16 Hours With George Santos: Dunkin’ Donuts, 27,000 Steps and a Scolding
It’s 11:05 a.m. on a Tuesday, and none of the 20 or so reporters huddling outside George Santos’ congressional office wants to grab the last of twelve donuts he brought to the Longworth House building. The gaggle has been here for hours, camped out next to a cardboard carafe of coffee rapidly growing stale. Around 8 a.m., Santos had waltzed in, ceremoniously plopping a Dunkin’ Donuts bag on a side table placed outside L-1117, a confectionery bounty. He didn’t need to be here so early (his first vote is at 6:30 p.m.), but he had teased a “surprise” the day before on Twitter, “for the ‘journalists’ assigned to stake out side [sic] of my office,” the quotation marks smacking of cheerful condescension. “I brought you guys some donuts!” he exclaims. “Donuts and coffee, for all the hard work you guys do.”
“Thank you. Seriously,” he says, by now half-inside his office, just before the door swings shut against the videographers and photographers and reporters, all of whom crave answers more than pastries.
The donuts slowly disappear.
But consider this last remaining donut. Deconstruct it, for a second, from the outside in. The glaze: a gooey, cloudy substance that varnishes the ring of cake, pure glucose soon to strike the palate. Then, the cake itself: yeast and enriched wheat flour and palm oil and more sugar, congealing and forcing one’s salivary glands to go into overdrive. Thirty-three grams of carbohydrates that fuel a sugar rush but leave your hunger totally unsated. At the literal center of it, a hole — emptiness.
That’s what a donut is. Nothingness surrounded by nutritional nothingness.
Ask George Santos a question, and the response will, too, leave you unsated. I discovered as much over the two days I spent pursuing him for a day-in-the-life profile during his first week of legislating, camping outside his office, chasing him around the Hill — all in the hopes of gaining some insight into Congress’s most scandal-plagued freshman. Down the vaunted halls of the Capitol he goes, TV producers with heavy cameras in tow, falling silent in response to the thorniest queries about myriad allegations of lying and fraud. Why did he plaster his CV with falsehoods as he tried to gain the trust of the voters of New York’s third district? Is he concerned about the ethics, campaign finance, and criminal investigations he’s enmeshed in from New York to D.C. to Rio de Janeiro? Where did his campaign funds come from? Does he have the support of the Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy? Does he plan to step down? (Santos has admitted to embellishing his resume, but he maintains he’s neither a criminal nor a fraud.)
Between the congressman’s non-answers and the sweet nothings I witness over 16 hours and 27,000 steps following Santos around the Hill, one thing is becoming abundantly clear: The political purgatory where this merchant of fables finds himself is an increasingly brutal place to inhabit. And indeed, a week after my tour with him, on Jan. 31, he told his fellow Republicans that he’s stepping down from his committee assignments.
“I will address you,” he says over and over again, “on my time.”
But his musical tastes, a reporter asks, half in jest? That he will answer. He doesn’t have Spotify (he prefers Pandora). “My favorite jam right now, uhhhh, Sam Smith song, ‘Unholy.’ Fun song!” (You know, the pop anthem about a man who’s cheating on his wife that includes this line: “I hear them whispering ‘bout the places that you’ve been / and how you don’t know how to keep your business clean.”)
He chuckles. The members-only elevator shuts against two reporters and a photographer, zipping him somewhere where he can finally be left alone.
Congratulations! You’ve consumed the Santos donut.
Tuesday, 11:34 a.m.
The click of a doorknob turning anywhere on Santos’ hallway has become a kind of Pavlovian bell. One that comes from nearby means it’s time to look alive: grab the mic, switch on the recorders, turn on the video lights, press the red button on your iPhone, whatever.
Santos emerges from his office, dressed in his signature pullover and suit jacket. He’s carrying a huge POW-MIA flag that he’s about to set up in the banner holders outside his door. The press literally swarms him, asphyxiating him with questions he won’t answer as an aide who works for the congressional TV/radio gallery pleads with journalists in the hall to leave space, guys, please leave space. Santos, looking more than a little aggrieved, manages to place the flag (which has an orange oil stain on it) in the mast and extricate himself, slipping back into his safe space.
The press corps exhales in disappointment, turns around to check what footage they got. Exactly four minutes later, though, the door clicks open again.
Out comes Vish Burra, Santos’s reportedly divisive operations manager, with the congressman right behind him. He seems at first to be headed to the pair of gilded elevators located some 21 steps from his office, but he feints and marches to the stairs instead. We’re jaunting briskly, shoes screeching against the marble floors. Maybe because we’re recovering from the shock of seeing him again so soon or because we’re still turning on our equipment as we walk, no one asks a question. We’re just scrambling to keep up. At this point, I know he won’t elaborate on his many investigations, and I know he’s said he won’t step down, so I try casting a different line:
Is he running for reelection in 2024?
