthorn’s remarks.
“Let’s be clear,” said state Sen. Chuck Edwards on Twitter. “The thug is Vladimir Putin. We must unite as a nation to pray for President Zelensky and the brave people of Ukraine who are fighting for their lives and their freedom.”
“I do not understand how anyone in American public office could call Zelensky a ‘thug’ while Ukraine is under such vicious assault,” said Michele Woodhouse in a statement posted to her campaign website. “Conservatives in my district are terrified that we will lose this republican seat to a leftist Biden democrat if Cawthorn somehow wins the nomination.”
However, Cawthorn has made clear that he does not approve of Russia’s actions either.
“The actions of Putin and Russia are disgusting,” Cawthorn said on Twitter on March 10., the same day the footage was released. “But leaders, including Zelensky, should NOT push misinformation on America.”
“I am praying for Ukraine and the Ukrainian people,” Cawthorn added. “Pray also we are not drawn into conflict based on foreign leaders pushing misinformation.”
Cawthorn’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Cawthorn is one of few GOP lawmakers to have criticized Ukraine, though a larger number of members of Congress, on both sides, have called for the United States not to send troops to Ukraine or impose a no-fly zone.
The proper U.S. response to the Russian invasion has divided the old guard of the GOP—including figures like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Graham who have called for heavy U.S. involvement in the conflict—from more populist-leaning newcomers like Cawthorn, Senate candidate J.D. Vance, and conservative commentator Tucker Carlson, who have demanded that the U.S. stay out of the conflict.
In a statement to a news outlet, a spokesman for Cawthorn explained his position further.
Cawthorn “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,” the spokesman said.