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As Santos’ troubles worsen, GOP faces questions over standards

A decade ago, Republican leaders established a set of standards that led to some notable resignations. Under Kevin McCarthy, those standards are elusive.


It was tempting to think Rep. George Santos’ troubles couldn’t possibly get any worse. After all, the New York Republican has been exposed as a prolific liar who’s currently facing local, state, federal and international investigations.

But damaging new revelations continue to come to the fore. NBC News reported overnight:

A Navy veteran has accused Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y., of refusing to hand over thousands of dollars raised in a 2016 online campaign to fund lifesaving surgery for his dog. Richard Osthoff said in an interview Wednesday that a charity group linked to Santos created a GoFundMe page for his dog but never provided him with the money. Osthoff said he believes access to the $3,000 donation pot, which he said Santos withheld from him, would have saved his dog’s life.

To be sure, if the allegations are true, it’s tough to stoop much lower than stealing charitable donations intended for an ailing dog. But as it turns out, this wasn’t the only awful story about the new GOP congressman to reach the public yesterday. NBC News also reported:

Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y., has claimed that his mother was at her office inside the World Trade Center during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but records obtained by NBC News on Wednesday show she was living in Brazil at the time.

He’d already been caught lying about when his mother died, but it now appears Santos also made up outlandish details about his mother and 9/11.

All of this, of course, came to public light just one day after House Republican leaders provided Santos with committee assignments, as if he were just another member of the GOP conference, in perfectly good standing. While some of Santos’ Republican colleagues have called on him to resign in response to his unfolding, multifaceted scandal, at least for now, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and GOP leaders are content to look the other way.

The talking points from McCarthy and his leadership effectively come down to three arguments:

  1. Voters elected Santos, and it’s not up to House members to reject the will of the electorate in New York’s 3rd Congressional District.
  2. Santos is under investigation, but he hasn’t yet been formally charged with any crimes.
  3. The Ethics Committee can handle this.

At face value, these arguments are underwhelming, but they’re not necessarily absurd. Indeed, there are no explicit factual errors in any of these claims: Voters who didn’t know they were being deceived really did elect this fabulist to Congress; Santos hasn’t been indicted; and he’ll eventually face some kind of Ethics Committee scrutiny.

But let’s take a stroll down memory lane and consider what’s become of Republican standards.

When House Republicans surrendered their majority in 2006, it marked the end of a difficult period in which an astonishing number of GOP members were caught up in ugly scandals. Names like Tom DeLay, Duke Cunningham, Bob Ney and Mark Foley became nationally notorious for a reason.

And so, four years later, when Republicans retook the House majority, GOP leaders went out of their way to make clear that they wouldn’t allow a replay. The new Republican majority, House GOP leaders said, would constitute a “zero-tolerance policy” for members caught up in embarrassing controversies that reflected poorly on the party.

For a while, they even seemed to mean it. In 2010, then-Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., acknowledged that he’d had an affair with a congressional staffer. GOP leaders urged him to resign, and he did. Less than a year later — at which point McCarthy was a member of his party’s leadership team — then-Rep. Chris Lee, R-N.Y., was caught trying to meet women through the personals section of Craigslist. GOP leaders urged him to resign, and he did.

In 2014, then-Rep. Vance McAllister, R-La., was filmed kissing a staffer who was not his wife. GOP leaders urged him to resign, and though he refused, at least they made the effort. (McAllister lost his re-election bid soon after.)

In each of these instances, House Republican leaders didn’t simply leave matters to voters. They didn’t care that the members hadn’t been formally charged with any crimes. They didn’t punt concerns to the Ethics Committee. For all of their faults — and there were many — GOP leaders in the chambers set standards for their members and enforced them when members were caught up in humiliating scandals.

A decade later, as another House Republican is facing a humiliating and intensifying scandal of his own, GOP leaders’ standards are hiding well.

The problem isn’t just a matter of moral flexibility. Rather, the difference is largely arithmetical: McCarthy is ignoring principles because the House Republican majority is tiny, and the new speaker can’t afford to see it shrink.

McCarthy is, however, reluctant to acknowledge this simple truth, so he pushes unpersuasive defenses, and allows Santos to keep embarrassing himself, his conference and his constituents.