He cranes his neck to identify me behind him and says with a smile: “Wow, it’s so early for that question! I just got here, guys!”
Down a flight of steps he goes as reporters from major news outlets, temporarily out-maneuvered, try mightily to catch up with him. Lalee Ibssa, the ABC News journalist who took the viral video of Santos ignoring her questions on his first day in Congress, jogs ahead. No, he tells her calmly, he’s not going to the White House, where Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are hosting a bipartisan reception for first-year members of Congress. He’s got a prior commitment. “But,” he adds, veering slightly from the Republican script in these exceedingly partisan times, “I’d love to go visit with the president.”
Another flight of stairs, followed by an escalator with ultra-bright fluorescent lights, then a long corridor. Sixty-eight seconds with more questions about whether he’ll donate his salary, whether he’s concerned about ethics investigations, whether he’s spoken with McCarthy. None of them answered. Someone asks again if he’s going to the White House and Santos momentarily drops his studied cheerfulness to serve up a coy rebuke. Answering repeat queries buys him time. “How many times are we gonna answer the same question? Yes! I’m not going.”
The elevator closes, and the scrum returns to his office, panting.
The box of donuts is empty.
Tuesday, 2:02 p.m.
Santos returned to his office 43 minutes ago, trotting down the far end of the hallway, carrying a can of Red Bull (carbonated water, sucrose, glucose, citric acid, taurine). “Do they give you guys breaks for food?” he asks solicitously, with no trace of his earlier irritation. “I’m concerned you guys are not having lunch.” A reporter asks him how his day has been so far.
“It’s good! It’s good, productive, and exciting, and I’m looking forward to serving the people,” he says, eyes darting.
From the scrum: “The same people you lied to to get elected?”
“Thank you guys, thank you so much,” he says, still smiling as he firmly closes the door.
With Santos cloistered in his office, which presumably has a restroom, most of the hours crawl by without much activity. But passersby — staffers, lawmakers, visitors, tourists — can’t resist slowing down long enough to look around at the dejected, bored faces sitting on scattered chairs or even on the floor. They put two and two together and smile, or mutter something to their companions. Some take selfies next to his nameplate. At one point, Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.), whose office is at the other end of the hall and who often sits with Santos on the House floor, walks by and offers his assessment of the situation. “Go to journalism school!” he quips. “And then they assign you to this.”
Others swing by to dispense some empathy in these trying times. “Is he home?” asks Don Beyer, Democrat from Virginia and Santos’ neighbor. After a couple reporters say yes, he figures he’ll stop by and say hello.
Beyer’s member pin is a powerful thing for many reasons, but for our purposes, it’s powerful because it grants him access to the congressman’s lair. And the press wants to know: What did he say? How does he seem?
“I was just welcoming him to the first floor of Longworth. No greater depth than that,” he assures reporters. “We stayed away from the political and the policy.”
Does he hope that Santos will remain his neighbor?
“Oohhhh, that’s not up to me,” he says, shifting in his feet, furrowing his brow, looking down. “That’s a very different, complicated story that has to do with what’s happening in New York and his caucus.” Nor is he calling for Santos to resign; he doesn’t want to play judge and jury. He really just wanted to express human sympathy directly to Santos, a rarity in Washington.
In another, less welcoming corner of the Hill, the reception from a different Democrat is a bit more icy. No, frigid: “I would refuse to shake his hand and I would refuse to speak to him. He’s a fraud who has no business being in Congress. I have zero respect for him,” says Rep. Ritchie Torres, a Democrat from New York, who has been promoting his Stopping Another Non-Truthful Office Seeker Act — note the acronym — a bill that would require congressional candidates to file a statement under oath about their educational background, military service, and employment history. It would levy civil penalties of $100,000, one year in prison, or both, on candidates who falsify such statements.
The way Torres sees it, the criminal prosecution of George Santos is not an if, but a when. “He defrauded the voters of New York state, he defrauded his way into the United States Congress, and there’s a real concern that he could corrupt the institution from within,” Torres tells me.
In these early weeks of Congress, though, Torres’ bill has gotten no additional support from the GOP, whose members have somewhat steered away from the elephant in the room.
Well, most of them. Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana said Santos was “nutty as a fruitcake,” adding that if the allegations about him prove to be true, “I would boot him.”
Tuesday, 6:25 p.m.
The first thing out of George Santos’ mouth when he sees me in the tunnel that connects the House office buildings to the Capitol is, “I have dogs. No friends.” He’s on his way to votes and it’s been a long day. He’s running out of steam, and the entourage of cameras that could capture his cheerfully defiant demeanor isn’t with us.
