Mr. Santos Goes to Washington

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Mary Harris: The Washington Post’s Azi Paybarah had to kind of rev up when I asked him to tick off a list of the most notable lies George Santos told about himself while running for Congress.

Azi: Oh, man, the greatest hits. Okay, here we go. He said he worked at Goldman Sachs. He said he worked at Citigroup. He said he graduated from NYU. He said.

Mary Harris: You have heard some version of this list over the last few weeks. It’s long. Are any of those things true? No. It was The New York Times that began to unspool the full breadth of Santos’s dishonesty. They published an article right before Christmas claiming that the freshman congressman from New York might have a resume that is largely a fiction. Now, all through Congress, this dramatic opening week, George Santos has become a Republican sideshow. He’s also become a bit of a goldmine for political reporters like Aussie. Aussie has found no record of Santos at the high school he says he attended. Aussie even discovered that until recently George Santos was not known as George Santos at all. He was known as Anthony of older.

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Azi: One person I spoke to who who I quoted in a story recently was that, oh, people knew him around the office as like Anthony to bother. And when I interview the source who did want to be named, this person repeatedly referred to him as Anthony and almost had to be reminded that we were talking about a person in in George Santos.

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Mary Harris: Now that is Congressman Santos. To you, Azi says George Santos he might be the one Republican in Congress having a good time right now.

Azi: He has a staff. He has an office. He has a legislative website. I mean, this is pretty far down the path to where he wanted to be.

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Mary Harris: You’ve covered New York politicians for a long time, including some notable liars. How do Santos’s alleged lies stack up?

Azi: They are even by the lower standards of politics. These are pretty breathtaking. Other people who have lied in politics, it’s usually after they have told truths. And the only thing that is known about him publicly are the things he said that turned out not to be true. That’s pretty breathtaking. And then to get into office, that is that this it’s like a reality show kind of thing that if you were to watch it in a movie, you’d be you’d probably say, that’s too far fetched. That really can’t happen. And it did. It really happened. It really is happening right now.

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Mary Harris: Today on the show, the talented Mr. Santos goes to Washington. But how long will he stay there? I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around.

Mary Harris: The district that George Santos is representing in Congress. It’s a real mixed bag. It includes portions of Queens that look more like the suburbs than the city and also parts of Long Island. In fact, constituents in New York’s third district include noted liberal activist and musician Billy Joel, along with conservative political commentator Sean HANNITY. Azi Paybarah grew up nearby. His mom’s house is right around the corner from George Santos his office. So I asked him to tell me a bit about the area.

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Azi: So I grew up on a dead end street overlooking the highway. And growing up in in this part of Queens, it was hard not to. Appreciate a certain kind of diversity, at least sociologically speaking. Like I grew up in a single family home, front yard, backyard, and on a clear day I kid you not. You could step outside my house, look over the train tracks, and you can almost just about make out the New York City skyline. So it’s a place where you knew New York City was there, but it wasn’t immediately in front of you. And it was like a small neighborhood in this very big city.

Mary Harris: You’re describing an area where Republicans and Democrats have really been doing battle over the last few years, these sort of suburban areas where there’s been a fight over who we are and how they identify. Is that fair?

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Azi: Absolutely. It’s the area where I grew up, had elected Republican City Council members in the past. They had homeowners associations, which historically have not been really citadels of progressivism. But it’s also a city that, like elected Anthony Weiner, a very outspoken Democrat who also had his own troubled history with the truth at times. But it was an area where there were enough Republicans to challenge Democrats in a Democratic city.

Mary Harris: So on election night, when George Santos won the New York third District. Were you surprised?

Azi: Yes. I knew it was a battleground seat and. That district and a few others on Long Island were considered bellwethers for how Republicans were doing in the 2022 midterms. And that’s because Biden, I think, had won them by, I believe, single digits or low or low double digits. And if Republicans were able to win there, it sort of signaled that maybe as the night went on, Republicans could really pick up seats elsewhere. That turned out not to be the case. The red wave that people were anticipating seemed to be pretty localized just to New York or largely to New York.

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Mary Harris: And Long Island, specifically.

