George Santos, Instead of Shrinking From the Spotlight, Steps Into It
WASHINGTON — As he strode into a bar packed with margarita-sipping young Republicans here the other night, Representative George Santos of New York looked like a man who had finally gotten what he had always wanted.
Nevermind the conspicuous giggling or an introducer’s reference to “bipartisan condemnation” that he has inspired. It was a glorious spring night in the capital, and for eight minutes, Mr. Santos had something rare: an invitation to speak.
Standing behind a high-top, he roasted Don Lemon, the former CNN anchor who was recently fired, and offered advice about running for office. “I didn’t wait my turn,” he said, adding an expletive. He added that Covid made people pick “stupid presidents,” and declared, with no apparent sense of irony, that “the truth will set you free.”
But he knew what would give his audience the biggest rise.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he declared. “You’re going to have to drag my dead, cold body out of this institution.”
Four months after his whole concocted biography unraveled — one Wall Street job and collegiate volleyball championship at a time — Mr. Santos remains a pariah. Colleagues refuse to work with him, dooming his legislative priorities. His local party has vowed to defeat him. And a slew of law enforcement and ethics investigators are combing through his life and campaign finances.
But rather than shrinking from the attention, the 34-year-old congressman is stepping ever more definitely toward the spotlight. Mr. Santos seems eager to test whether he can make the journey from laughingstock to legitimacy by aligning himself with former President Donald J. Trump — or at least signaling that he’s in on the joke.
In just the last few weeks, he showed up outside the Manhattan courthouse where Mr. Trump was being arraigned, making himself, in a pair of oversized dark sunglasses, a brief sideshow for a mob of reporters. He’s laughed gamely as a Trump impressionist filming outside the U.S. Capitol pretended to choose him, George Santos, as his vice-presidential running mate.
And on Wednesday, he forced his colleagues to watch and listen as he withheld his support for a major Republican debt limit bill, finally committing his vote just after the clock ran out.
If it is an unorthodox, and perhaps still futile path, Mr. Santos has few other options. He serves on no House committees. His local Republican Party has banned him from its events, and pushed other civic organizations to blackball him, too. The invitation by the Washington, D.C., Young Republicans was his first time on the capital speaking circuit.
Mr. Santos insists this is all a good thing, leaving him more time to speak directly to constituents who he says will re-elect him next year, to introduce bills — 11 to date — and to draw attention to them in speeches on the House floor. But in an institution that requires cooperation to get anything done, he is stuck in a vacuum.
Representative Jerrold Nadler, the dean of New York’s congressional delegation, has barred him from regular, bipartisan meetings to discuss the state’s priorities. Representatives for New York’s senators, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, said he has yet to seek to work with them. And while House leaders navigating a razor-thin majority have stopped short of calling for his expulsion, colleagues say they have made clear they will only tolerate so much.
“I have no doubt that he will be a one-term congressman,” said Representative Anthony D’Esposito, a fellow New York Republican who, like Mr. Santos, flipped a Democratic-leaning suburban district on Long Island last November.
Mr. D’Esposito said he had gone out of his way to make sure his name did not appear on letters or bills with Mr. Santos, and bemoaned the constant churn that seemed to follow his colleague, and overshadow his own work.
“He’s looking for life after this short stint on Capitol Hill,” Mr. D’Esposito said.
Risa Heller, a Democrat and public relations guru who advises big-name clients in unsavory situations, said it was not impossible for Mr. Santos to entertain thoughts of re-election.
“We live in a world where literally a reality TV star became president of the United States” she said. But then again, a future on reality TV may be more realistic, she added.
“Could he get a job on ‘Dancing With the Stars’? Probably. ‘Survivor’? ‘Big Brother 2024’? That all seems like a plausible option,” she said.
For now, Mr. Santos at least puts on the appearance of enjoying life on Capitol Hill.
“I came here to represent the people, and I don’t dislike it. I genuinely don’t,” he said in an impromptu interview before stepping into an elevator outside his office.
He was hoping to plunge down into the Capitol’s subterranean tunnels, but instead the elevator shot up, giving him time for several minutes of banter. He lamented being trapped with a reporter (“that, I guarantee you, I don’t want to do”), cast a look at a woman speaking loudly into a cellphone, and when a fellow passenger complimented his pink silk tie, he tried a joke. It did not land.
“Look, it’s going to sound silly. It’s pop culture. It’s really bad,” the congressman started to explain. “Remember ‘Mean Girls,’ the movie? They would make the joke, ‘on Wednesdays, we wear pink.’”
Finally in the basement, Mr. Santos said reverently that he never talked about politics in the Capitol. He then proceeded to answer some questions about politics.
No, he said, he was not concerned about the vow by Nassau County Republicans, who backed his 2020 and 2022 campaigns, to defeat him. Nor did he need to reintroduce himself to voters, though he quickly thought better of an offer to tour the district with a reporter. And rumors aside, he said he had never considered quitting.
“I live in the district. I’m a constituent of the district. I know the people. I eat in the district. I shop in the district. Folks know me. They call me,” he said, adding: “The reality is, trying to paint me as a boogeyman isn’t going to work.”
Local Republicans dispute that he is a meaningful presence, outside of the occasional tour of a Coast Guard facility or veterans hospital. This week, Mr. Santos’s official House calendar showed no upcoming events.
“A ghost!” Bruce Blakeman, the Nassau County executive, wrote in a text.
At the one event he did show up to in Washington this week, the dozens of Hill aides and America First-aligned young professionals who turned out seemed torn over whether Mr. Santos could be repackaged as a principled conservative or was doomed to remain a political circus act.
“Traditionally, Republicans when they get caught doing something with their pants down, they have to apologize and resign, so that brazenness of saying ‘I’m going to stick it out, I’m going to fight,’ I think we respect that mentality,” said Kingsley Cortes, a former Trump campaign aide, adding that she was impressed by Mr. Santos’s conservative voting record.
But then again, Ms. Cortes, who helped lead a “MAGA takeover” of the club earlier this year, acknowledged that the invitation to the congressman would also goose attendance.
“We want to be a place that creates buzz and draws people in,” she added. “Seeing someone like George Santos is exciting for a lot of people. You see skits about him on S.N.L. He’s talked about constantly.”
At times in his eight-minute speech, Mr. Santos seemed just as torn — and perhaps even contrite.
“I’m faulty, I’ve made mistakes. All of you have made mistakes,” he said, skipping over details of his own. “The truth will set you free. True statement — very, very true statement.”
Later, as he was skewering Mr. Lemon as a liar, Mr. Santos again turned the lens on himself.
“It’s just so easy to point fingers, so easy to be a jackass in life,” he said. “And then, when it happens to you, you expect, you know, people to be sincere.”
He paused to rib another journalist in the room, then added: “The reality is you just have to take this life and live it.”