Madison Cawthorn's strange Russia story — a real concern or just a conspiracy theory?
Madison Cawthorn (Screen Grab)

Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) did an interview with the Daily Caller ahead of his wedding describing the way that he met his wife after a trip to Stockholm, which ended up with him visiting a casino in Russia.

According to Cawthorn, the traveling group he was with took a ferry to St. Petersburg to gamble. That's when he met a new friend, an Army captain from Miami. Arriving back in the U.S., the captain, whose name is "Todd," lied to Cawthorn to get him to come to a fake Crossfit competition in Miami. When Cawthorn got there, all he found was a girl that "Captain Todd" wanted Cawthorn to meet. She ultimately became Cawthorn's wife, but the couple announced they'll divorce after just 8 months together.

There's no investigation into Cawthorn's trip or allegations about the "casino" he visited in St. Petersburg. Right now, it's merely activists asking questions and suspicion. However, the reason that the questions are coming up, is that this isn't the first politician who has faced questions about whether a close contact could be a foreign asset.

In 2012, Chinese nationalist Christine Fang approached Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA). She had been photographed with several politicians and appeared politically involved. The two hit it off and began dating until the FBI told Swalwell that Fang was suspected of being a Chinese spy. The congressman cut off ties immediately and provided information about Fang to the FBI.

Paul Erickson, a Republican operative who boasts to have worked on presidential campaigns, met and ultimately dated Maria Butina, who the U.S. government ultimately deemed a Russian spy. She was thrown in jail and deported while he was sentenced to federal prison for wire fraud and money laundering.

But now liberal activists are asking questions about whether Cawthorn was part of a similar effort after he disclosed the story of his relationship with "Captain Todd."

Former Pennsylvania congressional candidate and DNC member Lindy Li noted that she searched for a legal casino in St. Petersburg that Cawthorn and his group may have gone to. She found one, but it was about 1,000 miles away from the city. Gambling isn't allowed in St. Petersburg or in Moscow. It's only legal in four areas: the Altai, Krasnodar, Kaliningrad, and Primorsky regions. It's been that way for a full decade prior to Cawthorn's trip. Her facts are true and can be backed up by Google map searches and the New York Times. If Cawthorn went to a casino, it certainly wasn't legal.

Writer and activist Grant Stern posted the clip of the Daily Caller interview on Twitter. He didn't make any accusations about Cawthorn, but he certainly has questions.

"The now-Congressman met a guy under strange circumstances in Russia, who introduced him to his future wife under strange circumstances in Miami," he told Raw Story. "We are no strangers to fake Eastern European business establishments on South Beach, and Madison Cawthorn has plausibly described himself as entering a false-front business."

The story Stern was referencing is a 2011 report of an FBI raid with at least six fake clubs in South Beach. The Miami New Times reported that federal prosecutors charged seventeen people as part of the scam. They reportedly used lovely Eastern European "Bar Girls," or "B-Girls," to lure businessmen and tourists from out of town from legitimate clubs into their own gang "private establishments."

"Once inside, bartenders working for the gang would rack up tens of thousands of dollars on the men's credit cards and sometimes forge their signatures," said the report at the time.

One Philadelphia man described two women who approached him and bought him a shot. The drink left him woozy, implying that he could have been drugged. When he woke up the following day he couldn't remember a lot, but plenty of cash was missing with a "mysterious painting on his bed." He went out with one of the women a second night after she called claiming she accidentally took his sunglasses by mistake. When he met her at one of the fake clubs, he felt similarly "woozy" after only a few drinks. Ultimately, he'd lost $43,000 after being charged for $4,000 bottles of liquor.

There's another question about Cawthorn suddenly becoming one of Russia's favorite Congressmen after he went on Fox News and used Russian talking points to trash the United States and our position on Ukraine. It was then amplified on Russian state television.

It's entirely possible that the fake Miami Crossfit competition that "Captain Todd" got the North Carolinian to come to was a legitimate attempt to hook him up with his future wife. It's also possible that the Russian "casino" and subsequent meeting of "Captain Todd" had nothing to do with anything subversive.

However, former FBI agent Peter Strzok took his analysis in a different direction, telling his followers to watch Cawthorn's body language. For the first few seconds, Cawthorn has a big smile on his face. His eyes start darting away when he talks about his trip with his friends to Sweden and Norway and then their boat ride to St. Petersburg. But after about 50 seconds, Cawthorn's posture dramatically changes as he describes being lied to about the so-called Crossfit competition.

Malcolm Nance, a former U.S. Navy cryptology specialist and expert in intelligence and counterterrorism, doesn't think that there's anything to the story. He explained that the real honey trap for Cawthorn was Steve Bannon and the far-right.