There’s a cloud hanging over Republicans’ takeover of the House next week – and for once, it’s not former President Donald Trump.
Congressman-elect George Santos, whose victory in a New York district last month was key to the GOP flipping the chamber, insists he’s coming to Congress despite admitting this week to fabricating key parts of his biography. There’s a growing range of probes into his lies, with CNN reporting Wednesday night that federal prosecutors in New York are investigating his finances and local prosecutors are “looking into” his fabrications.
Those falsehoods – several more of which CNN’s KFile uncovered on Wednesday – combined with Santos’ defiance and Republican leadership’s silence are setting up the GOP for a fraught first week in power.
GOP leadership hasn’t even acknowledged the controversy, which is leading to fears among some of Santos’ fellow incoming congressmen from the Empire State that his issues could overshadow Republicans’ ascent to power.
“Attempts to blame others or minimize his actions are only making things worse and a complete distraction from the task at hand,” Rep.-elect Mike Lawler said in a statement on Wednesday.
“New Yorkers deserve the truth and House Republicans deserve an opportunity to govern without this distraction,” said Rep.-elect Nick LaLota, who was elected to a Long Island district, in a statement Tuesday in which he called for an ethics investigation “and, if necessary, law enforcement” involvement.
House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy, who has not returned CNN’s requests for comment about Santos, has been focused on trying to secure the votes for the speakership next month. That task became harder after Republicans won a narrower majority than he had hoped, a slim margin that will empower the conference’s most extreme members. Asking Santos to step down could cost him a vote in his already tenuous quest to reach 218.
But by not addressing the New York Republican’s lies, McCarthy may risk looking like he’s not in control of his party before ever taking the speaker’s gavel.
House Republicans’ path to the majority this year ran through New York, which was a bright spot for the party in an otherwise disappointing midterm performance. While falling short of their anticipated “red wave,” the GOP flipped four Democratic seats in the Empire State – one of which was the 3rd District that Santos carried by about 8 points.
It emerged on Wednesday that he made even more false claims about his family history, work history and education, according to a KFile review of statements made in his 2022 and 2020 congressional campaigns. Santos has not responded to CNN’s repeated requests for comment.
Santos admitted to the New York Post on Monday that he didn’t “graduate from any institution of higher learning,” despite his biography at times listing an education at Baruch College and New York University. He also admitted that he never worked directly for the financial firms Citigroup and Goldman Sachs, as he has previously suggested, but claimed that he did do work for them through his company, telling the Post it was a “poor choice of words” to say he worked for them.
The Nassau County district attorney’s office said Wednesday it is “looking into” the fabrications.
“No one is above the law and if a crime was committed in this county, we will prosecute it,” District Attorney Anne Donnelly, a Republican, said in a statement.
Prosecutors in the US attorney’s office in the Eastern District of New York are investigating Santos’ finances, a source familiar with the matter told CNN later Wednesday. Santos has faced questions over his wealth and loans totaling more than $700,000 he made to his successful 2022 campaign.
Santos told Semafor on Wednesday that he made his money through “capital introduction” and “deal making” for “high net worth individuals.” CBS News first reported the probe and the US attorney’s office declined to comment.
The condemnations from three incoming House Republicans – all of whom won in competitive territory – look like an effort to distance themselves from a troubled neighbor, while implicitly trying to pave the way for leadership to speak up. The claims from Santos that have earned the sharpest rebuke have been those about his proclaimed Jewish identity.
Santos said in an appearance on a Fox News digital show in February that his maternal grandparents changed their Jewish last name from Zabrovsky – a claim for which there is no evidence and that records contradict, KFile reported on Wednesday.
That followed last week’s KFile revelations that Santos’ claims that his grandparents “survived the Holocaust” as Ukrainian Jewish refugees from Belgium who changed their surname are contradicted by sources including family trees compiled by genealogy websites, records on Jewish refugees and interviews with multiple genealogists.
His explanation has quickly become the source of mockery.
