Voices: George Santos may be gone - but there will be more of his kind

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George Santos got what he wanted.

I first realised this about the now-expelled New York Republican during the speaker’s race in October, when he started shouting at a pro-Palestinian activist who had questioned him earlier. I had caught him coming out of the meeting room in the Longworth House Office Building and asked him about Jim Jordan when he caught the activist and shouted “you are human scum.”

Immediately, all of the reporters moved from covering the GOP disarray and zeroed in on him, effectively turning it into a reality show. And that’s how he wanted it. He got all of the Washington press corps, the House Republican conference and even some Democrats to play along with his charade as he distracted from his legal troubles.

That’s why the House vote to expel him will not deter him. He turned every attempt to shame him into an opportunity. Furthermore, Republicans in the House of Representatives have created an ecosystem that disincentivizes policymaking and instead elevates people who see Congress as a way to build their brand rather than make a difference.

And the press is just as guilty of giving him what he wants as anyone else. The perfect example came the day before his expulsion vote, when Mr Santos called a press conference in the bitter chill of November in Washington outside the Captiol at 8am on a Thursday. Despite these elements, he still had a swarm of reporters willing to hear him air his grievances and shout his questions, even as we knew he would blatantly lie.

He refused to refute the allegations in the House Ethics Committee report that detailed his misdeeds such as lying about loaning his campaign money, using campaign donors for personal expenses such as Hermes and OnlyFans, and falsifying Federal Election Commission reports. Rather, he bragged about how well he served his constituents.

Rep Anthony D’Esposito, a fellow freshman Republican from his neighboring district on Long Island, refuted that to me, noting how his office is now having to handle constituent work for Mr Santos’s 3rd district.

“All of these people do not want to deal with or just don't have the ability to do a deal with George Santos and the people who live there deserve proper representation,” he told me.

But when I asked Mr D’Esposito what could be done about stopping another George Santos, he didn’t have much to say.

“I think it's for the person to not run and try to dupe and defraud voters,” he said. Similarly, Republican Rep Mike Garcia of California - who like Mr Santos and Mr D’Esposito represents a district that President Joe Biden won - dithered when I asked him what could be done to prevent another grifter from arriving in Washington.

“How does the Democrat party do better opposition research as well?” Mr Garcia told me. “I mean, everyone missed this one. So look, when someone is committing a crime, and they're intentionally trying to cover their tracks and it makes it harder to find this thing. So this is the fault of him and his team.”

Rep Tom Cole of Oklahoma, the chairman of the House Rules Committee echoed the sentiment, telling me that political opponents are supposed to craft political attacks and the media is supposed to cover it.

“The local media in New York City, didn't get his job done, didn't better pay attention,” he told me. “I can't believe some of this stuff didn't come up during the campaign.”

Democrats and the press missed their mark on Mr Santos. But he received the support of the Republican apparatus. The Ethics Committee report noted how he falsely claimed he loaned his campaign money to earn the support of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the House GOP’s campaign apparatus, which gave his campaign $5,000 after he won his primary.

The NRCC’s then-chairman Tom Emmer, now the House Majority Whip, congratulated him on election night. Conference Chairwoman Elise Stefanik, a fellow New Yorker who could have vetted him, endorsed him in 2021. House Republicans could have easily made sure a shameless con artist did not infiltrate their ranks. Blaming the Democrats or the press is the equivalent of blaming a bartender for not cutting someone off after they get a DUI.

Similarly, the fact remains that there is simply no more incentive for Republicans who want to govern to stay in the House. Kay Granger, the House Appropriations Committee chairwoman, is calling it a day, as is Rep Michael Burgess of Texas, who led Republicans during the many fights about health care.

Conversely, people who see legislation as an obstacle to getting attention populate the House Republican conference.

“Like he's the biggest one now,” Rep Maxwell Frost, the first Generation Z member and outspoken progressive, told me on Thursday, adding that “they still have a whole other host of people who are not here to be serious not here to actually legislate and want to push our country the wrong direction.”

Governing doesn’t get someone on Fox News. Compromise cramps a conservative’s brand of ideological purity. So there will be more George Santoses. Furthermore, they will see him not as a cautionary tale but rather as someone who blazed a trail for them to follow and they will see that their Republican colleagues will defend them until every other option is exhausted.

And he’s not even an isolated incident. Last Congress, now-disgraced former congressman Madison Cawthorn became an anthropomorphized ethics report, to the point Kevin McCarthy had to punish him.

But when I caught Mr McCarthy, the now-disgraced ex-speaker who protected Mr Santos in the name of keeping his gavel, and asked how he would vote to expel the lawmaker on Wednesday, he didn’t answer.

This differs wildly from Democrats, who almost immediately called for former governor Andrew Cuomo to go amid allegations of sexual misconduct, and are now showing Sen Robert Menendez of New Jersey the door amid an indictment.

Of course, no discussion about how Republicans reward being a serial liar defrauding the public and facing federal indictments is complete without talking about the head of the party, Donald Trump, who had zero previous political experience, who lies about everything from his wealth to whether he lost the presidential election in 2020 and who has received undying fealty from the GOP.

“Where did George Santos get the idea that you could lie, cheat and steal and succeed in the Republican Party? Where does that idea come from,” Rep Jamie Raskin asked me rhetorically on Thursday, before answering with Mr Trump. “I mean, if he can make lying, standard operating procedure, then it invites every kind of charlatan and con man to come on in. The water's warm for them.”

That culture of permission now permeates the GOP. The party of personal responsibility now puts the onus on Democrats and the press rather than raising a standard that the wise and honest can repair, to borrow from George Washington. Now, they have adopted the standard of Taylor Swift in her Reputation era, telling everyone “Look What You Made Me Do.” (Tellingly, Mr Santos has said that “Bad Blood” is his favourite song from Ms Swift and Reputation is his favourite album, even though “Bad Blood” is on 1989).

The House GOP’s unwillingness to police itself means that more figures like Mr Santos will enter the people’s House and coarsen democracy even more by turning it into their platform to soft-launch their quest for fame.

When I caught Mr Santos on Thursday night, I asked him what he planned to do on his first day as a former member of Congress, he told me: “Sleeping in.”

And he won’t lose a second of sleep for his actions. Why would he? The House GOP all but tucked him into bed.