Azi: Long Island, specifically the suburbs outside of New York, places where people commute into New York City at times, or at least have an imagination or have a historical experience with New York City, but are largely living sort of outside of it. So New York City looms large in their psyche and their understanding, their imagination, maybe even in their own personal economics. So when people talk about safety, when people talk about, you know, things being unwieldy in New York City, it can resonate with voters in those areas who may have had their own experiences thinking that already.

Mary Harris: Was Santos running on the crime issue. Was that a big issue for him?

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Azi: He was disciplined on the idea of running against Democrats and progressivism. He ran on, I believe, countering immigration, bringing down taxes.

Mary Harris: The greatest hits.

Azi: The greatest hits. So the thing I like to point out is he may have not he may have he did not tell the truth about his work history or his education. But one thing he was pretty clear about with the kind of politics he was pursuing and the kind of Republican he was.

Mary Harris: Hmm.

Azi: He you know, he spoke at the Ellipse on January 5th, and he told people like, you know, who’s who here wants to overturn the election.

Mary Harris: He went to parties at Mar a Lago.

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Azi: Yeah. He identified himself unquestionably as a Trump Republican.

Speaker 3: There’s no sign of Donald Trump going away. Something I mentioned often. I was at the Ellipse on January six. That was the most amazing crowd there was. And the president was at his full awesomeness that day.

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Azi: It was a Hispanic gay man at home in the Republican Party of Donald Trump. That’s who he identified as.

Mary Harris: How did the George Santos story start to unravel?

Azi: Yeah. The story about George Santos not quite being who he says he is really explodes after the New York Times reporting, which published, I think, December 19.

Speaker 4: And that’s the growing controversy surrounding New York Congressman elect George Santos. A New York Times report suggests huge chunks of the Republican’s resumé may have been fabricated. Companies that Santos.

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Mary Harris: Claimed he worked for, including Goldman Sachs. Initially, the allegations against George Santos picked apart his resumé. He didn’t seem to have worked where he said he had an animal rescue group. He said he’d run didn’t seem to exist. It was also unclear where money for his congressional race was coming from, and he was spending campaign cash in strange ways on rent and travel. But Santos also seemed to have twisted the truth about his identity. He claimed to be part black, part Jewish, part Ukrainian, and the grandson of Holocaust survivors. He claimed he’d worked alongside for victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. None of these claims have been verified to Azi. The funny thing is that plenty of people had suspicions about George Santos well before Election Day.

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Azi: I spoke to the Democrat who George Santos defeated and that person named Robert Zimmerman. No, that’s not Bob Dylan running for office under his birth name. But Zimmerman said to me in that first interview, We knew about a bunch of this. Obviously, not the full extent. We tried to alert the media just to what we knew. It didn’t catch on.

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Mary Harris: Why not?

Azi: It’s a fair question. What happened with George Santos was a local paper on Long Island. I believe it’s the North Shore leader wrote that some stuff that this guy is saying just doesn’t check out. Now, from what I’ve seen, they didn’t put it on the front page, but they did clearly put it when they wrote about the race, I think in October or so. I think their endorsement, they made it clear.

Mary Harris: Because they did not endorse George Santos. And the publisher said, I wanted to endorse a Republican, but I can’t endorse George Santos because he’s had no visible campaign here. And his campaign is so bizarre, unprincipled and sketchy. That’s a quote that we can’t endorse him.

Azi: Right. And there’s a key line in there that I think is really helpful to understanding how George Santos got this far. Is the idea that the publisher wanted to. Oftentimes when people hear something. Thing that they agree with. It’s easy to just accept the whole package that it’s coming in.

Mary Harris: What Ozzy’s pointing out here is that even though this local newspaper seemed to see George Santos for what he was early on, being invested in one outcome over another, it’s got a way of shaping the stories we tell. You could see that in the way political operatives thought about George Santos too. Over the summer, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, known as the D Triple C, released a big report on Santos and it laid out many of the very same issues reporters would pick up on later. But those findings, they got drowned out.

Azi: It’s 87 pages long, and that’s just on George Santos with the triple C lead with. Were positions that Santos took that put him outside of the mainstream of where voters in the district were, that that’s their argument.

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Mary Harris: They led with January 6th. They led with the fact that he was in D.C..

Azi: Right.

Mary Harris: Which was actually true.

