Rep.-elect George Santos (R-N.Y.) has put Republicans in a pickle: How do party leaders deal with his fabrications and misrepresentations without jeopardizing their slim majority or setting a precedent?
The answer so far, for the most part, is to say nothing and let Santos speak for himself — and perhaps to let voters decide Santos’s fate in 2024.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) Chairman Tom Emmer (Minn.) and House Republican Conference Chairwoman Elise Stefanik (N.Y.) have not commented on the revelations surrounding Santos’s background and falsehoods.
The reality is that a slim incoming majority of 222 GOP seats to 212 Democratic seats and one vacancy leaves Republicans little political incentive to come down hard on Santos, as they might need his vote to pass their priorities.
And McCarthy, who is facing opposition from a handful of hard-line House Republicans threatening to sink his Speaker bid, may need Santos’s vote to secure the Speakership on Jan. 3. Santos expressed support for McCarthy for Speaker in a tweet last week that has since been deleted.
McCarthy did not answer questions about Santos in the Capitol last week, and House GOP leaders did not respond to or comment on Santos on Wednesday.
“He’s eventually going to pay a price,” one Republican strategist said of Santos, speaking on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly. “But he’s not going to pay a price at least until after the Speaker vote because of the tight majority.”
“You have to honestly play the counterfactual. If this situation erupted within the Democratic caucus, [Speaker] Nancy Pelosi [D-Calif.] would keep this under wraps as well and not hand out a punishment until after that happens, whatever that punishment may be,” the strategist said. “And unfortunately, you also have a slippery slope here. If you go after this guy for lying, where does it stop?”
As leaders remain silent, some Republicans are starting to speak out against Santos. Three Republican members-elect from New York have scolded Santos this week.
Nick LaLota on Tuesday called for “a full investigation by the House Ethics Committee and, if necessary, law enforcement” into Santos. Anthony D’Esposito said that Santos’s “fabrications regarding the Holocaust and his family’s history are particularly harmful.” And Mike Lawler said Wednesday that Santos “should cooperate fully” with federal, state and local investigations “if he is to regain the trust of his constituents and colleagues.”
Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), a former chairman of the NRCC from 2009 to 2013, told the Washington Examiner on Wednesday that he is “not supportive of him being in our conference at all from what I know.” But Sessions said that the revelations about Santos do not necessarily “mean he’s expelled.”
“It means that his placement within any committee structure, his placement within our party, and his reelection should be evaluated,” Sessions said.
Santos does have a strong defender in Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who was removed from her committee assignments after uproar about her social media posts spreading conspiracy theories and interacting with posts advocating violence against Democrats.
“I think we Republicans should give George Santos a chance and see how he legislates and votes, not treat him the same as the left is,” Greene tweeted on Tuesday.
There is also a danger that being too forceful could create a precedent that Republicans do not want. Some lawmakers have stayed in Congress through scandals without resigning or being expelled until after a criminal conviction.
Greene and Santos, who says he will not step down, have pointed to what they say are equally damaging scandals and falsehoods from Democrats and President Biden — and implicitly argue Santos should continue serving in Congress.
“I’m not resigning. If I have to leave Congress,” Santos said in a City & State interview this week, “it’s going to be by a pink slip by the voters, November of 2024.”
If history is any indication, it is unlikely that Santos will be prevented from being sworn in or forcibly removed from his post unless more substantial legal issues arise. House Ethics Committee investigations can also take months or years to be resolved, and the panel rarely doles out harsh punishments.
The Republican Steering Committee, on which McCarthy will have outsize power assuming he becomes Speaker, controls most committee assignments for House Republicans and could opt to keep Santos off prime panels — or potentially any panels. The committee is expected to pick contested chairs and assign committees after a Speaker is elected.
The House can expel members with a two-thirds majority vote, but that rarely happens. Only five House members have been expelled in the history of Congress, three in 1861 for supporting the Confederacy and two in 1980 and 2002 after criminal convictions for conspiracy to commit bribery.
Santos’s public image problems, though, could be evolving into legal ones. The Nassau County district attorney’s office said Wednesday that it is looking into Santos, with District Attorney Anne Donnelly, a Republican, saying that the “numerous fabrications and inconsistencies associated with Congressman-Elect Santos are nothing short of stunning.”
Meanwhile, Santos went on a media tour this week with the New York Post, radio station WABC, New York outlet City & State and Fox News to address his past and misrepresentations about his background. He admitted that he did not graduate from any college and said he used a “poor choice of words” when he said he worked for Citigroup and Goldman Sachs when he actually worked with a company that did business with the financial giants.
But the media blitz has only brought more attention to his misrepresentations — and more criticism. Nassau County GOP Chairman Joseph Cairo said on Tuesday that he is ”deeply disappointed in Mr. Santos” and expects “more than just a blanket apology.”
Questions remain about Santos’s influx of personal wealth that he used to fund his campaign, an allegation of check fraud in Brazil that he has denied, his assertion about connections to victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting, work with an animal rescue group and his representation of Jewish heritage, among other issues.
Tulsi Gabbard, a former Democratic congresswoman, dug in on Santos as she filled in for Fox News host Tucker Carlson on Tuesday.
“Do you have no shame?” Gabbard asked.
Santos deflected, bringing up falsehoods from Democrats and Biden.
Rep. Jim Banks (Ind.), the outgoing head of the powerful Republican Study Committee, commented on Twitter that Gabbard did a “good job.”