AP Photo/Alex Brandon
- George Santos has now been a member of Congress for one week.
- Several of his GOP colleagues want him to resign, and his future remains uncertain.
- In interviews with Insider, lawmakers offered a range of views on the scandal-plagued congressman.
In the early hours of January 7, George Santos officially became a member of Congress.
C-SPAN cameras perched above the floor zoomed in on the freshman Republican as he and 432 of his colleagues took the oath of office after a historic 15 votes for House speaker that lasted four days.
—CSPAN (@cspan) January 7, 2023
For weeks, Santos had been the subject of countless media reports about his long list of resume fabrications and high probability of ethics issues. By the time he’d arrived in Washington, Santos was facing investigations from federal, state, and local law enforcement authorities, as well as the Rio De Janeiro prosecutor’s office. But the drama around Kevin McCarthy’s speaker election, lasting days longer than anticipated, had seemingly delayed a reckoning that Santos, his new colleagues, and the institution as a whole were due.
This week, that reckoning arrived.
Seeking to gain an understanding of how Santos is being received by his new colleagues, Insider spoke with over 20 lawmakers in the halls of the Capitol over the course of this week. While a number of Republicans expressed grave concern about what they see as a serial fraudster and a liability for the conference, some offered a non-judgmental, even welcoming attitude.
Stuck in the House chamber for days on end last week, the congressman initially sat by himself before eventually finding a receptive crowd among the chamber’s more right-wing lawmakers. But it’s plainly evident that most Republicans simply want to avoid Santos and his baggage.
Santos has admitted to lying about his employment, his education history, and his purported Jewish heritage, but hasn’t yet addressed a slew of concerns about his campaign’s finances.
“Obviously, there were concerns about what we had heard, and so we’re going to have to sit down and talk to him about it,” said House Majority Leader Steve Scalise at a Tuesday briefing with reporters, saying the matter would be “handled internally.”
But Santos is clearly a problem for House Republicans. He’s also presented a prime opportunity for Democrats eager to highlight malfeasance in the opposing party. And for journalists — whether they’re investigating a long paper trail left by two congressional campaigns or camping outside his Capitol Hill office, ready to chase him down the halls — he’s become the latest obsession.
The House’s two Jewish Republicans, Reps. David Kustoff of Tennessee and Max Miller of Ohio, previously shared a stage with Santos at an November event hosted by the Republican Jewish Coalition, which has since disinvited him from future events after his claim of being the Jewish descent of Holocaust survivors was exposed as a lie.
Kustoff embraces Santos and Miller at the Republican Jewish Coalition Annual Leadership Meeting in Las Vegas on November 19, 2022.
David Becker / Washington Post via Getty Images
Kustoff said it would be “up to his constituents to make a decision” about Santos’s future, but made clear he doesn’t “think it’s likely” he’ll speak with him again.
Miller, a one-time Trump White House aide with his own unsavory history, was seen walking and talking with Santos through a tunnel beneath the Capitol Complex on Monday evening.
“Do you mind? We’re having a conversation,” said Santos when Insider first attempted to ask him about a new rules package that will severely hobble the Office of Congressional Ethics, which is likely to investigate some of the congressman’s behavior.
“Off the record — we’re having a private conversation,” said Miller. But when Santos was heading back towards the chamber about 20 minutes later, he went out of his way to chide this reporter for initially mis-identifying Miller as an aide.
“Make sure you report accurately, because you called Max Miller a staffer, an aide. He’s a congressman from the 9th district of Ohio,” said Santos. “Get your facts straight!”
But three days later, Miller — who actually represents Ohio’s 7th district — became the eighth House Republican to publicly call for Santos to resign.
‘I don’t intend to speak with him’
By the end of this week, Republican leadership had made clear that they won’t push Santos out of Congress just yet, despite resignation calls from several of his House Republican colleagues (mostly fellow freshmen from New York) a high-profile disavowal by the Nassau County GOP, and a week of headlines that seemed to distract from a raft of mostly-symbolic legislation that Republicans had teed up to kick off their new majority.
“He seems to propel a lot of headlines for quite some time,” said Republican Rep. Tim Burchett of Tennessee, who’s told Santos that he’s “praying for him” and has adopted a non-judgemental attitude towards the new congressman. “I try to befriend everybody that’s in a little bit of a bind.”
Santos has in turn made clear that he will not resign and has begun hiring new staff for his office, some of whom come from the furthest-right corners of American politics.
