Why a Truth-Challenged GOP May Never Rid Itself of George Santos

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To find the closest historical precedent to what George Santos is about to face, you have to go back 21 years, when James Traficant was standing in the well of the House, spinning his latest colorful tale of victimhood, and dang was it a doozy. 

With his last chance to convince his colleagues not to kick him out of the House, Traficant had a laundry list of defenses at the ready. That the 10-count racketeering indictment against the Ohio Democrat was the result of a personal vendetta by former Attorney General Janet Reno. That there was no truth to the allegation that he was involved in a murder-for-hire scheme to eliminate a horse trainer who might testify against him. That Traficant had done nothing wrong when congressional staffers “voluntarily” worked on his farm and houseboat, and he only “borrowed” his aides’ paychecks in what prosecutors alleged was a kickback scheme that had staffers sliding cash under his office door. That Traficant allegedly had plenty of his pals confessing on tapes that the feds had bullied them into testifying against him, that one of those agents attempted to rape a constituent to coerce her to testify, and that a friend had seen his business curiously firebombed to destroy evidence that exonerated him.

“They didn’t allow witnesses to testify,” he lamented as the presiding officer repeatedly told Traficant to drop his blue language that, by today’s standards for profanity, seems quaint. “They allowed none of my tapes. All of my tapes were exculpatory.”

Maybe Traficant truly believed his conspiracy-tinged paranoia that July day back in 2002, his last in the House. Nonetheless, it was an embarrassing day for those of us who ever called Traficant’s Youngstown-based district home. In that northeast Ohio district, Traficant may have been the kook who ended his out-of-nowhere speeches with the Star Trek slogan of “beam me up” but he won re-election easily. I still have a flag that flew over the House as a graduation present from a man I once interviewed as a high school intern at The Warren Tribune-Chronicle; he knew how to keep the locals happy and when to feed the media appetite for colorful quotes that made it seem like he really mattered.

Yet as a newly convicted felon, his colleagues wanted Traficant gone and didn’t want to rely on Mahoning Valley voters to get it right. Traficant didn’t take the hint and used 30 minutes of floor time to mount a last-minute, long-odds pitch to keep his job, though at times he seemed to know his effort was doomed from the start. “I’m prepared to lose everything. I’m prepared to go to jail. You go ahead and expel me,” he said with contemptuous fatalism.

And they did. By a 420-to-1 vote, Traficant became just the second House member since the Civil War to be expelled from the House. It turns out, even Congress has the occasional limit to its patience.  

More than two decades later, the House will face the same question again: Has the behavior of one of their own gone so far as to warrant expulsion? Santos, a New York Republican, would be just the third House member to meet that fate since lawmakers expelled 10 Confederates from their ranks during the first year of the Civil War. Santos is accused of serial misconduct in a scathing bipartisan, 56-page ethics report that spans the deceiving of donors, the embezzlement of campaign cash, and the use of it on Botox and subscriptions to a website mainly used for porn. A resolution to expel him from Rep. Robert Garcia, a California Democrat, was expected Tuesday afternoon, and under the House rules he would merit a vote within two days.

Read more: What I Learned Investigating George Santos

But rather than argue his innocence as Traficant mostly did in his unhinged final appeal to his colleagues (notwithstanding his allegation that donors bought “Senators’ girlfriends gifts”), Santos seems determined to burn down the House as he heads toward the exits. In a three-hour rant on Friday on the platform formerly known as Twitter, Santos unfurled invectives, insults, and insinuations. While he was objectively accurate when he said lawmakers cast the occasional vote while drunk, he was on potentially shakier ground when accusing others of skipping work on the regular because they’re too hungover after a night of booze and sex with lobbyists.

“Within the ranks of the United States Congress, there’s felons galore, 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,” posited Santos, whose reported drag name was not Mary Magdalene but rather Kitara Ravache.

In the days since that online rampage, Santos has told anyone who will listen that he’s heading toward expulsion, no matter what he does. He’s probably right. 

Still, there is a non-zero chance that some of his colleagues will stick with him. There are two reasons that lawmakers may summon for defending a fabulist with a dodgy understanding of campaign finance laws and a totally unmoored relationship with the truth: 1) the GOP majority currently stands at a paltry four seats and the odds Republicans can hold Santos’ district are slim at best; and 2) absent a criminal conviction, as Traficant had, some members may feel that even an Ethics Committee report as damning as this one isn’t enough to override the will of the voters.

That second justification could play with lawmakers who would be on the fence in other circumstances. After all, an ethics lapse isn’t unheard of in Congress. Facing 23 criminal indictments, Santos survived a first attempt to expel him. The effort fell well short of the two-thirds tally—291 votes—to expel him; only 179 members said he should go and another 19 simply said they were present. 

While Santos seems determined to become a parody of himself worthy of Bowen Yang’s yeoman work on Saturday Night Live, he may be playing the long game within a party where truth has become a standing victim. And that might be what feeds a third bucket of reluctant Santos apologists: he might never go away, and making him a victim only gives him an easier glidepath back to relevance.

On his way out the door in 2002, Traficant spun up a credulity-stretching tale explaining his innocence, offering up as evidence that the feds didn’t bother to tap his phones, didn’t have his fingerprints on dollar bills, and no FBI or IRS agents who investigated him ever testified against him. He added scores of non sequiturs as well, such as the fact the forensic accountant injured his groin in a courtroom accident and the spouse of the judge worked for a law firm representing one of the witnesses. To cap off his yarn, Traficant said that when pulled over late one night, he passed a field sobriety test meant to bust a political opponent. “There’s no physical evidence,” he said defiantly before saying his colleagues implicated in a House page sex scandal got to stay in power so he should, too. (The whole video is cringeworthy and a masterclass in political theater.)

A few months after his expulsion, the booted nine-term lawmaker still earned 15% of the vote from his Pennsylvania jail cell while running as an independent. After serving seven years of an eight-year sentence, Traficant tried to make another comeback as an independent. That time, in 2010’s Tea Party wave, he snagged 16% of the vote.

Which is why, while most of Washington is eager to rid itself of Santos, there is a slice of the population that believed Traficant’s nutty version of reality and will believe Santos’ claim that he is actually cleaner than most of his colleagues at the Capitol. After all, Santos is barely trying to defend himself against any of the numerous allegations against him, noting he has given 40 speeches, taken 100 meetings, cleared 1,200 constituent cases, and repeatedly defended President Donald Trump. Americans love a comeback story, and there will always be room on far-right platforms to reward a panderer, no matter how ridiculous the record.

Doubt it? A 91-times-charged ex-President who has his own tenuous relationship with reality is the far-ahead leader of the current Republican Party and, just seven weeks from the Iowa caucuses, is seemingly unreachable. If Trump can make a comeback while fighting four separate criminal cases and a raft of other legal troubles in the wings, Santos might believe he could do the same in miniature. Given the state of the current GOP, Santos could be making the most fact-based assessment of his political prospects in an alternative reality where facts are actual liabilities and fabricated credentials are strengths.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com