George Santos Shows Early Signs of Tilting to the Hard Right
On his first day in Congress, Representative George Santos of New York spent most of his time alone, isolated from his new colleagues. But by week’s end, he had found his place: alongside members of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus, including Representatives Matt Gaetz of Florida and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia.
As a growing number of fellow Republican representatives called for his resignation, Mr. Santos dug in further, appearing last week on “Bannon’s War Room,” the podcast of Stephen K. Bannon, a former adviser to President Donald J. Trump who was involved in the effort to overturn the 2020 election.
For seven minutes, Mr. Santos chatted with Mr. Gaetz, who was filling in for Mr. Bannon. He spoke little about his political views. Instead, with Mr. Gaetz’s support, he swatted away mounting concerns about his lies about his background, his campaign spending and the inquiries he is facing about both ethical violations and potential crimes.
Mr. Santos’s actions in the House chamber so far this year, his willingness to appear on Mr. Bannon’s podcast and the few public hires he has made to his congressional staff all suggest that his stance in Congress, should he remain for his full two-year term, will be further to the right than the one he adopted on the campaign trail.
His appearance on the Bannon podcast, often a platform for election deniers and far-right conspiracy theorists, has revived campaign questions about where the congressman sits on the conservative spectrum.
During last year’s elections, Democrats tried to paint Mr. Santos as a far-right acolyte of Mr. Trump, pointing at statements where Mr. Santos appeared to deny the results of the 2020 presidential election as well as his own loss that same year. He had also given a speech where he compared abortion to slavery and called it “barbaric.”
He was in Washington on Jan. 5, 2021, the day before the Capitol riot, when he falsely said his election had been “stolen” and asked the crowd, “Who here is ready to overturn the election for Donald Trump?”
Mr. Santos, who in 2021 described himself as a “MAGA candidate,” argued last year that his opponents were exaggerating his positions. Indeed, between his initial failed run for Congress in 2020 and his successful effort in 2022, he appeared to play down many of his previous, polarizing stances and suggested he would take a more mainstream Republican approach.
During his first campaign, Mr. Santos ran as a staunch opponent of abortion. But he told Newsday during his recent campaign that he opposed a nationwide abortion ban and expressed support for the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, returning questions of abortion to the states.
During his 2022 campaign, Mr. Santos largely focused on inflation and crime, blaming Democrats for both.
Questions about Mr. Santos’s alignment with hard-right groups had already been raised after he attended a gala in Manhattan last month at which white nationalists and right-wing conspiracy theorists were also guests. Mr. Santos has not answered questions about his presence at the event, which was held by the New York Young Republican Club, a conservative group.
But Mr. Santos hired the group’s executive secretary, Viswanag Burra, as his operations director, according to LegiStorm, an online database that tracks congressional staff members.
More on the George Santos Controversy
- Behind The Times’s Investigation: The Times journalists Michael Gold and Grace Ashford discuss how Representative George Santos was elected to Congress and how they discovered that he was a fraud.
- Split View: New York Republicans are ready to rid themselves of the newly elected representative after his pattern of deception was revealed. But House Republican leaders badly need his vote.
- Facing Inquiries: Federal and local prosecutors are investigating whether Mr. Santos committed crimes involving his finances or made misleading statements, while authorities in Brazil said they would revive a 2008 fraud case against him.
- Alternate Identities: A newly surfaced video shows Mr. Santos in 2019 using one of his alternate identities and urging members of the L.G.B.T.Q. community to embrace Republicans. The clip offers insight into Mr. Santos’s early forays into public political life.
Mr. Burra declined to comment on his role in Mr. Santos’s office, referring questions to the congressman’s new communications director, Naysa Woomer, who did not respond when asked to confirm Mr. Burra’s employment.
Mr. Burra, who has been seen leading Mr. Santos through the halls of the Capitol complex, has a number of ties to provocative right-wing figures. He previously worked as a producer on Mr. Bannon’s podcast and, according to LegiStorm, once worked for Mr. Gaetz.
