Federal prosecutors brought the hammer down on Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) on Wednesday, charging the embattled first-term lawmaker from Long Island with 13 felony counts that include wire fraud, money laundering and theft of public funds.
The move was not unexpected. Santos, who maintains his innocence, has faced intense scrutiny since even before his swearing-in over dubious financial transactions and a resume that, by his admission, was largely fabricated. It was well known that the Justice Department was investigating.
Still, the indictments arrived at a terrible time for Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and GOP leaders, who are fighting to pass their top legislative priorities through the House, pressure President Biden over the debt ceiling, and protect incumbent seats for the sake of keeping control of the lower chamber in next year’s elections — three goals that are all complicated by Santos’s legal troubles.
Here are five takeaways from Santos’s arrest.
A political distraction for McCarthy
McCarthy and House Republicans were riding high this month after muscling a debt ceiling package through the chamber and securing a long-sought meeting with Biden on Tuesday at the White House.
Sensing an upper hand in that fight, they were hoping to keep the focus there to press the president to accept sharp spending cuts as part of an eventual deal to prevent a government default.
Instead, the Santos saga has shifted the spotlight from fiscal policy to political scandal, sparking countless headlines, devouring hours of cable news coverage and forcing McCarthy and other GOP leaders on the defensive as they address the allegations facing their beleaguered colleague.
“In America, there’s a presumption of innocence, but they’re serious charges,” acknowledged House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.). “He’s going to have to go through the legal process.”
Rank-and-file Republicans were even more open in voicing frustrations that their efforts to highlight a host of issues — China, the border crisis, the corruption allegations against Hunter Biden — were overshadowed by Santos’s tantalizing legal travails.
“It’s a punchline for a lot of commentary regarding the Republican Party that we don’t need,” Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.) told The Washington Post.
A practical handicap for GOP
Political optics aside, Santos’s legal tribulations could also prove to be a practical headache for GOP leaders battling to pass their legislative priorities through a House chamber where they enjoy only a slim numerical advantage.
The difficulties inherent in that slight majority were on full display last month when GOP leaders passed their debt-limit package by a razor-thin vote, 217-215, with four Republican defections — the most they could spare.
Santos, who initially vowed to oppose the measure, was the final, deciding vote.
Math was again on the minds of GOP leaders on Wednesday, when they were forced to delay the vote on a rule governing a border security proposal — one of their top campaign priorities — in the face of opposition from within their conference.
It’s unclear precisely how many GOP lawmakers were threatening to sink the procedural measure, which sets up a Thursday vote on the final bill. But the absence of Santos — whose arrest and court appearance Wednesday afternoon in New York prevented him from voting — didn’t help the bill’s prospects. And leadership will have to be cognizant of similar legal obligations that might drag Santos from Washington during tough votes in the future.
Santos, for his part, appears to be well aware that his absences put his party’s legislative goals in jeopardy.
“I have to go back and vote,” he said outside the courthouse in Central Islip, N.Y. “Tomorrow, we have one of those consequential votes in this Congress, which is a border bill, and I’m very [much] looking forward to being there to vote on it.”
New calls to expel
Santos has faced calls to resign since December, when The New York Times first revealed his falsified biography. And in February, a group of Democrats representing the Congressional Equality Caucus — which promotes LGBTQ rights — took the effort a step further with legislation to expel him from Congress.
In the wake of the new indictments, those calls have grown only louder — and more bipartisan.
A number of Republican lawmakers emerged Wednesday with new appeals for Santos to step down to open up the seat for someone less touched by scandal.
And Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-Texas) on Wednesday became the first Republican to call publicly for Congress to move proactively to boot Santos from his seat, saying the voters of his Long Island district “deserve a voice in Congress.”
“George Santos should be immediately expelled from Congress and a special election initiated at the soonest possible date,” Gonzales tweeted.
Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.) went almost as far, telling CNN the House Ethics Committee should investigate Santos’s behavior, and if the panel were to recommend expulsion, he would “absolutely” support it on the floor.
Amid the furor, a defiant Santos made clear that expulsion would be his critics’ only option.
“I will not resign,” he said.
GOP leaders rush to defend
Despite the headaches Santos has created for them, McCarthy and other GOP leaders have stood behind the indicted lawmaker, emphasizing that allegations are merely that and defending his right to represent the voters who sent him to Washington while he fights the charges in court.
“I think in America, you’re innocent till proven guilty,” McCarthy said Tuesday, after news of the indictment first broke.
“He’s got a presumption of innocence,” Scalise echoed on Wednesday. “But that court process is going to play itself out.”
That argument doesn’t fly with Santos’s detractors, who think he’s an unwelcome stain on an institution that’s already wanting for public trust.
“The Republican member of Congress purportedly known as George Santos is entitled to the presumption of innocence, just like anyone else in America, in a criminal court of law,” said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus. “The House is not a criminal court of law. The House has its own rules, the House can choose to expel a member.”
But GOP leaders remain unmoved.
“This legal process is going to play itself out,” said Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), chairwoman of the Republican Conference. “Unfortunately, this is not the first time a member of Congress from either party has been indicted. There are a set of rules.”
The support from GOP leaders strongly suggests a resolution to expel Santos will never reach the floor for a vote. Even if it did, it would face a high hurdle: Two-thirds of the House is required to expel a sitting member, meaning Santos’s detractors would need to find 290 lawmakers — including almost 80 Republicans — to oust him.
There is plenty of precedent for an indicted lawmaker to remain in Congress while the legal process plays out. Former Reps. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) all kept their seats for months after their indictments.
Hurts GOP chances in 2024
Santos’s election in 2022 was a coup at the time, flipping a long-held Democratic seat as part of the red wave that hit New York last year and helping Republicans win back control of the House after just four years in the minority wilderness.
The new indictments have rekindled fears among Republicans that the seat will flip back to the Democrats in 2024 — particularly if Santos is on the ballot.
“He’ll be the reason that we lose that seat,” said Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.).
Mace, who has called for months for Santos to resign, has been joined by many Republicans in the New York delegation, who are eager to have him vacate the seat and prompt a special election where Republicans think they’d have a better chance with a fresh candidate.
Santos has given no indication that he’ll step down. But he also wasn’t guaranteeing any victories if he does return on the ballot next year.
“Elections are very tricky, and it’s up to the people,” Santos said outside the courthouse. “I trust them to decide what’s best for them.”