I first heard the name George Santos in 2019 when my editor assigned me a routine writeup about a new congressional candidate. At the time, I was doing one and often more pieces a day for Newsday’s newsletter about New York politics, and I was glad to have what seemed like a quick hit.
Santos got on the phone immediately. But it was a strange call. He claimed he was launching his campaign as we spoke, but also that he was currently in Florida for a work conference. He seemed vague on some policies, but he spoke defiantly about his personal story–a first-generation American (his phrase) and work in private equity for his whole career (which I eventually learned was wrong).
I wrote the little piece and he shared it on Facebook and in one parallel universe, this could have been the last I heard or wrote about the Queens newcomer. But Santos’s strange doings created plenty of fodder for me in the following months. Like not being clear about whether he lived in the district, or raising money for a “recount” campaign committee for a race he’d definitely lost. He had some wild statements about abortion. Still, not many people were paying much attention to him. So even after negative pieces, he’d pick up the phone.
Eventually, though, he started hiding. By his second campaign in 2022 (“second time’s the charm,” he accurately told me), he skipped an endorsement interview, and once hustled away when he saw me in the men’s room before a Newsday debate. (The editorial board endorsed his opponent.)
After he won, the New York Times published their blockbuster story that connected the dots for many of his lies and strangenesses. But now I just had further questions about this guy who’d been kicking around the back of my mind for years. Clearly he had lied about almost everything, but why?
So began my effort to get inside George Santos’s head. He made it very clear from the outset that he would not be “lending” his voice (his phrase) to my book, The Fabulist, and that neither he nor anyone from his staff were interested in talking. Fine by me. I found plenty of people who were happy to chat, including over 100 individuals who knew him, from friends and family to former teachers and dates. I spoke to people he scammed and people who just remembered him as a pretty fun guy. I learned about his jokes and his routines, and how expensive a wine bottle he’d order ($200, one person said). These helped fill out his profile even without a personal interview—and even if he had chatted, how would I have trusted him not to lie?
I traveled to different places in search of him. I understood that Brazil had been a key beacon in his late adolescence–maybe a shining moment, even, of real happiness–and so I spent weeks there to learn more about his teenage years and experimentations with drag and romance. This is how I ended up in a “sauna” where sex could be purchased for $8, to watch Santos’s drag mentor perform the kind of show that Santos once watched and emulated. Santos has downplayed his drag history and there are only a few photos and brief videos, so watching Santos’s mentor in person was the only way to see the origin of Santos’s routine in full.
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I listened to every podcast I could find where he did in fact lend some words. I read multiple books by KrisAnne Hall, a firebrand political author he said he admired, and gathered photographs and video of Santos from well before he got famous. I walked places where he had walked, including the now-shuttered College Point cube where he worked as a young man in a dreary call center, a place where the sound of airplanes lifting off from LaGuardia might have reminded him of all the places he wanted to fly but was not. I watched him in federal court, as in October when he donned bright red shoes and a funereal dark jacket, saying nothing to reporters but blowing a kiss by the courthouse steps. The chase could get alternately very solemn or surreal, and I could feel both far from him and very close, as when someone sent me a picture of his literal passport, as well as half-naked snapshots of him in a bath.
I also knocked on a lot of doors in New York, and he was not thrilled with that: “We have video proof of you trespassing inside various buildings where my family members reside and leaving notes under their doors,” was the way he described my standard shoe-leather reporting.
I did leave a lot of notes and knocked on lots of unopened doors, but you never know what can happen when you exercise your knuckles. Once, in an apartment unit that was associated with Santos’s dad, I spoke to a Greek man who was not Gercino dos Santos but who nevertheless was so thrilled about his connection with the whole Santos story that he banged on a few other portals and got some neighbors out on the landing to marvel the afternoon away.
Sometimes, you also find someone you’ve been looking for.
My search for the real Santos included knocking and calling until the absolute last moment. On the day I was last supposed to submit the manuscript I successfully caught a friend of Santos’s at home in Queens because there was a story I wanted to factcheck. Factchecking, by the way, was also something Santos refused to do. “This is your journey,” he texted me in response to a request on that front. “Now own up your short coming [sic] and know I will challenge any and all thing [sic] inaccurate in your book.”
The chase continued even after the book was done. Chatting with a Nassau GOP functionary recently, for example, I was told a delightful story about Santos “bidding” on a bowtie in an impromptu political raffle. This was during a GOP leaders meeting back in the fall of 2022. Santos went away with the bowtie, but supposedly the party never saw a check.
Never change, George.
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