What Does the Future Hold for Disgraced Congressman George Santos?

Will He Be Able to Keep His Seat in the House of Representatives?    

1/12/23 – – Serial liar George Santos, aka Congressman Santos, is in one hell of a mess. He’s learning first-hand what 19th century Scottish poet Sir Walter Scott meant when he observed, “Oh! what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive!”

The real world is closing in on Santos even as he officially carries out his duties representing New York’s Third Congressional District as a member of the House of Representatives. His colleagues, both Democrats and his fellow Republicans, are treating him like a pariah, legal challenges are mounting (it appears likely that at a minimum he violated federal election campaign laws and committed fraud), and his constituents are calling for his resignation.

He’s admitted to being less than truthful about his education, religion, work history, charitable activity, and the circumstances of his mother’s death. And we’re just learning that one of his campaign staffers impersonated Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s chief of staff when communicating with fundraising prospects.

I’m not an attorney, so the only advice on the legal front I can give Santos is to get some really good lawyers experienced in dealing with the Federal Election Commission. But for more than 30 years I’ve represented companies, organizations and individuals facing reputational crises. So, I have some thoughts (as you probably suspected) on Congressman Santos’ next steps.

In Chapter 11 of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient (Determining Guilt or Innocence”), I emphasize the importance of being honest with yourself and your advisors as you plan your response to crisis. Your options are very different if you’re innocent or guilty. If you’re as guilty of dishonesty and dissembling as Santos is (and has admitted), it makes no sense to continue challenging the veracity of the charges against you. That only gets you into more trouble. His apologies during media interviews are made meaningless by such explanations as, “I never said I was Jewish . . . I said I was Jew-ish.”

The comedian Flip Wilson had a sketch in his standup routine about an arrested man meeting with his defense attorney in jail. After reviewing all the facts, the lawyer says to his client, “There’s only one flaw in your case.” The client asks, “What’s that?” To which the attorney replies, “You did it.”  

Because “it” in Santos’ case involves potential criminal activity, he really needs to shut up. There is no “public relations” strategy other than silence regarding his past activity worth pursuing. He’s already lost in the court of public opinion. His prospects in a court of law don’t seem any brighter. The 1950s vocal group The Platters brilliantly captured the embattled Congressman’s predicament when they sang:

Oh yes, I’m the great pretender

Pretending that I’m doing well

My need is such I pretend too much

I’m lonely but no one can tell.

Oh yes, I’m the great pretender

Adrift in a world of my own

I’ve played the game but to my real shame

You’ve left me to grieve all alone.

He may be alone, but he’s not without leverage.

With the Republican margin of control in the House razor thin (222 Republicans, 212 Democrats, 1 open seat likely to go Democrat in a February special election), Santos represents a critical Republican vote on contested legislation. He’s already demonstrated his value by supporting Kevin McCarthy in his quest to become the Speaker through 15 ballots. If Santos were to resign, the Governor of New York would by State law have to within 10 days set a date for a special election to be held “not less than seventy nor more than eighty days from the date of the proclamation.”

It’s almost certain the vacancy would be filled by a Democrat. New York’s Third Congressional District, which has recently been redrawn, sent Democrats to the House in 2014, 2016, 2018 and 2020. In presidential races District voters went for Clinton over Trump in 2016 (51% – 48%) and for Biden over Trump in 2020 (54% – 44%).

Santos seems to understand the benefits (a platform, job, office, staff, etc.) of sticking around. As difficult as his legal challenges may be, he’s in a better position to address them as a despised but employed — and highly valued — member of the House of Representatives. Yesterday he defiantly tweeted:

“I was elected to serve the people of the Third Congressional District not the party & politicians, I remain committed to doing that and regret to hear that local officials refuse to work with my office to deliver results to keep our community safe and lower the cost of living.”

As for Speaker McCarthy, he is in no hurry to run Santos out of town:

“In America today, you’re innocent until proven guilty. So just because somebody doesn’t like the press you have—it’s not me who can over-say what the voters say. He has a right to serve here.”

Not to excuse Santos’ behavior or McCarthy’s willingness to give him a temporary pass, but there are more than a few sitting members of Congress with “pants on fire” and noses “longer than a telephone wire.” (The Castaways, “Liar, Liar” 1968). So, if Santos can keep his mouth shut, do a respectable job of serving the needs of his Long Island and Queens constituents, and be a dependable vote for GOP priorities, he should be able to have, for about two years, a government-funded place to go while his legal battles play out.

And then, after maybe a few more years in a different form of government housing, he can write a book, which I’m sure will tell us the true story of his life. In the meantime, Santos should not waste his time interviewing PR consultants. Adding a psychiatrist and maybe a priest (he now claims to be Catholic) to his advisory team would be a better idea.

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