Many Republicans’ public pronouncements about Santos largely mirror the approach taken by McCarthy: the congressman has been duly elected, and some respect should be afforded to that, even as authorities continue to investigate him.
“I can see the uneasiness up here with him,” said Burchett. “That’s just human nature.”
Rep. Pat Fallon of Texas, among the first of Santos’s GOP colleagues to approach him on the House floor last week, sought to downplay the interaction when asked about it, saying it was just “hey, how are you.”
“He seems to be, you know, a nice guy. I read the stuff. Obviously I’m very disappointed that there were things that he said that weren’t true,” said Fallon. “I did mention that to him, and he said he’s more disappointed than anyone.”
Fallon, seen beside Santos on the House floor on Thursday, January 5, says the New York congressman told him that he’s “more disappointed than anyone.”
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Others have been forceful, such as Reps. Nancy Mace of South Carolina or Nick LaLota of New York, both of whom are among the Republicans demanding Santos’ resignation.
“I’m not gonna have anything to do with somebody that can’t be trusted, and clearly defrauded the voters of New York,” said Mace, one of several House members who met Santos at an orientation for new members of Congress in 2020, the first time he ran for Congress. Santos had traveled to Washington to learn the ropes of lawmaking even as it was clear that the election would eventually be called for Democratic Rep. Tom Suozzi. “I’ve met him, I’ve spoken to him, and he literally pulled the wool over everybody’s eyes,” said Mace.
“I don’t intend to speak with him. His conduct is far below what his office requires,” said Lalota. “The more we engage in the Santos drama, the less we’re able to focus on what we need to focus on.”
Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, set to be the chair of a new select committee on China, said he doesn’t want Santos on his own committee and doubts that he’ll be seated on any other committees that pertain to national security.
“I get annoyed every time you guys ask me a question about this guy,” said Gallagher. “I don’t even know this guy. It’s odd that he occupies any space in my brain.”
But Santos has become friendly with some of his Republican colleagues, a number of whom approached him during last week’s speakership drama.
“He’s under fire,” observed Republican Rep. Clay Higgins of Louisiana. “So I made it a point to shake his hand, and welcome him to Congress. I gave him my cell and told him my staff would be at his avail as he tries to stand up his office.”
“I don’t know what’s true and what’s not true,” Higgins added of Santos’s fabrications. “The media lies.”
“That’s the one that’s got the ethics?” said Republican Rep. Ralph Norman of South Carolina, who said that Santos “seems nice” even as he appeared unaware of the extent of his controversies. “I didn’t know he was under investigation in Brazil… that’s sad, I’ll tell you that.”
Santos sat between Greene and Ogles on Thursday, January 5.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
“As far as the questions surrounding him, you know, I don’t have the particulars, and it’s not my place or business to judge,” said Republican Rep. Andy Ogles of Tennessee, who sat besides Santos and Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia during speaker votes. “He is, however, a human being, and he sat next to me, and we have great conversations.”
Greene, for her part, has been perhaps the most forceful defender of Santos, who she appears to have been friendly with for at least a couple of years. While she acknowledged that Santos lied about his resume, she later chastised former Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard for giving the congressman “zero grace” during a tougher-than-expected interview on Fox News in December.
—George Santos (@Santos4Congress) November 30, 2020
But Greene declined to speak about Santos to Insider, calling this reporter a “jerk” for revealing that she was vacationing in Costa Rica during the House passage of the omnibus bill in December. “No, you can — you can leave me alone,” said Greene.
Rep. Andy Biggs was also among the lawmakers that Santos has apparently met; the two were photographed speaking with one another on the House floor on January 4. But the Arizona Republican denied ever meeting Santos when asked about their interaction.
“Never talked to him once,” said Biggs. “I’ve never met the guy.”
Santos and Biggs on the House floor on Wednesday, January 4.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
‘I have zero respect for him’
Democrats have wasted little time calling attention to Santos. At a press conference on Thursday, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries pointedly declared that Santos was “an issue that Republicans need to handle.”
But New York’s third congressional district, which Santos now represents, is viewed as a Democratic-leaning seat, and a special election triggered by his early departure — coupled with the likely victory of Democrat Jennifer McClellan in a February special election in Virginia — could shave Republicans’ current four-vote margin down to two in a matter of weeks.
“Kevin McCarthy is afraid of losing his majority,” said Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona, saying the GOP leader had found a “bullshit excuse” to keep Santos around despite resignation calls from his own rank-and-file. Gallego, whose office sits just feet from Santos’s office, acknowledged having “lots of media” in the hallways but said he had yet to meet his new office neighbor.