He also recently served as a spokesman for Carl Paladino, a Buffalo-area real estate executive and politician with a track record of racist and homophobic comments. Mr. Paladino, who ran unsuccessfully in a Republican congressional primary last year, in 2021 praised Adolf Hitler as “the kind of leader we need today” and has boosted conspiracy theories about mass shootings in Buffalo and Texas.
According to LegiStorm, Mr. Santos has also hired Rafaello J. Carone, a staff member in his early 20s who already has a history of working for scandal-plagued lawmakers, as a legislative aide.
Mr. Carone was the social media manager for former Representative Madison J. Cawthorn of North Carolina, who lost a primary last year amid a swirl of controversies and was recently fined by the House Ethics Committee for promoting a cryptocurrency in which he had a financial interest. That committee has been formally asked to investigate Mr. Santos.
Mr. Carone’s firm, Liberty & Justice Consulting Firm, says on its website that it does “extreme vetting” for clients and touts its work with Virginians for America First, a Republican-aligned group that questioned the results of the 2020 election and recruited poll watchers to root out purported fraud.
Mr. Santos’s chief of staff, Charles Lovett, had been his campaign manager. He previously worked as the political director for Josh Mandel, who unsuccessfully ran in a Senate primary in Ohio as a hard-right, pro-Trump conservative.
Whether Mr. Santos has hired other staff members is unknown. Ms. Woomer did not reply to an email asking for the names of Mr. Santos’s Washington staff or an email asking about Mr. Santos’s district office, which local media outlets have said has been closed for the last week.
The address that Mr. Santos’s website gives for his district office in Queens was used by former Representative Tom Suozzi, whose name remained on an awning there on Friday.
A phone number used by Mr. Suozzi’s Queens office during his time in Congress was answered by a recorded greeting for Mr. Santos’s Washington office. Calls to staff members were sent to voice mail.
But when speaking with Mr. Gaetz on Mr. Bannon’s podcast, Mr. Santos said that his office was actively fielding calls from constituents seeking aid.
Whether Mr. Santos will join the House Freedom Caucus, which is invitation-only, remains unclear. Though Mr. Santos sat with members of the caucus in the House chamber, he did not follow Mr. Gaetz’s efforts to coalesce votes against Representative Kevin McCarthy of California’s bid to become speaker.
A spokesman for Representative Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, the caucus’s chairman, did not respond to an email asking whether Mr. Santos would be among its members.
Mr. Santos’s views became the subject of further speculation after photographs of his voting for Mr. McCarthy appeared to show him making a symbol that the Southern Poverty Law Center associated with alt-right movements.
Mr. Santos’s intent was unclear: A video of his vote on C-SPAN did not show a clear angle of his hands, and Ms. Woomer, his communications director, did not respond to an email seeking clarity.
But the photo prompted an outcry on social media and condemnations from fellow politicians. One fellow first-term Republican congressman, Nick LaLota of Long Island, cited the gesture — which he labeled a “‘white power’ sign” — in his statement calling on Mr. Santos to resign this week.
On the Bannon podcast, Mr. Santos spent much of the interview denouncing his critics, at one point vowing to “outwork any of the pundits and talking heads” calling on him to resign. So far, those voices included eight Republican representatives, six of them from New York.
The most recent, Representative Max Miller of Ohio, cited Mr. Santos’s previous claims of being of Jewish heritage and descended from Holocaust survivors, which are in doubt after media outlets reported Mr. Santos’s grandparents had been born in Brazil.
Mr. Miller, who is Jewish and who contributed thousands of dollars to Mr. Santos’s congressional campaign, said in a statement: “It is not OK to fabricate or lie for political gain. This is especially true when the lie seeks benefit from the murder of millions of Jewish people.”
Susan C. Beachy and Kitty Bennett contributed research.