George Santos scandal consumes Congress, chafes lawmakers on both sides of aisle

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Trailed constantly by shouting reporters, Rep. George Santos has become one of the most watched first-term congressmen in history.

The New York Republican's every word is parsed. His preppy sartorial selections are analyzed. Even the treats his staff leaves for journalists outside his office have carried news cycles.

Three weeks after Santos, a 34-year-old serial liar, was sworn into Congress to represent a section of Long Island and a sliver of eastern Queens, the circus around him has hardly diminished.

And bipartisan frustration is growing among many of Santos’ colleagues, who see him as an embarrassing distraction at best, and a danger to their institution at worst.

“Quite frankly, we’re sick and tired of being asked about him,” Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, a Staten Island Republican, said in a statement, adding that “the focus should be on tackling inflation, securing our border and addressing crime.”

Malliotakis said Santos “does not have the trust of his colleagues.”

A majority of New York’s GOP delegation in the House has called on Santos to resign. But the congressman, whose fabrications first came under broad public scrutiny late last month, says he will not step down.

Republican leadership seems disinclined to push Santos out, given their party’s slim majority in the House and the risk that Democrats could flip his swing district in a hypothetical special election.

GOP leaders gave Santos seats on two House committees — the Small Business Committee and the Science, Space and Technology Committee — a signal that they do not intend to excise him.

Early this month, Santos helped get Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California over the hump in his nail-biting, five-day bid to become House speaker.

“The operating principle of House Republican leadership is not ethics. It’s politics,” Rep. Ritchie Torres, a Bronx Democrat, said in an interview. “Kevin McCarthy needs every vote he can get. And he needs George Santos to remain in power.”

But Santos, Torres said, cannot be trusted with many responsibilities bestowed upon him, including access to classified records as a House member, and oversight of fraud in the sprawling Paycheck Protection Program as a member of the Small Business Committee.

“Can a fraud like George Santos be trusted to oversee fraud?” Torres asked dryly.

Two powerful New York Democrats, Reps. Gregory Meeks and Joe Morelle, sent a letter to McCarthy on Wednesday asking him to prevent Santos from receiving classified information.

Meeks, ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and Morelle, ranking member of the Administration Committee, said in their letter that they sought to prevent Santos from “abusing his position and endangering our nation.”

In an interview, Morelle said Santos’ wholesale falsehoods indicate he cannot be trusted with confidential government material.

“Once you have access to it, you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube,” said Morelle, of Rochester. “Right at the outset, let’s take preventative action.”

McCarthy’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Santos is under a legal cloud in the U.S., where prosecutors in several New York offices have launched probes into him, and in Brazil, where a prosecutor’s office has moved to revive a 2008 theft charge against him.

A spokeswoman for Santos, Naysa Woomer, pushed back on the notion that Santos’ presence would hamper the work of Congress.

“The congressman remains committed to working in a collaborative manner with both Republicans and Democrats to support legislation that will benefit constituents of New York’s 3rd Congressional District,” Woomer said in an email.

Santos, who has admitted to some of his lies, has maintained he is not a fraud or a criminal, and has downplayed his sweeping fabrications as mere biographical embroidery.

Those falsehoods include a rewriting of his education and work history, and baseless claims that his mother’s death was caused by 9/11.

New York politicians of both parties have rejected his suggestion that he is guilty only of embellishment.

“We recognize without any doubt or question that there is a serial fraudster walking the halls of Congress,” said Dan Goldman, a Manhattan Democrat who joined Torres in filing a House ethics complaint against Santos.

Rep. Anthony D’Esposito, a Long Island Republican, said in a statement that Santos’ “lies have cost him the trust of his constituents, New York neighbors, and Americans across the country.”

Morelle said he is concerned Santos’ trail of falsehoods is feeding a broader perception that Congress is filled with liars, and distracting from the important work before the House.

“It makes it even harder for us to gain even a modicum of confidence,” Morelle said. “It’s just sad.”

A December 2021 Gallup poll found 62% of the public said they believed members of Congress had low or very low ethical standards.

Research has suggested that politicians may be slightly more honest than average citizens, but that dishonest politicians perform better in elections than their truthful rivals, said Christian Hart, a psychology professor at Texas Woman’s University who studies lying.

Hart said that he does not believe it is likely that Santos will become more honest, and that the lawmaker appears to be a pathological liar.

“He seems to have a lot of the traits that most people would associate with antisocial personality disorder,” Hart explained. “People like him generally tend to stick with their dishonesty until they have absolutely no way out.”

Santos also appears to sometimes drag others into his web of lies.

Abdullah Hassan, a 23-year-old law student at George Washington University, said he interned on Santos’ failed 2020 House campaign.

During the run, Hassan said, Santos asked him to lie on camera about losing power.

Santos also talked more about Brazilian politics than New York politics and seemed to know little about Long Island, Hassan recalled.

“He just came off as nervous,” Hassan said of Santos, adding that he had expected Republicans would run a different candidate the next cycle. “I thought they’d put someone more competent.”

Santos managed to get back on the ballot and win. But Torres charged that he is doing a disservice to his constituents and to the New York delegation by remaining in his seat.

“No one poses a greater threat to the integrity of Congress than George Santos,” Torres said. “And he’s a distraction from what should be the serious business of Congress.”