Azi: It’s true. And it’s also not the lead of that first New York Times story about George Santos not being who he said he was.

Mary Harris: So you’re saying everyone is kind of in their own corners here, whether you’re talking about the de triple C, which is, you know, saying, hey, this guy looks very Trumpy, which he was always very out there about. Or the newspapers on Long Island who were maybe wanting to endorse a Republican and as a result, perhaps turning a blind eye to what was happening here.

Azi: I would put it a little differently. I think it’s the discrepancy. Triple C and political reporters and editors and the public. At that time, before the election, we’re heading towards a voting day where we were not sure we. The public, you know, decision makers, chattering class, whatever you want to describe it. There were questions about the test democracy was facing. Our election denier is going to concede. What happens if they don’t like? There were real questions about what we were going to see on Election Day and not immediately on the front burner was a question of did a guy in a battleground district go to the college He said he was.

Mary Harris: So you’re saying the questions we were asking October are very different than the questions being asked about George Santos now in December and January.

Azi: Yes. Some of the stuff that’s gotten attention now just wasn’t the top headline story at the moment.

Mary Harris: In the week since his lies started to unravel. What is George Santos said to explain himself?

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Azi: Initially, he gave a first round of interviews where he said, Yes, I bill is my resume, but the larger truth about myself is accurate. What he said in his first interview on ABC on a show hosted by the station’s owner, who is also a donor to him.

Mary Harris: Oh, boy.

Azi: Yes. Is. Hey, I said, I work at Citigroup. I said I worked at Goldman Sachs. I actually worked with them when I was working at my company called I believe it’s Linked Bridge. So at Link Bridge, I worked with Goldman Sachs, I worked with Citigroup. I even worked with Blackstone. I worked with this like Geller and Dowd or something or other, like this law firm. And therefore the detail was a little smudged. But overall, you get the idea. That’s sort of what he admitted when it comes to the schools. He said, hey, I didn’t go to these fancy schools because I was embarrassed. And I was embarrassed because places like The New York Times looked down upon me.

Mary Harris: As someone who is familiar with where he comes from. The biggest mystery to me here is how he won this race and what the voters there are thinking. Like, Do you ever call up your mom and just be like, mom, Like, what happened here?

Azi: Mom, why’d you vote for this guy?

Mary Harris: Did she vote for this guy?

Azi: She lives outside the district. And and as I like to tell reporters, anything my mom says is off the record, I hope. But everyone just assumed that somebody else before them had better than check this guy. You and I, you know, log in for this conversation. You know who I am. I know who you are because we have crossed paths in the past. But right now I’m just a voice on a you know, on a Zoom connection.

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Mary Harris: Are you really Azi Paybarah?

Azi: We’re going to find out soon enough. You know, like the George Santos story really is a question of in some sense it’s a person who took advantage of a vulnerability in a weak political and media system. But it also, if you want to give it the most absurdly generous interpretation, people still have a lot of trust in the world. You know, they don’t trust it. You know, trusting institutions is declining. But apparently there’s enough trust for people to believe a person that they never met is who they say they are.

Mary Harris: After the break, the punishment George Santos may or may not face. Stick around.

Mary Harris: The list of entities now investigating George Santos lies is getting pretty long. There’s the Queens District Attorney’s Office, the Nassau County prosecutor, the New York State Attorney General. Law enforcement is likely to focus in on Santos’s financial dealings more than anything else, following the money, especially the campaign money.

Azi: Yes, potentially. The way anyone uses campaign money could always come back to haunt them if they don’t do it properly. The question is how much of what George Santos did is unique to him versus other people? And there’s been some good reporting about how his expenses there was an unusually high number of expenditures made below a certain threshold where you have to report detail what exactly those expenditures are. And again, this is not the first time we’ve seen a person in elected office using money meant for campaigning for other things.

Mary Harris: It’s just the degree.

Azi: It’s the degree. This question about how the money came in. There’s also an outstanding case or a case that was recently reopened in Brazil. When George Santos was a teenager and reportedly admitted to falsifying a signature on a check that he did not own and he left before he could be, I think, sentence or sentence or have the case conclude. And now the local prosecutor, Brazil has reopened that case and there are serious penalties that he could face because of that. Now, again, it’s not clear he’ll get the maximum penalty or how that will actually work out. But it’s clear that there’s more troubling things on the horizon for George Santos then than there was when he on election night.