“I never claimed to be Jewish,” Santos told the New York Post. “I am Catholic. Because I learned my maternal family had a Jewish background, I said I was ‘Jew-ish.’”
And yet, Santos described himself as a “proud American Jew” in a document shared with Jewish groups during the campaign, which was first reported by the Forward and confirmed by CNN this week.
The backlash came swiftly from local corners of the GOP and quickly went to larger influential groups.
“I am deeply disappointed in Mr. Santos, and I expected more than just a blanket apology,” Nassau County GOP Chair Joseph G. Cairo, Jr., said in a statement Tuesday. “The damage that his lies have caused to many people, especially those who have been impacted by the Holocaust, are profound.”
“His fabrications regarding the Holocaust and his family’s history are particularly hurtful,” Rep.-elect Anthony D’Esposito of New York added in his own statement.
And Matt Brooks, the CEO of the Republican Jewish Coalition – a powerful player in GOP national politics – said on Tuesday that Santos had “deceived us” and “will not be welcome at any future RJC event.”
But a week and a half after the initial revelations, most Republicans currently serving in the House are quiet, at least publicly.
With Congress out of session for the holidays, reporters can’t catch lawmakers in hallways of the Capitol. But they’ll be back next week, and it’s only a matter of time before members face pointed questions.
One member speaking up for Santos is Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene – not necessarily the defender that a New York Republican, whose district voted for President Joe Biden by 8 points in 2020, probably wants in his corner.
“I think we Republicans should give George Santos a chance and see how he legislates and votes, not treat him the same as the left is,” the Georgia Republican wrote on Twitter.
When Greene was stripped of her committee assignments early last year, in the wake of incendiary and violent past statements that had recently been unearthed, it was the Democratic-controlled House (along with 11 Republicans) who made that happen – not GOP leadership. And once again, leadership seems to be looking past the problem.
Santos brought this upon himself – and yet, like the former president who still wields major influence over the House GOP, he seems eager to deflect responsibility. At one point, he has even tried to explain away his actions by casting himself as a victim of America’s elites.
In a bizarre interview with City and State on Monday, he spoke about having “the weight of the world” on his shoulders over the past week as news organizations have pored over his background. He then said “elitists” had looked down on him for working in customer service, seeming to suggest that’s why he omitted that experience and fabricated others on his resume.
Although there’s no evidence he’s ever been convicted of a crime, Santos has tried to obfuscate on the issue. He was charged with embezzlement in a Brazilian court, as the New York Times first reported last week and CNN confirmed on Wednesday, according to case records from the Rio de Janeiro Court of Justice. Court records from 2013, however, state that the charge was archived after court summons went unanswered and they were unable to locate Santos.
“I am not a criminal here – not here or in Brazil or any jurisdiction in the world,” Santos told the Post on Monday.
In another classic Trump move, he pivoted to attacking Biden and Democrats in a Tuesday interview on Fox’s “Tucker Carlson Tonight” when the guest host, former Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, pressed him on the meaning of “integrity” and asked, “Do you have no shame?”
But in trying to defend the discrepancies in his record, Santos then made a statement that Gabbard seized on for the way it could offend the everyday Americans he claims to have so much affinity for.
“We can have this discussion that’s going to go way above the American people’s head, but that’s not what I campaigned on,” Santos said.
As Gabbard rightly pointed out in that interview, he’s not the only politician – from either party – whose background, as they’ve presented it, has received scrutiny. Santos is clearly leaning into the unpopularity of the institution he’s planning to join as he tries to defend his record.
“I challenge all 434 members of Congress, aside myself, in the House, to go through the same litany test I just went through last week,” he told City and State. “Open yourselves up to the media. Let them dig deep and pull in your deepest secrets. If we did that, we wouldn’t have a single congressman in the House. And I bet you, we wouldn’t have a single senator in the Senate.”
Just 22% of Americans approved of Congress in Gallup’s latest survey this fall. Santos claims his policy work is what will matter, but so far, he – and his party’s leadership – aren’t doing much to bring up those numbers.