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George Santos: a creature of Congress, dark money and limitless Republican hypocrisy

<span>Photograph: J Scott Applewhite/AP</span>
Photograph: J Scott Applewhite/AP

It seems churlish for any member of the party of Donald Trump to single out George Santos for punishment as a liar, fraudster and fabulist. The 23 federal charges against the first-term member of Congress pale beside the Republican frontrunner’s 91 felony counts and civil suits over fraud and E Jean Carroll’s defamation claim, based on her allegation of rape. Republicans’ faux horror at the discovery of Santos’s extravagant spending of campaign funds on Botox, casino chips and OnlyFans belies their previous blithe tolerance of the red-dressed, gay-pride, Brazilian drag queen in their midst. Santos thrived as the symbol of the cultural contradictions of Republicanism. Did his sophisticated taste for accessories from Hermès and Ferragamo finally do him in with his anti-globalist colleagues?

Related: ‘George Santos models himself pretty directly off Trump’ – biographer Mark Chiusano

The facts of Santos’s false identity were pried apart gradually, beginning before he was even sworn in. Slowly, his crimes were revealed. Exposé after exposé – yet nothing happened. So long as Santos voted as a reliable Republican (100% Heritage Action rating), he was shielded from ritual rounds of queer bashing, much less expulsion. The narrow Republican majority in the House of Representatives required every able-bodied member who could hold up an arm. Santos was straight as a party liner.

Only when the stories of Santos’s lifetime of fraud became a rushing torrent did Kevin McCarthy, then speaker, refer the question to the ethics committee. There, it stayed bottled up. Republicans were always reluctant to excise Santos. His fate was entangled in the foul politics of the House.

Only after McCarthy was deposed by an ultra-right cabal, and three prospective speakers chosen by a majority went down to defeat before Mike Johnson was elected, was an ethics report released and the expulsion of Santos brought up. It was a case of the first time as farce and the second, third and fourth times as farce, to be followed by the most comical farce of all.

The day the Republican chair of the ethics committee introduced a motion to expel poor George, a leak from the forthcoming memoir of Liz Cheney – purged from her leadership post in the Republican conference in 2021, scourged for opposing Trump’s attempted overthrow of the US government, defeated in a vicious primary in 2022 – revealed that Santos was hardly among the most risible prevaricators in the House. McCarthy had explained to Cheney that he went on his humiliating visit to Trump at Mar-a-Lago a mere three weeks after the January 6 insurrection out of pity, because he felt bad that Trump was “depressed”.

“He’s not eating,” said McCarthy. This excuse from the supreme sycophant – “My Kevin,” Trump called him – was as likely as Trump not violating the constitution’s emoluments clause to enrich himself. The only plausible reason for Trump not eating would be because there was a double cheeseburger already lodged in his gullet.

Then the Washington Post reported that several weeks after McCarthy’s fall, he had a troubling call with Trump, who informed him why he had been the not-so-hidden hand behind his ouster. McCarthy, Trump explained, had not expunged Trump’s two impeachments and endorsed him for 2024. McCarthy’s pilgrimage to Trump in early 2021, which made Trump’s revenge tour possible, had gained him no credit. As speaker, McCarthy had immense control over the spigot of Republican money and the influence that flows from it. If he had decided to ignore Trump’s threats and cut him off, Trump would have been severely disabled. But McCarthy revived the monster, so the monster in turn could strangle him. At long last, too late, McCarthy said to Trump: “Fuck you.”

The newly installed speaker, Mike Johnson, declares himself divinely anointed. (Does that make Matt Gaetz the hand of God?) “I believe that Scripture, the Bible, is very clear: that God is the one who raises up those in authority,” he said, in his inaugural speech. Johnson extended his omniscience about the Lord’s blessing to every other member of the House. “He raised up each of you. All of us.” Presumably, the elect included Santos.

When it came to a vote to expel Santos, Johnson recoiled. He had “real reservations”. He would not apply the whip. Members could “vote their conscience”. As for himself, he said he was “concerned about a precedent that may be set for that”. In 2022, Johnson sponsored the Stop the Sexualization of Children Act, which would ban teaching “concepts like masturbation, pornography, sexual acts and gender transition”, and prohibit “federal grants to host and promote sexually oriented events like drag queen story hours and burlesque shows”. Now, he would allow members to consider forgiveness for the sinner’s financial crimes, in “good faith”.

Johnson might well cite Matthew 7:1: “Judge not, that ye not be judged.” His own financial disclosure forms since he was a state legislator in Louisiana and as a member of the House are extraordinarily sketchy. He claimed he did not have a bank account. But as a legislator he had a contract to bill the state $400,000 to defend a law he sponsored to restrict abortion clinic access. In 2015 his financial disclosure form showed he cleared tens of thousands from religious right organizations: Freedom Guard, a legal operation; Living Waters Publications, a Christian publishing house that offered “biblical evangelism training camps”; Louisiana Right to Life; Louisiana Freedom Forum; and the Providence Classical Academy ($5,000-$24,999), “part-time”.