This seems like a non sequitur, but he’s referring to a question I’d blurted out earlier just as he was dashing into an elevator: Did he consider any of his new colleagues to be his friends? “I’m sorry?” he’d said, just before the elevator doors closed, puzzled. “Wow, that’s a great question.”
But now we’re alone, I try to ask him about his housing situation, given the stories members of Congress sharing apartments or sleeping on their office couches. But I fumble my phrasing, so he clearly believes I’m asking a member of Congress for his home address. “Can you ask me, like, nothing personal?”
Okay. More than half of New York Republicans want you to resign. What’s your message to them?
“It’s their prerogative, it’s a free country! Free speech, I support it!”
A colleague from the Daily Beast who is speed-walking along pipes up: “Do you have any commitments on whether or not you’ll run again in 2024?”
“I’ve answered this question, I’ve been here three weeks!” he says, laughing to his press secretary next to him.
So you’re not ruling out another run, the Daily Beast reporter presses, as we arrive at another members-only elevator.
Now he’s growing exasperated, so he turns to us to deliver a little lecture on the First Amendment.
“You guys keep asking me the same questions, and it pains me. You guys don’t go to eat. You guys don’t take a break. And it frustrates me that you’re sitting there outside of my door all day.
“I will address you guys,” he says, enunciating emphatically, his eyes bulging, “on my time.”
“You haven’t seen a single answer come out of the repeated questions over and over and over again, because this is not how you conduct interviews. You schedule with our comms team, we sit down, and we give you answers,” he assures us, his voice lilting, sounding like a teacher addressing a class of unruly kindergartners.
Ah, if only it were that easy. (His office declined repeated requests from POLITICO Magazine for an interview.)
Typically, the laws of the Hill work something like this: if a random politician declines to speak with you, or is busy, or doesn’t have time, you try talking to their press secretaries and securing time on their calendar. But Santos doesn’t have time for all that. Unless you’re Fox News or the “Firebrand with Matt Gaetz” podcast, he’s unlikely to sit down with you. Which means the press resorts to following him around almost everywhere he goes, shoving microphones in his face in an attempt to get an answer.
Is what we’re doing annoying? Yes. Illegal? No. Constitutional, actually.
And besides, these aren’t typical times. Nor is he a typical member of Congress.
This is evident in the faces of the Capitol Hill denizens who pass him as he walks around campus. As soon as they’re out of his sight, their mouths drop and their eyebrows lift, as if they’ve seen a ghost. The rubberneckers eagerly pull phones from their pockets, probably to text their multiple group chats.
Earlier, as Santos enters the building, one bystander mutters under her breath, “What. The actual. Fuck.”
Wednesday, 10:06 a.m.
On this cold, damp morning, he’ll set off another scrum. George Santos is at the Capitol Hill Club, the official name for the GOP’s clubhouse, a white-brick building a block away from his office. With George Santos are his closest colleagues (the entire GOP conference), meeting behind closed doors. The press corps is outside, waiting patiently, looking for side entrances and scrolling at their phones. (Also inside: Stephen Miller.)
On the agenda: the removal of prominent Democrats from certain committee assignments. But for a moment, McCarthy also briefly touches on Santos, whose victory in November flipped a blue district encompassing Long Island and helped deliver the House majority. The congressman will continue to serve, McCarthy says, until —unless?— a criminal charge triggers his removal. This has been the party line, even if several members of the caucus see in him an onerous liability — or worse, as his Republican colleague from New York Nick LaLota put it, “totally untrustworthy,” “an embarrassment,” and “a joke.”
Left unaddressed by McCarthy’s remarks, between the lines, is the fact that the night before, Santos’ campaign filed an amended campaign finance report with the Federal Elections Commission showing a personal half-million dollar loan he gave to his campaign wasn’t “personal” after all. The filing didn’t explain where the funds came from. This is what the press would like to know. When George Santos steps out into the gelid atmosphere, he sends reporters and photographers and videographers scrambling with a ruffling of jackets and plastic and question marks. “Are you guys gonna give me space to walk?” he snipes.
Then the inevitable question about his FEC filings comes, and he’s clearly frustrated. He starts swatting his hand at CNN’s Manu Raju, suddenly reproachful: “Let’s make it very clear. I don’t amend anything, I don’t touch any of my FEC stuff, right?” As Raju tries to interrupt, Santos lifts his index finger, wagging it at him. “So don’t be disingenuous and report that I did, because you know that every campaign hires fiduciaries, so I’m not aware of that answer.”
“What was the source of your funds, sir?” someone else shouts. “What was the source of that money? … Sir?”
“Does anyone have a question here?” Santos responds. The question hangs, suspended.
Since he won’t answer that question, I instead ask him what constituent services he’s provided.
