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Republicans immediately condemned his comments.
“To my colleague in the House, I would push back and say it’s not Ukraine that is invading Russia,” said Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst. “It is Russia invading Ukraine.”
“Like 90% of the country is with Ukrainians and is opposed to Putin,” added South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. “So when you see a member of Congress say things like this, the one thing I want you to know: they’re outliers.”
Two North Carolina House Republican candidates running against Cawthorn also blasted his anti-Ukraine sentiments.
“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.
“Let’s be clear. The thug is Vladimir Putin,” tweeted state Sen. Chuck Edwards. “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. Anything less is counter to everything we stand for in America.”Veteran Republican strategist Karl Rove first reported in the Wall Street Journal that Cawthorn made the comments to a group of supporters in Asheville, North Carolina, last weekend. WRAL, a CNN-affiliate television station in Raleigh, then published a video of Cawthorn making them.
“Remember that Zelensky is a thug,” said Cawthorn in the video. “Remember that the Ukrainian government is incredibly corrupt and it is incredibly evil and it has been pushing woke ideologies.”
CNN has not independently verified when or where Cawthorn made the comments. After the reports, Cawthorn sought to clarify his views of the conflict on Twitter.
“The actions of Putin and Russia are disgusting,” tweeted Cawthorn. “But leaders, including Zelensky, should NOT push misinformation on America.”
“I am praying for Ukraine and the Ukrainian people,” he added. “Pray also we are not drawn into conflict based on foreign leaders pushing misinformation.”
Luke Ball, a spokesman for the lawmaker, told CNN that 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.”
This story has been updated with additional developments Thursday.
CNN’s Ali Zaslav contributed to this report.