Most lawmakers who leave Congress in disgrace hide from the media. George Santos is trying to become an internet icon.
The expelled and indicted Republican has fought relentlessly — thirstily, even — to remain in the public eye since his Dec. 1 removal from the House of Representatives, posting frequently on X, formerly Twitter, and charging more than $200 a pop for videos on Cameo, an app that allows users to pay celebrities for personal messages.
On Monday, he escalated his effort to cling to relevance, appearing in an instantly viral interview with Ziwe Fumudoh, a comedian, author and former talk show host who is known for asking awkward, deadpan questions that make her celebrity subjects squirm.
The House of Representatives expelled Santos this month after a scathing ethics report found that he fabricated much of his biography while running for office and defrauded his donors by spending campaign money to pay for Botox injections, OnlyFans subscriptions and other personal bills.
Santos, who has maintained his innocence in the face of felony fraud and conspiracy charges, has not let his legal troubles deter him from pursuing fame and fortune.
In fact, Santos — a recurring character on “Saturday Night Live” even before his expulsion — has become an even bigger internet star since leaving Congress, leaning into the internet culture that mocks and celebrates him.
He leaned in even harder this week in the on-camera interview with Fumudoh, who is known by her first name, Ziwe. In the 18-minute interview released Monday on YouTube, Santos called former President Trump an “icon” and expressed his love for “Gen Z progressives,” saying “they’re the future and they need to slay the boots house down in the future so that this country can stay functional.”
Santos said he’d like to appear on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” (“I’d love to go,” he said), but indicated he is uninterested in being a contestant on “Dancing With the Stars.”
He derided journalist Mark Chiusano’s biography of him, saying he doubts the book, whose rights were optioned by HBO, would ever make it to the screen.
“The book has no perspective of me or anybody close to me,” he said. “It’s a f— fiction.”
But he expressed admiration for Bowen Yang, the “Saturday Night Live” cast member who frequently plays him on the show. (He said Yang was worthy of an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony.)
For the record:
3:29 p.m. Dec. 19, 2023An earlier version of this story referred to Harvey Milk as a former San Francisco mayor. He was a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
He claimed to have had a portrait of civil rights icon Rosa Parks in his office but said he doesn’t know of several prominent gay Americans, including the writer and anti-racist activist James Baldwin and Harvey Milk, the former San Francisco supervisor who was assassinated in 1978. He proved himself a fan of Nicki Minaj, though, by rapping a portion of her iconic verse on the song “Monster.”
“You can call me a messy bitch,” Santos told Ziwe. “I’ve been called worse. I’ll take it.”
Santos clearly wants — and understands how to get — attention, and his Ziwe interview and HBO’s optioning of Chiusano’s book show that the entertainment industry recognizes his potential, at least as a character. But the federal charges he faces could prove to be an insurmountable obstacle to his Hollywood ambitions.
It is unclear whether Santos will stand trial or strike a deal with prosecutors, and not yet clear whether he will be convicted or go to prison. But he is almost certain to face fury from his donors, who can ask him to return their money, said Karen Sebold, an assistant professor of political science at University of Arkansas.
Most of their money is gone and is unlikely to be recovered. His campaign reportedly refunded more money than he’s raised and debtors are first in line to recover their money, Sebold noted.
Donors can ask for their contributions to be returned, but “it doesn’t mean they’re always going to get them,” Sebold added.
Donors who want their money back from Santos may be better off if he’s out of jail and able to earn money to reimburse them. “At the end of the day, it’s going to come down to whether or not he has that money to refund…. If he’s in jail, that may not be possible.”
Santos’ case points up problems with federal campaign finance laws, Sebold added. The Federal Election Commission is not funded well enough for workers to aggressively audit campaigns. The lack of funding leads to lax oversight and enables bad perpetrators to go unpunished, she said.
“There’s all kinds of violations that don’t rise to this level of fame that George Santos [is seeing] so they go unnoticed,” Sebold said. “They have to discover these things accidentally, or if they’re reported to them. And so it’s a broken process.”
Congress could overhaul these laws. But members of Congress will “suffer the most from making the laws more restrictive. And so, why would they do that?”
Because his fabrications were reported even before he was sworn into office, Santos, the first openly gay Republican congressman, came to Washington as an outsider. His “general demeanor and approach to politics made him an island,” and his isolation “only made him want to be more outlandish because he realized there’s nobody out there [who is] going to throw him a life raft,” said Anthony Michael Kreis, a political scientist at Georgia State University College of Law.
But the general public ate up news about the scandal-ridden congressman, Kreis added. “There’s something innate about people’s desire for a dramatic player and for drama more broadly. George Santos has kind of all of it. He has hot legal problems, but he leans into it. He’s never seen a camera that he doesn’t like and he says outlandish things.”
Ziwe and Santos are both intensely aware of this dilemma.
“What could we do to get you to go away?” she asked the former congressman.
“Stop inviting me to your gigs,” he replied.
“The lesson,” she later added, “is to stop inviting you places.”
“But you can’t,” Santos replied with a grin. “Because people want the content.”