“That I provided?”
He pauses, thinking.
“Oh, uh, taking in… great requests,” he says, “and we’re reviewing stuff, and we’re getting a lot of requests for the military academies.”
Then someone asks: Have you heard from the Brazilian authorities? Santos says no, he hasn’t heard from any authorities or investigations, eager to dismiss the question. He disappears into Longworth — he’s got the advantage of skipping the security line — so the clearly exasperated gaggle of reporters is forced to pump the brakes.
Later, as he scurries out of his office, I ask him whether he thinks McCarthy has his back. “What’s your assessment of that?” he shoots back, as he bounds down a staircase. “You guys got the information, so that should be incumbent upon you guys to make that assessment.”
Outside, he hops into the driver’s seat of his black SUV, but not before telling a reporter that he’d want Leonardo DiCaprio to play him in a biopic. He’ll wheel his way into a Chick-Fil-A drive-thru and return to his office at 12:15 p.m. with a greasy paper bag containing $178.20 worth of chicken sandwiches. Paid from his personal funds, he says, to support another banquet for the press. A staffer gives it a Trump-like spread.
Someone wonders: Whose idea was it to buy this fast-food feast?
Burra gestures to the official nameplate above the sandwiches and flashes a grin.
“Mr. Santos,” he says. “He’s a brilliant congressman.”
Wednesday, 4:52 p.m.
Santos stands up from his usual seat in the middle of the House chamber, three seats from the center corridor where the late-night McCarthy speakership vote almost descended into a brawl. This is his usual perch on the floor, where he frequently yawns, covers his mouth, scrolls on his phone, looks off into the distance, clearly bored. His usual floor comrades: Republicans Burchett, Andy Harris of Maryland, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, and Anna Paulina Luna of Florida, with whom he trades jokes and makes conversation. Nancy Pelosi stops by in a burnt orange pantsuit, exchanging pleasantries with Burchett, grasping his forearm and patting his shoulder, laughing but pointedly never so much as glancing at Santos.
Carrying a brown folder, Santos makes his way down to the well, looking confident. He’s going to give his first floor speech, a one-minute expression of support for Iran’s protests. The chamber had just voted, with 420 members in support, to pass a resolution commending the protesters.
He approaches the clerk, wearing a variation of his trademark ensemble — a charcoal gray pullover under a slate pinstripe jacket — and he starts waxing on Ronald Reagan and freedom, words tumbling over words in a rush to make time. He looks down at the lectern, exposing the thinning tuft of hair atop his head.
“I declare with every bullet and with every act of violence imposed by the Iranian government comes a call for us to condemn their actions,” he says, in a decorous monotone, “and urge the Biden administration to take far greater action than mere sanctions to address the countless murders and examples of senseless brutality.
“I yield back my time.”
I catch Santos as he’s coming out of the Speaker’s Lobby, the colonnaded foyer just outside the House chamber. A veteran journalist is walking with him, deploying the time-honored reporter’s tactic of asking his question in a level, measured tone, so as not to come off as combative.
“Do you feel like at some point you need to answer questions, though, to sort of clear up—” the reporter says. “WHO’S KICKING ME?” Santos spits back at the roving scrum that had now mushroomed to a few reporters pushing for space, including me. (To be clear, nobody kicked him. I’d stepped on the back of his foot by accident amid the chaos. I quickly apologize, but he ignores me.)
Then more questions from the press, which aren’t just questions that journalists have, but questions that his constituents also have: “Have you been contacted by the Ethics Committee?”
“I’ve not,” George Santos says. (“No comment,” writes Tom Rust, the committee’s chief counsel, in a later email.)
I ask: “Have you been in touch with your legal team?”
“With who?” With your legal team.
“With my legal team? Do I have a legal team? I’m asking you, ‘Do I?’ You guys seem to know more than I do about myself!”
The elevator dings.
“So you don’t have a legal team,” I say. I figure the only way to get an answer out of Santos is to show him the hole at the center of the donut, to make him correct the nothingness.
“Of course I have a legal team,” he says, rolling his eyes. “Don’t block the elevators. Thanks, guys!”
And this way, George Santos gets away, yet again, without an answer, the elevator plunging him down to the bowels of the Capitol. Later, he’ll stop by karaoke night at Hill Country Barbecue Market in Chinatown and merrymake with lobbyists, reporters and Hill staffers. Photos of him taking a selfie with a D.C. comms operative circulate around Twitter. He’s beaming as iPhone flashes light up from many sides, his eyes squinting almost shut behind his thick-rimmed black Ray-Ban glasses.
“We may or may not have encouraged ‘I Will Survive’ as his karaoke song,” someone tweets.
All empty carbs, little substance. And he’s loving it.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana.