George Santos Isn’t Unique Because He’s Corrupt. He’s Unique Because He’s So Bad at It.

Washington is full of dishonest and corrupt politicians. Congressman George Santos, who managed to get himself expelled for his wild shenanigans, just flouted the norms of what polished DC corruption is supposed to look like.

George Santos is interviewed in the rotunda of the Cannon House Office Building before a vote to expel him from the House of Representatives on December 1, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images)

Former congressman George Santos, a New York Republican, was never a volleyball star. He also wasn’t a producer of the 2011 musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. His mother didn’t die on 9/11. His grandparents didn’t flee from the Holocaust. He never worked on Wall Street. And he wasn’t the employer of several victims — or, as it turns out, any victims — of the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

This was, to put it mildly, a fairly odd string of lies for a politician to tell about himself. I can understand the ones about 9/11 and the Holocaust. But did he really think his political career would benefit from people thinking he’d been a big deal in the world of college volleyball? And why on earth did he pretend to have been involved in a notoriously disastrous Broadway flop?

The only way I can make it make sense is that Congressman Santos wanted above all to be an important or interesting person with some connection to news events that captured people’s attention. If so, he finally got his wish.

The US House of Representatives has a broad constitutional power to expel its members, but it’s only voted to exercise that power six times over the centuries. Three of the congressmen were Confederates who got the boot in 1861 for committing treason. But George Santos just became far more interesting and important by becoming one of a grand total of three who managed to get themselves expelled for personal corruption. The last one of those was Jim Traficant in 2002.

So — let’s pause for a pop quiz. What does it take to be the first man to get kicked out of Congress for corruption in twenty-one years?

If your answer was “being the first member of Congress to be obviously and deeply corrupt,” you just failed the quiz. You’ve either just arrived from a parallel universe or you’re paying very little attention to this one.

Nancy Pelosi, for example, hasn’t held any job besides “politician” in her entire life, but as of 2021, when she was serving as Speaker of the House, she’d somehow accumulated a net worth of $120 million. As Glenn Greenwald noted at the time, Pelosi and her husband Paul seem extraordinarily lucky in their guesses about “when to buy and sell stocks and options in the very industries and companies over which Pelosi, as House Speaker,” exercised “enormous and direct influence.” The inappropriateness of that has even led to bipartisan legislation to ban congressmembers from stock trading, a policy supported by the majority of Americans.

Perhaps you think Pelosi’s stock market success is a coincidence. But how do you explain the 468 former members of Congress currently working as lobbyists? I have a hard time believing that anyone who wouldn’t be routinely fooled by the “wallet inspector” in the Simpsons thinks politicians’ behavior in office has nothing to do with the hope of receiving exactly such a postcongressional reward.

You get a better sense of how Santos managed to get himself expelled for corruption when you read the New York Timesaccount of the twenty-three indictments the former congressman is now facing. He falsified records with the Federal Election Commission (FEC). He committed wire fraud. He made up fake donations to qualify for funds from a national GOP committee. He “stole a donor’s credit card number to transfer more than $11,000 to his own bank account” and “swindled $50,000 from two other donors using a fake nonprofit — using the money to buy designer goods and settle personal debts.”

As the Times notes, these accusations “seem vastly different from the typical corruption cases that ensnare politicians,” which often “hinged on intricate quid pro quos and complex legal questions about the nature of a political bribe.” Santos’s crimes “have more in common with those of a run-of-the-mill grifter.”

All I can think, as I read about the credit card schemes and the FEC shenanigans and the “designer goods and personal debts,” is that it’s incredible that no one ever took this guy aside and explained to him that this isn’t how things are done.

Enriching yourself through a career in public office? Sure. Fine. Standard. But you can’t do it like that.

He could have had some wealthy friends set up a make-work job for his husband. He could have traveled the world on “fact-finding” trips paid for by moneyed interests and made the occasional surprisingly fortuitous stock trade until, when he got out of office, he waited out the legally mandated one-year “cooling-off period” before cashing in with a job lobbying his former colleagues.

He could have, in other words, acted like a normal member of Congress. What he did instead was the approximate equivalent of getting busted for selling weed in the parking lot of a legal dispensary.

He may not have been a Spider-Man producer or a volleyball star or had any connection whatsoever to 9/11 or the Pulse nightclub shooting. But he deserves to be remembered for all time as one of the dumbest men to have ever served in Congress.