On Capitol Hill this week neither the Senate or the House of Representatives were in session. However, the TV cameras and reporters continued to stake out one particular office.
The politician at the centre of attention was not Kevin McCarthy, the newly-elected speaker of the House, or some firebrand of the right or the left.
The most controversial politician in Washington continues to be first-time congressman from New York, George Santos, who has been under enormous scrutiny over whether he is the person he told voters he was before he was elected last November.
Exaggeration in politics is nothing new. Politicians embellishing their records to portray themselves in a better light is one thing; actively creating a completely false persona may be a step too far.
Initially the focus was on Santos’s curriculum vitae and his educational and employment background.
He has acknowledged that he didn’t graduate from any college or university, despite claiming before the election that he had degrees from Baruch College and New York University. And he certainly was not the “star” of the Baruch volleyball team as he also asserted in the past.
Furthermore, Santos confirmed he never worked directly for the financial firms Citigroup and Goldman Sachs, as he had previously claimed, but that he did do work for them through his company.
Santos acknowledged he had “embellished” his CV, but insisted he was not a criminal or a fraud.
However, as the media trawled through his back story, further discrepancies emerged as well as more sinister allegations.
He claimed his grandparents fled the Holocaust – a claim disputed by genealogists who maintain his family are from Brazil.
In a 2021 radio interview, Santos said his mother had been in the World Trade Center on 9/11. He said she made it out, got caught up in the ash cloud and subsequently “fought cancer till her death”.
Immigration records that emerged this week disclosed that his mother said she was in Brazil between 1999 and early 2003.
On Wednesday a potentially more damaging story was reported. A homeless navy veteran alleged that Santos helped him raise $3,000 for surgery for his dying dog, but he never got the money from Santos, and his dog subsequently died.
The congressman strongly denied the allegations and said claims he would let a dog die were shocking and insane. He maintained animal advocacy was a labour of love.
Last week dozens of Republicans in New York state, including four recently elected congressmen, broke with Santos and urged him to resign.
This week former New York congressman Peter King, who has a keen interest in Irish affairs, wrote in the New York Times: “Having served in Congress for 28 years, I cannot imagine how Mr Santos possibly thinks he can be effective as a member of the House, if he thinks about it at all. In modern politics, I can’t recall another freshman lawmaker who took office so completely lacking the trust and respect of his colleagues.”
So far the Republican leadership in the House has shown no sign of forcing Santos out. McCarthy said voters elected him and gave Santos a position on two House committees this week.
But Democrats have asked the House ethics committee to investigate complaints against Santos.
The US constitution allows Congress to discipline its own members. A politician can be expelled if a two-thirds majority agree. However, such a move is extremely rare and in modern times only has come after a conviction for corruption.
Any such disciplinary process could run for months and the issue places Republicans in a dilemma. Santos supported McCarthy in his tight victory for the speakership. Forcing him out would lead to a byelection in New York which could be won by the Democrats, further reducing McCarthy’s slim majority in the House.
On the other hand Republicans did better in the elections in New York than had been anticipated. Some activists there believe the Santos controversy is harming them politically.
King summed up that sentiment: “The truth is that Mr Santos is hurting the House that many of us love and dragging down the Republican caucus to a shameful place. He does not belong there, but there is no indication that he will consider resignation.”
King said Santos should quit.
If he stays, the media are likely to continue to pore over every aspect of his life and whatever they find will add more pressures on McCarthy. The curious tale of George Santos is likely to run for a while.