The Making of a Congressional Con Man

The Making of a Congressional Con Man

How the Democrats and media allowed George Santos to lie his way into the House.


On Saturday November 18, George Santos, newly elected as congressman representing a district covering northern Long Island and northwestern Queens, spoke at a summit of the Republican Jewish Coalition. He was a valued guest at the event as one of only three Jewish Republicans in the new Congress, along with David Kustoff of Tennessee and Max Miller of Ohio. As often in his campaign literature, Santos said he had a grandfather who fled the Nazis in 1940 from his native Belgium, ending up as a refugee in Brazil. Santos’s speech was a reprise of the successful pitch he’d made to voters. Running in a predominately Democratic district—where Joe Biden had trounced Donald Trump in 2020—Santos won by portraying himself as a different sort of Republican: He was pro-Trump, yes, but also openly gay, Jewish, the child of immigrants from Brazil, a self-made man who rose from working-class roots to the heights of finance, and the founder of an animal rescue charity.

The libertarian pundit Glenn Greenwald was one of many who were charmed by the Santos saga. On November 15, Greenwald tweeted, “Meet George Santos, the first-ever Brazilian-American (and first-ever openly gay Republican) elected to Congress in US history. The son of working-class immigrant parents who left Brazil for the US, Congressman-elect Santos was born and raised in Jackson Heights, Queens.”

If Santos seemed almost too good to be true, it’s because almost his entire biography and résumé was a fiction. As the Forward reported on Wednesday, “Congressman-elect George Santos’s emotional narrative of having Jewish grandparents who fled Europe during World War II appears to be untrue, like much of the rest of his campaign biography, according to genealogy websites reviewed by the Forward.” It’s an open question whether Santos is even Jewish at all.

The Forward report came after a devastating New York Times article on Monday documenting that Santos’s résumé was “largely fiction.” There’s no evidence to support Santos’s claim that he attended Baruch College, as he claimed, or that he ever worked for Citigroup or Goldman Sachs. The animal charity he claimed to have founded is not registered with the IRS. His claim to have had coworkers who were killed in the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre is unsupported. He does have criminal charges for check fraud in Brazil, and his campaign’s financial disclosures are murky and suggest mysterious secret funding. In sum, Santos gives every evidence of being a complete con man—someone who has invented an inspiring and politically useful life story out of whole cloth.

Is Santos even gay? This might have seemed an absurd question a week ago, but fresh reporting from The Daily Beast indicates that his personal history is as shifty and hard to pin down as anything else about him: Santos was married to a woman from 2012 to 2019 and there is no record of his supposed current marriage to a man. The story is still developing.

The fact that Santos is still almost certain to be sworn in as a member of congress represents a massive systematic failure that encompasses both major political parties as well as the media. The Republicans seem to have had some inkling of the problems with this candidate, since they invested relatively little into his campaign. But the GOP completely failed in its duty of vetting public officials—not surprising given the fact that the party is increasingly likely to foist unfit and often unhinged candidates on the public such as Georgia’s Herschel Walker (who lost his senatorial bid) and Arizona’s Kari Lake (who lost her gubernatorial bid).

The failure of Walker and Lake indicate that when the GOP nominates radically unworthy candidates, voters will reject them. But that happens only when the Democrats put up a good fight and the media provides the necessary fact-based reporting for making a sound judgement. This happened in much of America in 2022, notably in Pennsylvania and Michigan as well as Georgia and Arizona. It singularly failed to happen in New York State, which was perhaps weakest link in the Democratic coalition (rivaled only by Florida).

In the wake of Santos’s victory and new revelations about his flagrant lying, the media and the Democrats are engaged in a contest of finger-pointing. Many are asking why the Times did an in-depth expose of Santos only after he already won. Others are pointing out the failure of the campaign of the Democratic Party candidate Robert Zimmerman, which provided the media with some oppo research but missed many of the major problems with Santos.

One example of the genre was a tweet by New Republic editor Michael Tomasky, who wrote, “It’s not The New York Times’s job to get dirt on George Santos. It’s the Zimmerman campaign’s and the NY State Dem Party’s job.” (Tomasky later took back his defense of the Times).

Tomasky in his original tweet is only half-right. The Zimmerman campaign and the NY State Democratic Party did fail in a spectacular fashion.

But the Times hardly covered itself with glory. For much of the last two years, its coverage of New York was slanted toward sensationalistic reporting on crime that only benefited the Republicans. Smaller local papers (notably The North Shore Leader and Newsday) did a better job covering Santos. Mark Chiusano, a member of the Newsday editorial board, did several important pieces that highlighted how sketchy Santos was about his background. But like a lot of local papers, The North Shore Leader and Newsday don’t have the reporting staff they possessed even a decade ago, when they could have pursued the story with vigor. The New York Times—which does have the staff—stayed away from the story until it was moot since Santos had already won.

The failure of the Zimmerman campaign and the New York State Democratic Party speaks to another deep structural problem. New York Democrats lost big in the midterms because the state party is a sclerotic machine that serves mainly as a job placement center for clubby insiders. As my Nation colleague Ross Barkan noted in a piece for New York, “The long-running open secret among New York politicos is that there is no serious, functioning statewide Democratic organization. This was as much true under Andrew Cuomo as it is under the newly elected governor, Kathy Hochul. In fact, there have been few times in modern history when the state party mattered at all as an organizing vehicle, a place to recruit candidates, or a tool to turn out the vote.”

It’s hardly surprising that a dysfunctional political machine that is instinctively hostile to left-wing politics would lose the ability to do even basic oppo research. The Zimmerman campaign did unearth a few nuggets to use against Santos—but these were minor compared to the whole story.

Congress will survive having a sleazy liar like Santos roaming through the halls. After all, congressional con men aren’t a novelty. The bigger problem is that neither the New York Democratic Party nor The New York Times are quite up to the task of preventing the next Santos from winning.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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