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Mary Harris: What about Santos, his congressional colleagues? How could they hold him accountable? Like they expel him if they wanted to?

Azi: I believe the House can decide whether or not to expel him. I think some members may be a little bit hesitant to to go that far. They could decide not to put him on any committees. They could decide that they don’t want him in there in their conference, which is a fancy way of saying, you can’t sit at our lunch table and you have to sort of sort of operate and figure out the halls of Congress sort of on your own when you’re part of the conference.

Mary Harris: It seems like a slap on the wrist.

Azi: Well, I mean, if you care about passing legislation, reading bills, figuring out how the place works, it has an impact on you as an individual member. And for some people, it’s a benefit because it frees you up to do a whole bunch of other stuff like constituent service potentially. But for others, it’s a real penalty.

Mary Harris: The other reason congressional leadership might not have the appetite for holding George Santos accountable is simple math. In the House, the margins are so tight that for someone like Kevin McCarthy, punishing Santos might mean shooting himself in the foot.

Azi: Well, it’s clear right now that Republican Kevin McCarthy from California needs every vote he can get. And right now, George Santos is one of those votes. So right now, there’s not a lot of incentive for Kevin McCarthy to turn around and say anything about Santos.

Mary Harris: You talked a little bit about how complicated the rules are around campaigning, money, all those sorts of things. And it’s funny because one of my big questions looking at the George Santos story is what congressional rules did he violate? Like, if someone is running for a seat in Congress, do they actually have to disclose certain things? And if they disclose them incorrectly, is there any consequence?

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Azi: So it is not illegal to lie to the public and it is not illegal to lie to reporters if that was the case. We’d be very busy doing other things and how you describe yourself on your website. It’s not really regulated. Just ask anyone who’s been on Facebook or Twitter like things that people put on online are not always accurate. Just ask anyone who said they’re 62 on their tinder profile.

Mary Harris: Yeah. One one. Democratic Congressman Ritchie Torres has already introduced legislation called the Santos Act, which.

Azi: Is just like stop any. To stop another non truthful office seeker. It’s a pretty good acronym I like it.

Mary Harris: Is pretty good but it basically requires candidates to disclose their background under oath. And it does, as you’re saying, raise this question of like, why doesn’t this exist already in some form?

Azi: The Santos Act, as presented by Ritchie Torres, requires people who, when they disclose their education, military and business background, that they do so under oath. That raises a question how far back does this go and how far forward does this go? There was a Democrat in Connecticut, Richard Blumenthal, still in office, and The Times reported years ago that his statements about having served in Vietnam were inaccurate, according to people I have spoken to. Is that any better or worse than what Santos did? Lying about business and education?

Mary Harris: You know what just shows the trouble with having congresspeople sort of make rules for themselves, because there’s always going to be a question like that, like, Hey, but this is bad for me in particular, right? And there’s always going to be some reticence to hold yourself accountable.

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Azi: Right. There’s a very good reporter at The Wall Street Journal, Jimmy Bill Collins, who’s up in Albany, who’s covered that place for for a very long time. He sort of jokingly says, you know, what are the rules when your friends make them?

Mary Harris: Every tool is a weapon if you hold it right, is what you’re telling me.

Azi: Potentially, you know, a phone, a resume and anything.

Mary Harris: Ozzy, I’m super grateful to have you on the show. Thanks for joining.

Azi: Thanks for calling. Thanks for talking to me. Thanks for letting me talk about one of the few things I may know, which is this part of New York City. And.

Mary Harris: Azi Paybarah is a national reporter at The Washington Post. And that’s the show. If you’re a fan of what we’re doing here, what next? The best way to support our work is to join Slate plus our membership program going over to slate dot com slash what next? Plus to see how you do it. What next is produced by Elena Schwartz Carmel Delshad at Madeline Ducharme. We’re getting a ton of support right now from Anna Phillips, Jared Downing and Victoria Dominguez. We are led by Alicia montgomery and we get an assist from Susan MATTHEWS. Ben Richman makes sure I read these ads every day. And I’m Mary Harris. Go find me on Twitter and at Mary’s desk. Thanks for listening. Talk to you tomorrow.