By Dave Russell
N.C. 11 District 11 Representative Madison Cawthorn was at the Capitol while both chambers certified and debated the Electoral College results from the Nov. 3 election, won by President Joe Biden.
Cawthorn was one of 121 Republican representatives to object to the certification, based on two months of election fraud and other claims by then-president Donald Trump.
Cawthorn was on the House floor Jan. 6, when the insurrection at the Capitol started, he said last Wednesday.
“I was literally debating when it started,” he said. “I was one of the people contesting the election. I was at a podium and there was a Democratic challenger at the podium on the other side. While my opponent was talking I was just kind of taking inventory of the room.”
He noticed the Capitol police officers getting “very antsy, very nervous,” he said.
“They started moving around a lot, some were pacing and their hands started shaking, then I realized something was going on,” he said.
When he finished his speech and rolled away from the podium in his wheelchair, the Sergeant of Arms (Paul Irving) came up to the podium, Cawthorn said.
“He said ‘I just want to remind you all if there is to be a lockdown procedure right now, the chairs in this area are bulletproof and there are gas masks underneath,’” Cawthorn said. “People started freaking out. Most of the Republicans stayed steel calm, but a lot of the members on the Democratic side started yelling and they were trying to get out of the room with the Capitol Police saying ‘No, this is the safest place we have.’”
Then debate carried on.
No invitation to rioters
Detractors point to a tweet Cawthorn issued at about that time as an incitement to violence.
“I’m fighting a battle for our Constitution on the House floor with other patriots,” he tweeted. “The battle is on the House floor, not in the streets of D.C.,” leading some to suggest Cawthorn was extending an invitation for the rioters to enter House chambers.
That was not his intent, he said with a laugh.
“I haven’t seen people saying I was inviting the rioters onto the House floor,” he said. “It’s ludicrous. I meant that I was fighting for them on the House floor, not that they needed to come in here and storm the sacred Capitol.”
“Then the Sergeant at Arms came back up and said, ‘Put your gas masks on and get behind the bulletproof chairs,’” Cawthorn said.
Cawthorn said if he had to do it over again, he would have addressed the invading mob and tried to deescalate the situation.
“I wish I had gone to the front steps of the Capitol, and if I had had a megaphone or something I think I could have talked these protesters down,” he said. “With my disability, I’m probably not in a good position to do that.”
Over the police radios, Cawthorn heard that the first level of security had been breached and the mob was in Statuary Hall right outside the House chamber.
An evacuation order was given.
“Right as that happens, we start hearing some banging on the doors outside,” he said. “There are several entrances to the House floor, and we started hearing banging on every single one of them.”
A Capitol police officer found an escape route.
“I allowed everyone to get past me and then I realized the escape route we were using was not handicap accessible, there were some barricades in the way and you had to use some steps,” he said.
Colleagues helped him over the obstacles and into an office where they locked the doors.
Cawthorn went to social media to try to talk the protesters down, he said.
“We must let Congress work and uphold law and order,” he tweeted. “We are the party that backs the blue. I ask you to back the blue now and let the objections continue in accordance with the Constitution.”
“These people were waving American and Trump flags, they were people I would normally associate with, but man, this was a pathetic use of their abilities, using their hearts, bodies and souls and minds and not being able to exercise the self-discipline it takes to not rage and go into a tirade,” he said. “I think the people who did this are pathetic and do not represent the Republican Party.”
Cawthorn was hunkered down for about three hours, he said.
Protesters had gathered in front of a stage at the Ellipse, an outdoor area near the White House, to hear President Trump and others speak that morning. Trump has been accused of – and impeached for – inciting the crowd to storm the Capitol by telling them to walk down there, among other incendiary quotes.
“He said he wanted us to go down there and peacefully protest, so that is why I did not vote to impeach him,” he said. “If I was him, I probably would not have said ‘Hey, let’s march down to the Capitol.’ I do not hold President Trump responsible for the violence at the Capitol.”
Cawthorn addressed the crowd as well, but does not feel his words led to the insurrection.
“I think to suggest that is intellectually dishonest,” he said. “I very clearly stated multiple times ‘Hey, I am going down to the Capitol now on your behalf to be your voice, to fight for you. I think when they said I was inciting violence I think I was doing the exact opposite. I wanted to make sure these people understood that they were being represented.”
Cawthorn said he has not regrets about his address to the crowd.
He also does not regret the contents of messages he tweeted out ahead of the event.
On Jan, 4, he tweeted it was “time to fight.”
On Jan. 5, Cawthorn tweeted out “The fate of a nation comes down to the events of tomorrow. This New Republican Party will not back down. I look forward to seeing millions of patriotic Americans stand for their country.”
“I think if we were to say that every single politician who has ever used the word ‘fight’ means that they want you to go and get into fisticuffs, I think that is intellectually dishonest,” he said. “The word ‘fight’ in this case does not men physically, fight, just like a sparring of words, that’s what I meant by it.”
His goal was for the crowd to make its presence known to the House and Senate members, he said.
“That was the biggest reason – to chant and make people realize, ‘Hey wow, that is literally my base out there calling for me to contest this election,” he said.
Cawthorn is proud of Vice President Mike Pence for following the Constitution in recognizing the electoral votes properly and not bowing to pressure from the president to reject the votes reflected in the Nov. 3 election.
“I definitely voted to reject the electors from Wisconsin and several other sates, but we had been through a democratic process with a constitutional basis for doing that,” he said “I don’t think there was a constitutional basis for Mike Pence to do that.”
Republicans who failed to contest the electoral votes will be held accountable for that decision, he said.
Cawthorn’s objections to the election had nothing to do with Trump’s claims of widespread voter fraud, he said.
“I think there was voter fraud, but I just didn’t have the resources to actually be able to prove that,” he said. “I was contesting on a constitutional basis. I think in some key states they circumvented the state legislatures, which I believe is an infraction and against what our Constitution states.”
Prospects for moving forward peacefully seem difficult, he said.
“We’re not off to a very good freakin’ start,” he said. “The violent mob at that rally pushed our movement back a few years. That did not help, but also right now this impeachment process that is being rushed through, there is no time for committee hearing, or for evidence revelation. I think it’s an extremely dangerous precedent where the impeachment process is going to be largely ceremonial, where you say, ‘We have the House and we disagree with the president so we’re going to impeach him.’”
The experience might have influenced his approach going forward, he said.
“I’m actually having a conversation with myself right now,” he said. “Obviously we all complain about the tone and the attitudes within government, in our politics. If you really want to complain about what’s going on with the tone, it is incumbent on us as representatives to change it. I am considering changing my words from, you know, ‘We’re going to take it to ’em, we’re going to fight fight fight!’ to more of a cerebral tone.
“I was fighting for the American people, giving them a voice. There were 750,000 people in (House District 11) Western North Carolina, and the majority of them voted for me to come here and I know this is what they wanted me to do.”