“Danger Warning”: Women Say Madison Cawthorn Harassed Them In College
BuzzFeed News interviewed more than three dozen people as part of an investigation into allegations that Madison Cawthorn harassed women in college.
“I realized he was taking me out to the middle of nowhere, Virginia,” said Caitlin Coulter, a former classmate who went for a drive with him during her senior year. “We were on these small, like, one- [or] two-lane back roads, and I just felt so uncomfortable and nervous and not even something I think at the time I could put a finger on, but just, like, danger warning.”
BuzzFeed News sent Cawthorn a detailed list of allegations in this story. His communications director, Micah Bock, did not respond to the specific allegations but instead referred BuzzFeed News to remarks the young Republican had made during a campaign debate in September: “I have never done anything sexually inappropriate in my life,” Cawthorn said.
“If I have a daughter, I want her to grow up in a world where people know to explicitly ask before touching her,” he said at the debate. “If I had a son, I want him to be able to grow up in a world where he would not be called a sexual predator for trying to kiss someone.”
The newly elected lawmaker also spoke at the Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally just before the Capitol insurrection, where he told cheering Trump supporters that the “crowd has some fight in it” and that Democrats and Republicans were “trying to silence your voice.” He doesn’t regret that comment, he’s said, but like other Trumpian firebrands who know when to toe the line between traditional, palatable conservatism and far-right extremism, Cawthorn condemned the rioters, calling their actions “despicable.”
Long before Cawthorn’s persona as a poster child for the new right gained national traction, people who went to school with him at Patrick Henry College said they were stunned as they watched him ascend in the North Carolina race. They told BuzzFeed News they remember him as one of the only Trump supporters on their small conservative campus, where he developed a reputation for mistreating women at the school, according to more than two dozen former students.
Trump, meanwhile, was making his name in politics with relentless gendered attacks on Hillary Clinton, then–Fox News host Megyn Kelly, and Sen. Ted Cruz’s wife, Heidi. The Access Hollywood tape in which Trump described “grabbing [women] by the pussy” was released a few months after Cawthorn started at Patrick Henry.
As Cawthorn’s own political career took off, his former classmates expressed shock and dismay in private Facebook groups and text messages seen by BuzzFeed News; they said he had been “chauvinistic” on campus just a few years before and discussed female students’ sexual misconduct allegations against him.
Some came forward during his campaign to share their experiences with Cawthorn on social media and in private. Last August, World magazine published the accounts of three women who said the young conservative sexually harassed and verbally assaulted them. One of these women was among those who spoke to BuzzFeed News for this story. Cawthorn has unequivocally denied the accusations, telling the Daily Caller the story was a “mix of half-truths, untruths and potentially fabricated allegations.”
Then, in October, more than 160 members of the Patrick Henry community signed an open letter detailing “gross misconduct towards our female peers, public misrepresentation of his past, disorderly conduct that was against the school’s student honor code, and self-admitted academic failings,” including that Cawthorn “established a reputation of predatory behavior.” After the letter was published, Cawthorn told ABC 13 that it was based on rumors, and his campaign wrote in a Facebook post that he had the endorsement of a “significant number of PHC alumni and former students who knew him well.” The post was signed by just six people. Two worked for the campaign and a third was one of their relatives.
Patrick Henry officials, including the school’s president, ignored repeated emails and calls from BuzzFeed News regarding Cawthorn’s alleged sexual misconduct and behavioral problems. The only official to respond was Paul Yancey, the campus security chief, who declined to comment on questions about the alleged misbehavior.
While Cawthorn has painted women’s accounts of sexual misconduct and predatory behavior as politically motivated lies, this new investigation into his time at Patrick Henry College provides an in-depth examination of the allegations against the North Carolina representative and uncovers previously unreported details. More than 20 former Patrick Henry students told BuzzFeed News that Cawthorn harassed his women classmates. The students either said they experienced his sexually inappropriate behavior firsthand, comforted friends after a traumatizing incident, or were warned about his conduct by their dorm leaders. Although Cawthorn was only at the school for just over one semester, students said he quickly developed a reputation as someone who took advantage of and mistreated women.
But former classmates also remember Cawthorn as magnetic and ambitious, delivering almost-too-firm handshakes, buddying up with nearly everyone he met, and flirting with and befriending many women classmates. A former high school football player and avid athlete — his Instagram feed is peppered with videos in which he claimed he was training for the 2020 Paralympic Games, which wasn’t true — Cawthorn exuded a jock persona at school, classmates said. He soon formed a small posse of guys, which seven former students told BuzzFeed News was known around campus as the “the douche crew.”
Today, Cawthorn is a 25-year-old first-year member of Congress, the youngest ever elected, from Hendersonville, North Carolina. In the 2020 primary, he pulled off a surprising upset over Republican Lynda Bennett, former president Donald Trump’s preferred candidate, by leaning into Trump’s own strategy: bombastic attacks against the left and open support for conspiracy theories.