In a notable rebuke, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said freshman Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) was wrong to call Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy a “thug.”
“Madison is wrong,” McCarthy said at a press conference Friday. “If there’s any thug in this world, it’s Putin.”
Cawthorn disparaged the Ukrainian president in remarks captured by North Carolina TV station WRAL last week.
“Remember that Zelenskyy is a thug,” Cawthorn said in the video filmed at an event in his district. “Remember that the Ukrainian government is incredibly corrupt and is incredibly evil and has been pushing woke ideologies.”
The rest of the Republican Party has embraced Zelenskyy, applauding him during his address to Congress this week and claiming President Joe Biden hasn’t given Ukraine enough weaponry to use in its defense against a Russian invasion.
McCarthy has sought to avoid conflict with far-right members of his conference such as Cawthorn and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), since he needs support from a majority of his own party to become speaker if Republicans control the House next year.
The 26-year-old Cawthorn still has McCarthy’s backing in his campaign for a second House term, McCarthy said.
In followup tweets, Cawthorn called Russia’s war “disgusting” but claimed Zelenskyy was using “misinformation” to drag the U.S. into the war.
Though McCarthy said he was wrong, Cawthorn’s initial comment about corruption in Ukraine echoed a universal Republican talking point from 2019 and 2020. Back then, Republicans were defending then-President Donald Trump for having withheld military aid for Ukraine in an effort to solicit damaging statements about Joe Biden from Zelenskyy. Republicans insisted that Trump was just worried about corruption in Ukraine.
“These are taxpayer dollars going to another country that people believe there was corruption with the new administration,” McCarthy said in 2020, referring to Zelenskyy’s administration.