Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter @JillFilipovic. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
What happens when Rep.-elect George Santos of New York goes to Washington, DC, in January will be a real test of today’s Republican Party. Does honesty and integrity matter at all? Or is GOP leadership so power-hungry that it will allow a serial fabulist to remain in office despite deceiving the public – and the voters who elected him – about key aspects of his biography?
While running for office, Santos, who was elected in a district in New York that encompasses Long Island suburbs and parts of Queens, had either lied or been strangely cagey about everything from where he lived to which college he graduated from to where he worked to what his religious background was.
The New York Times published an investigation of Santos’s web of lies earlier this month, and got a very Trumpian attack-the-messenger denial from Santos’ lawyer who, instead of providing any clarity or specific factual denials, simply said that it is “no surprise that Congressman-elect Santos has enemies at The New York Times who are attempting to smear his good name with these defamatory allegations.”
A CNN KFile report, building on the Forward’s reporting, further revealed how he had apparently misrepresented his Jewish roots, claiming his grandparents “survived the Holocaust” as Ukrainian Jewish refugees who changed their last name to survive. But genealogist Megan Smolenyak told the KFile that “”There’s no sign of Jewish and/or Ukrainian heritage and no indication of name changes along the way.” Santos’ lawyer declined to comment at the time of publication.
Now, more than a week later, Santos has admitted that the media outlets were mostly right, and he did indeed fudge his resume and much of his biography. Except he’s still being less than forthcoming, claiming in a WABC interview that “a lot of people overstate in their resumes, or twist a little bit.”
For example, he claimed he worked at Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, listing specific roles he held in these organizations. Now he says he simply liaised with both companies through his actual employment at the company Link Bridge, and that a simple “poor choice of words” gave a mistaken impression.
That poor choice of words? Santos’s campaign website said that he “began working at Citigroup as an associate and quickly advanced to become an associate asset manager in the real asset division of the firm” and “was then offered an exciting opportunity with Goldman Sachs but what he thought would be the pinnacle of his career was not as fulfilling as he had anticipated.”
As for claiming he attended Baruch College and New York University and received degrees in finance and economics, Santos told the New York Post that “I didn’t graduate from any institution of higher learning. I’m embarrassed and sorry for having embellished my resume.” But he also seemed to shrug this lie off. “We do stupid things in life,” he said.
Santos was similarly dismissive of reporting on his false claims of Jewish heritage. “I never claimed to be Jewish,” Santos said to the Post. “I am Catholic. Because I learned my maternal family had a Jewish background, I said I was ‘Jew-ish.’”
“I never claimed to be Jewish, I claimed to be Jew-ish” is indeed quite the dodge.
Santos had also claimed that he lost four employees in the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. That wasn’t true, either, although he now says it was four prospective employees; still, he didn’t provide any names or other details.
Santos even seems to have lied about his charity work. He claims to have founded the group Friends of Pets United, an animal rescue organization that was not registered as a charity in New York or New Jersey. According to New York Times reporting, the IRS has no record of it. The purported beneficiary of one $50-a-head fundraiser for Friends of Pets United says that she never received the money raised, according to the Times as well. Now, Santos is less clear about his work, saying he helped out the charity and found homes for the animals.
One claim that Santos flat-out denied was a finding from the Times that he was charged with fraud in Brazil after writing stolen checks. According to the New York Times, “In the court file, Mr. Santos is identified by his full name and date of birth, as well as by the names of his mother and father. The documents show that Mr. Santos confessed to the crime and was charged, but that the case remains unresolved because authorities were later unable to locate him.”
“I am not a criminal here — not here or in Brazil or any jurisdiction in the world,” Santos told the Post. “Absolutely not. That didn’t happen.”
The Santos saga is utterly fascinating, in the way stories of scammers and con men are often so captivating. What makes a person lie so often and so brazenly? What makes someone whose resume is largely false put themselves in the public eye and under a media microscope by running for office? How is it possible that when this person finally gets caught, they don’t slink away in shame, but rather lash out defiantly and simply refuse to face any consequences?
There is no doubt that Santos deceived voters in his district. The case he made for his candidacy was based, at least in part, on his experience and his resume. And he has proven himself wholly untrustworthy, which is particularly salient given many of the outstanding questions about his finances and net worth.
So why should the public trust anything further he says, given his egregious pattern of lying, dissembling and then downplaying his own lies? And how should the GOP respond?
Republican Party leaders could certainly pressure Santos not to take office. They could publicly denounce him, and say that their party stands for honesty and will not stand for brazenly lying to constituents. That may end with their party losing the seat in a special election, but that’s hardly a foregone conclusion; and at some point, principles have to trump power. If he insists on taking office anyway, they could launch an ethics investigation and/or withhold committee assignments from him.
It’s a sad reflection of today’s GOP, though, that I assume that they won’t do any of this. And so far, party leaders have largely stayed silent. Nassau GOP Chair Joe Cairo, one of the few Republican leaders to speak out, said Santos would have to do a lot to regain trust, but added that Santos should be able to serve his term in Congress.
But let’s be clear – Santos is exactly who you don’t want in office. He is a man who seemingly has no problem lying for self-aggrandizement and personal gain; a man who, even when caught, demonstrates little remorse or accountability; a man who still insists that he should be vested with significant political power.
New Yorkers deserve better. And the Republican Party should demand better.