Over the past few months I have, episodically, watched the Netflix series Inventing Anna, which tells the story of the true-life con artist Anna Sorokin. It’s a fascinating portrait of a truly loathsome character, a person who slashed and burned her way through New York’s high society, cheating, duping and cajoling people into trusting her — and then abusing that trust by ripping them off.
The longer the George Santos saga goes on, the more Santos reminds me of Sorokin, conning friends and strangers alike. Two of his former roommates say he has been wearing clothing that he stole from them — including the scarf that he wore prominently at the “Stop the Steal” rally in D.C. on January 6, 2021. The same roommate also told reporters that Santos used a made-up name (“Anthony Zabrovsky”) for himself while running a GoFundMe for a fake nonprofit animal rescue group because he thought “the Jews will give more if you’re a Jew.” And now a New Jersey veteran with a disability has come forward accusing Santos of stealing $3,000 from an online fundraiser created for the lifesaving surgery needed by the veteran’s service dog.
And like Sorokin, his broader story is a tissue of lies, all of them crafted with two goals in mind: self-aggrandizement and access to easy money. Despite what he has said in his campaigns for a congressional seat on Long Island, Santos isn’t rich, isn’t Jewish, isn’t college educated and didn’t work for top financial institutions. He claimed his mother was a victim of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center — yet, she died 15 years later, and reports have recently surfaced suggesting that far from working at the World Trade Center that day, Santos’s mother had been living in Brazil since 1999.
Meanwhile, in addition to facing blowback over the fabricated biography that he shared with voters while campaigning, Santos is also facing intensifying scrutiny into his campaign finances.
And revelations about the financial relationship between Santos and the New York fund manager Andrew Intrater (the cousin of a Russian oligarch named Viktor Vekselberg) have also raised new questions. As Mother Jones notes:
Intrater was one of Santos’ top political donors. At Santos’ behest, he invested hundreds of thousands of dollars with a firm where Santos worked. And even after this company was accused by the Securities and Exchange Commission of running a Ponzi scheme that threatened Intrater’s investment, Intrater and his domestic partner continued to pour money into Santos’ political campaign…. [Intrater] has told associates that he, like others, was conned by Santos.
There is, quite simply, no there there. No grand ideological vision. No redeeming altruism that might, conceivably, mitigate the con. Like Anna Sorokin, so with Santos this seems to be simply about the frisson of ill-gotten celebrity and faux success. This is, ultimately, the story of a young man on the prowl, hunting for wealth and influence enhancement, and willing to burn those who stand in his way.
It remains to be seen whether the controversy over Santos could become a catastrophic fissure for the GOP. But the signs certainly point in that direction.
Santos has aligned himself with the hardest of hard right factions within Congress, hobnobbing with Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene, and appearing recently on Steve Bannon’s “War Room” podcast. He is reveling in his grotesque con, and he is being cheered on, obscenely, by a group of legislators addicted to the attentat, to spectacle for the sake of spectacle. Doubling down on his lies, as did Santos’s hero, Trump, so many times during his presidency, he has vowed to stay in office and to defeat the ethics investigations into his behavior.
Having sold his political soul on so many occasions in recent years, Kevin McCarthy probably figured there wasn’t a big downside to downplaying the seriousness of the allegations against the new congressman representing Long Island. There was, after all, a practical benefit to this: In not urging that Santos be kicked out of the House, McCarthy was protecting his wafer-thin congressional majority, since, in the wake of this scandal, a special election in Santos’s Long Island district would almost certainly see the seat returning to the Democrats. In exchange for securing Santos’s vote for his candidacy to become House speaker, McCarthy went predictably silent on the allegations against Santos; in fact, far from putting his political weight to work to drum him out of Congress, instead he promised the incoming charlatan, who was being shunned by most of McCarthy’s caucus, memberships on House committees. Sure enough, on January 18 it was announced that Santos would be seated on the Committee on Small Business, and the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Who knows, but maybe he’ll be able to use his committee membership to propose “creative” ways to encourage small businesses to grow into large businesses. He is, after all, seemingly the master of the Ponzi scheme.
But all of this might ultimately generate a stench too odorous even for the stench-tolerant modern GOP. Six New York Republicans in Congress have called for Santos to resign his seat. Former Congressman Peter King — a staunch conservative from New York — wrote an op-ed in the New York Times labeling the freshman congressman a “dead man walking,” and demanding that Santos resign. The Nassau County GOP has also called for Santos’s resignation, as has at least one New York State senator and other senior state GOP and conservative party figures. Ex-Speaker Paul Ryan joined the list of those calling for Santos’s resignation, as did New Hampshire governor, and presidential hopeful, Chris Sununu. And, since Santos’s baggage is only likely to get heavier in coming weeks, now that teams of investigative journalists and prosecutors are poring over his every statement, past and present, the more likely it is that others will join the calls for him to be removed from office.
To be fair to the shameless young congressman, Santos didn’t create the GOP’s vulnerabilities — he didn’t spin out of whole cloth the debased political conditions that render possible the emergence of an entirely fictitious political persona such as Santos — but his presence in Congress is certainly worsening them. He is an impossibly tainted figure, with no plausible path to political redemption. The longer McCarthy shields Santos, the more damage he will likely do.