We’ve become accustomed in American politics to a certain level of truth stretching. Politicians contort facts to justify their plans. Some polish the rough edges of their résumés or inflate military credentials, hoping no one notices. Notoriously, Donald Trump’s falsehood-filled presidency ended with a massive lie about the 2020 election.
But even by the standards of this era of self-aggrandizement and alternative facts, it is hard to find a case quite like that of George Santos, the newly elected Republican congressman from Long Island. As a recent investigation by my colleagues Grace Ashford and Michael Gold found, Santos did not seem to so much embellish his biography as make it up: degrees, tragedy, religious faith, job credentials, even a charity.
“Politicians don’t tell the truth, sure. Nothing new. Everyone says that,” said Katie Sanders, the managing editor of PolitiFact, a widely respected nonpartisan fact-checking service. “But to be this brazen is unlike anything we’ve seen in recent memory.”
The most vexing question, though, may be what happens to Santos now. He has refused to step down, and his own party has shown little appetite to force him out, particularly amid an ongoing House leadership fight. His activities may yet lead to criminal charges. But short of prosecution, the case is shaping up to be a test of voters’ tolerance for falsehoods in the post-Trump political environment. Sanders called it “a huge moment for truth and lies in politics.”
Today’s newsletter will detail some of Santos’s most egregious fabrications and explain why he may not face immediate consequences.
As a candidate, Santos presented himself as a compelling political figure: a young, gay, conservative financier with deep connections and family wealth. Voters in his suburban New York district responded, delivering him a nearly eight-point victory in November over a Democrat, Robert Zimmerman.
In the weeks since, nearly every major point of Santos’s biography has unraveled. He claimed that he graduated from Baruch College, then worked at Citigroup and Goldman Sachs. But Grace and Michael found no evidence that he received a college degree or worked at either financial giant. In fact, around that time, he worked as a customer service agent for Dish Network.
Santos claimed to have founded a tax-exempt animal rescue charity that saved more than 2,500 dogs and cats. (He did not.) He claimed he was Jewish and had ancestors who fled the Holocaust. (He was not and did not.) He said he “lost four employees” at the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. (The Times found no evidence to support the claim.)
His financial assertions have proved murkier. Santos crowed about a family fortune in real estate, but property records show no evidence of the 13 properties he claimed that the family owned. Records do show evictions and credit card debt. He was also involved in a company that the S.E.C. called a Ponzi scheme, though he denies wrongdoing. And he once spent nearly $700 at a clothing store using a stolen checkbook and a false name, according to court records in Brazil, where Santos once lived.
Yet Santos claimed on federal financial disclosure forms last year that he was earning millions. He also apparently lent his campaign $700,000. It’s not clear where that money came from.
The Spread of Misinformation and Falsehoods
Under intense political pressure, Santos admitted to fabricating some of the claims and stood by others, despite contradictory evidence. But he appeared determined to try to weather the scandal.
This week, he showed up in Washington as if he were any other House freshman eager to get to work. As infighting over who should be speaker consumed Republicans on the House floor, Santos provided a spectacle of his own. For hours, he sat conspicuously alone, looking like a miscast movie extra, before gravitating toward the group of rebel conservatives trying to block Kevin McCarthy’s ascent to the speakership (though he didn’t vote with them). Yesterday, he hid out for part of the day in a cloakroom in the House chamber.
Santos’s support for McCarthy may actually be one of the factors insulating him from Republican criticism. Santos’s lies could tarnish the party over time, and under other circumstances, G.O.P. leaders might move to marginalize or call a House vote to expel him. But with only a narrow House majority, McCarthy cannot afford to lose Santos’s vote by alienating him or prompting him to resign. The leader has stayed silent.
Santos will likely have a difficult time with his new colleagues. Legislative deal-making is often built on trust, and he could effectively be iced out of committee work and floor debates. Powerful Republicans have already said they won’t support his re-election in 2024.
For now, Santos’s most pressing threat may be legal. Federal and local prosecutors in New York have opened investigations into whether Santos violated any laws during his campaign. And, in Brazil, prosecutors said they planned to revive fraud charges connected to the stolen checkbook.
More Congress news
Republican holdouts, for a third straight day, blocked Kevin McCarthy’s bid to become House speaker, despite concessions by McCarthy to sway them.
McCarthy has lost 11 roll-call votes, the most since before the Civil War. Lawmakers return today at noon, but there’s no indication of when the impasse may end.
The last voting battle over a House speaker happened 100 years ago. Today’s showdown shares some eerie similarities to that one, The Times’s Carl Hulse writes.
Donald Trump’s allies rebuked his calls to support McCarthy, more evidence that his grip on the Republican Party is weakening.
The conflict between Republicans in the House is playing out in conservative media, too.
Irritated lawmakers, heated negotiations and a football helmet: what it’s like on the House floor.
THE LATEST NEWS
Doctors said the Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin, who suffered cardiac arrest during a game on Monday night, was awake and improving. He remains on a ventilator.
The radio traffic moments after Hamlin collapsed crackled with urgency. You can hear it here.
The Bills-Bengals game that was halted will not resume, the N.F.L. said.
Other Big Stories
ChatGPT is A.I.’s “Jurassic Park” moment, Gary Marcus argues on “The Ezra Klein Show.”
Protections for same-sex marriage on the one hand and bigots increasingly hounding queer people on the other is giving L.G.B.T.Q. America whiplash, Lydia Polgreen says.
New year, new looks
What will be the defining style of 2023? Vanessa Friedman, The Times’s chief fashion critic, selected six reasons to be excited about fashion this year. Her picks include:
Polka dots. Louis Vuitton collaborated with the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama for a new collection, and Vanessa says it’s a doozy. Hundreds of pieces of LV merchandise feature speckled dots, “like joyful confetti raining down on a sea of logos.”
Pop culture’s influence. “Daisy Jones & The Six,” a series set to come out in March, could bring flower power 1970s designs to music festivals. And, in July, the new “Barbie” movie may bring about a summer of neon pink.
Style on display in May: The month starts with the Met Gala, held in honor of Karl Lagerfeld. Less than a week later, it’s time for King Charles III’s coronation in London, which will include pomp and circumstance and serious bling, Vanessa writes.
PLAY, WATCH, EAT
What to Cook