Among the Democrats that Santos has met is Rep. Ritchie Torres of New York — also at new member orientation in 2020.
“He did introduce himself, and made a point of mentioning that he was gay,” said Torres, who is also gay. “I just found it to be an odd exchange.” (Former Democratic Rep. Mondaire Jones of New York, also gay, recently recounted a similar interaction with Santos at that year’s orientation.)
Torres is now one of Santos’s most vocal critics, championing a bill with fellow Democratic Rep. Dan Goldman of New York called the Stopping Another Non-Truthful Office Seeker (SANTOS) Act to require candidates to disclose their educational, military, and employment background to the Federal Election Commission, hitting them with a $100,000 penalty if they’re found to have lied.
Torres credited his legislative director for devising the bill’s name. “It’s a brilliant acronym,” he said.
The duo also filed a complaint with the House Ethics Committee over Santos’s financial disclosure and hand-delivered it to his office on Tuesday in a made-for-TV moment.
—Mychael Schnell (@mychaelschnell) January 10, 2023
“I told him I had a complaint to give him, and he asked me to give it to his staff member,” Goldman said, recounting the brief interaction with Santos.
“This is very near and dear to my heart,” Goldman added. “To allow someone like George Santos to be sworn in as a member here is a desecration of this great institution.”
And four other Democrats with military backgrounds, including Rep. Pat Ryan of New York, sent a letter to McCarthy this week urging him to block Santos from receiving classified information.
“I don’t say this lightly: I have zero respect for him as a member,” said Ryan. “He’s the only one of the entire body I would say that about.”
At one point during the days of Speaker votes, Santos was photographed speaking with Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York on the edge of a larger group of Republicans. Asked about the exchange, Ocasio-Cortez said that “chatting is a generous term” to describe the interaction.
Santos and Ocasio-Cortez briefly spoke on the sidelines of a gaggle of GOP lawmakers on the House floor on Wednesday, January 4.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
“He said, ‘you know, we may have some things in common,'” said Ocasio-Cortez, recounting the interaction. “And I laughed at him and I said, ‘oh, really?’ and that was all.”
‘A long way to go to earn trust’
Rejected by his fellow New York Republicans and under watch from party leadership, Santos may find himself throwing in his lot with the more combative right flank of the House GOP.
He’s hired a handful of new staffers to build out his office, including a former communications staffer for ultra-conservative Republican Reps. Madison Cawthorn and Paul Gosar. He’s also brought on Vish Burra, a Republican operative who’s worked as a producer for Steve Bannon’s “War Room” podcast.
“George Santos is a National Treasure,” wrote Burra in a since-deleted tweet over a video of Santos from the day before the January 6 riot in which he claimed his own congressional election was stolen in 2020. “This is why the corporate press is trying to silence him.”
By Wednesday, Santos had begun to assume a combative attitude towards his detractors, tweeting at former Rep. Adam Kinzinger to “go on @CNN and cry about it” after the Illinois Republican called on him to resign.
Santos walking with operations manager Vish Burra in the Cannon Tunnel at the Capitol on Thursday, January 12.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images
And on Thursday morning, he sat for his first interview in weeks on “War Room,” where he fielded softball questions from Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, who has his own history of federal investigations.
“I could ask you what it’s like to be an embattled congressman, but I kinda know a little bit about that scene,” Gaetz said to Santos, who went on to sidestep repeated questions from Gaetz about where he got the $700,000 he reported lending to his campaign.
But Santos’ future as an effective public servant looks bleak.
It’s unclear who would co-sponsor legislation with him, given most congressional Republicans’ desire to avoid associating with him. It’s unlikely that he’ll be able to provide many services for his constituents, given local officials’ pledge not to work with him. And it’s difficult to imagine Santos winning re-election in two years — let alone making it out of a Republican primary, given the local party’s disavowal of him.
McCarthy told reporters this week that Santos has “a long way to go to earn trust,” comments that mirrored his pronouncement that Cawthorn, who made wild claims about Republicans snorting cocaine and having orgies, had “lost my trust” amid his own web of controversies last year. Republicans in Washington later worked to sideline and defeat the young congressman.
What does seem likely is that an aura of controversy — and its attendant media scrutiny — will surround Santos until either Republicans decide to remove the distraction or officials at the federal, local, or state level file charges against him.