The House ethics committee report on Santos buried within it a document compiled by his own campaign before the election in 2022 that detailed many lies and frauds later exposed. He and his campaign, as well as the National Republican Congressional Committee, were apparently all cognizant of the fraud from the start. Exhibit six of the ethics committee report consists of the 141-page “George Santos Vulnerability Report”, a point-by-point description of fake college degrees, Ponzi schemes, fraudster firms, scams, multiple civil judgments for cheating creditors, evictions and incident after incident of questionable behavior.

George Santos sits with Marjorie Taylor Greene, the extremist Republican from Georgia, in the House chamber in January.
George Santos sits with Marjorie Taylor Greene, the extremist Republican from Georgia, in the House chamber in January. Photograph: Shawn Thew/EPA

The “vulnerability report” also chronicled Santos’s evolving story of his grandparents, from Belgian migrants who “fled the devastation of world war II Europe” into “Holocaust refugees”. This was the first falsehood about his background disclosed by the media, by CNN a week after his election. His fabrication of his identity, down to hiding his real given name (“George Devolder”) was an act of brazen and clumsy thievery he got away with to get into office with the aid of complicit campaign handlers.

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Santos’s conception, in a larger sense, came with the demise of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA), commonly known as McCain-Feingold. Trashing that law created a world of dark money campaign contributions where almost anything goes. Santos’s spree was a byproduct of the post-campaign finance reform era. If he had only consulted an attorney to show him where the few remaining fine lines were, he could have gratified much of his urge for grift and glitz while avoiding indictment.

Santos’s godparents in this respect were the Kentucky Republican senator Mitch McConnell, who worked for decades to torpedo reform, and the conservative justices of the supreme court, whose ruling sank McCain-Feingold. McConnell sought to forge a political empire built on unregulated corporate cash. He grasped that the keys to his kingdom would be held by the courts. So, as Senate majority leader, he frustrated reform legislation and packed the courts.

It took some doing but finally, in 2010, Anthony Kennedy, in his majority opinion in the Citizens United case, struck down the crucial sections of the BCRA. Corporations now had the untrammeled right to spend as much as they wanted in campaigns and certain non-profit organizations did not have to disclose their donors. With a flourish of naive certainty, Kennedy stated: “Ingratiation and access, in any event, are not corruption.” The chief justice, John Roberts, echoed that view in his ruling in the 2022 case, SEC v Cruz, in which he decided that a candidate, here the Texas Republican senator Ted Cruz, could raise money after an election to pay campaign debts. With equally trusting innocence, Roberts wrote: “The government has not shown that [the law] furthers a permissible anticorruption goal, rather than the impermissible objective of simply limiting the amount of money in politics.”

The sluice gates of dark money opened. From the multibillion-dollar operation of Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society to enact the conservative agenda through domination of the courts, the legal corruption trickled down. The gutting of the campaign finance law unleashed a frenzied atmosphere in which fraudsters like Santos could feel unrestrained. His wild ride was not directly related to the letter of the Citizens United decision, but to its reckless spirit.

Then came Santos’s crash. Nobody offered more cogent analysis of his Republican colleagues’ sudden aversion to him than Santos himself.

“I was, as we joke around a lot in my circles, we’re like, ‘Oh my God you were the ‘It Girl’. Everybody wanted you.’ Until nobody wanted me.”

Related: The Fabulist review: timely tale of the rise and fall of George Santos

He was stigmatized, as a sinner in a den of sinners. “Within the ranks of the United States Congress there’s felons galore,” he said. His casting out reminded him of a character from the Bible. “There’s people with all sorts of sheisty backgrounds and all of a sudden George Santos is the Mary Magdalene of the United States Congress.” Reviled now as a prostitute, he has faith he will be canonized as a saint. Expulsion means never having to say you’re sorry.

Expelling Santos cannot unwind that he was let into the House to witness what happened behind the scenes. His Republican colleagues, he said, are “more worried about getting drunk every night with the next lobbyist that they’re going to screw –and pretend like none of us know what’s going on”. He held a press conference to warn, “If the House wants to start different precedent and expel me, that is going to be the undoing of a lot of members of this body because this will haunt them in their future.”

Perhaps George Santos has been divinely sent, a messenger to expose hypocrisy. God is not finished with him yet. We await the tell-all memoir and the Netflix series.

  • Sidney Blumenthal is a Guardian columnist and author of The Permanent Campaign, published in 1980, and All the Power of the Earth: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1856-1860, the third of a projected five volumes. He is the former assistant and senior adviser to President Bill Clinton and senior adviser to Hillary Clinton