It was simply after midday on an early September Saturday when the primary name got here.
It already had been an uncommon day. Usually, I’d be tackling a venture or cajoling my spouse right into a day hike close to our residence in upstate New York. As an alternative I used to be in a resort room in Philadelphia, having simply completed a journalism panel on political disinformation — a subject I knew effectively after practically a 12 months of protecting George Santos.
After which his identify appeared on my caller ID.
“That is George Santos. I hear you’ve been attempting to come up with me.”
It was true. I had been attempting to pay money for him in a technique or one other since final November, when my colleague Michael Gold and I had been first assigned to look into the incoming Republican congressman from Lengthy Island and Queens. We shortly discovered ourselves down a rabbit gap of secrets and techniques and lies.
By now, the biographical fictions are well-known: the roles at Citigroup and Goldman Sachs that he by no means had, the Baruch and N.Y.U. levels he by no means obtained and the volleyball workforce he by no means performed on. There have been additionally unresolved fraud prices in Brazil — a precursor to what would quickly comply with.
Santos now faces 23 felony counts — together with 10 new ones added earlier this month — for quite a lot of monetary schemes, lots of which contain his marketing campaign. He has pleaded not responsible.
However at the same time as I spent the higher a part of the previous 12 months protecting each dimension of his marketing campaign and legal trial — poring over his marketing campaign filings, watching each interview and ringing up his previous colleagues, members of the family, lovers and pals — I had by no means had an precise dialog with the person.
This was not for an absence of attempting. Michael and I made quite a few makes an attempt to achieve him, calling or texting him instantly and leaving messages along with his lawyer and workers members. Michael rang the doorbell at his listed deal with, solely to seek out that he hadn’t lived there for months.
I did catch him on the cellphone as soon as, however the name abruptly ended when he heard my identify. He referred to as again a minute later to make clear that he doesn’t “grasp up on folks,” however assured me he wouldn’t be answering my questions, now or ever.
His silence left me feeling a bit like a landlocked oceanographer. I knew his birthday, his canine’s identify, his verbal tics and tendencies, however I couldn’t get to the person himself.
All of a sudden, all that modified.
Roughly half a dozen cellphone calls adopted — typically initiated by him, generally by me — that solid me headfirst into the ocean. Combative and collegial in equal measure, they teased solutions to the questions I’d spent a 12 months of my life asking.
“Am I ever gonna be your pal? No,” he informed me on that first Saturday. He would go on to clarify that he held me personally liable for a lot of his misfortune, and was no fan of The Occasions.
Over time, his stance softened.
“Have been you a chunk of annoyance in my life for some time?” he requested on a name a couple of month later. Completely, he answered, inserting a profanity into the phrase.
“However I don’t want you hurt; I don’t want you unwell.”
The conversations touched on his legal case, his political opinions, his most popular present at a child bathe, each of our pets and the various, many individuals who’ve wronged him.
We referred to as one another by our first names. The conversations had been on the report, aside from a number of situations the place he stipulated that he was talking on background or off the report.
I got here to know his humorousness and his penchant for engaged on the weekends, his positivity and attraction. And the extra we spoke, I got here to know one thing else as effectively: the peculiar expertise of being confided in and lied to on the identical time.
The primary name
For an instantaneous I used to be frozen, seeing his identify on my cellphone. Then my journalistic instincts kicked into gear.
“I’m listening to some murmurings that you simply could be about to barter a plea deal,” I informed him.
“Wild rumors,” he spat again.
I defined what I’d heard about prosecutors utilizing the leverage of extra proof and even prices to strain defendants into pleading.
“That’s not what’s taking place,” he mentioned.
I used to be starting to surprise why he had referred to as.
“Is there anything? I might love your perspective on the reporting in regards to the case itself, something you assume we’re lacking …”
This time he barely let me get the query out.
“I feel the reporting, on all ends, of each single journalist on this nation has been unhealthy,” he mentioned, earlier than launching into a listing of what he thought-about the low factors. There have been the allegations that he had stolen a scarf, the accounts of his falsely telling people he was a journalist and the reviews that he was being propped up by Russian or Chinese language oligarchs. And, after all, his previous as a supposed drag queen.
“I do drag for a freakin’ competition in Brazil, and now I’ve a profession!” he exclaimed.
He was significantly preoccupied by the declare that he stole cash meant to benefit a dying canine, repeatedly insisting that he had by no means met the person who accused him of the theft and claiming to have proof that he was not dependable. (The Occasions has reviewed textual content messages which seem to point out that on the very least, the 2 had been involved.)
He went on to seek out fault with the folks Michael and I had spoken to for our preliminary article, which he mentioned contained “loads of factual and timeline errors.”
(Once I requested specifics, he would solely say that his workforce had requested quite a few corrections, all of them ignored. Our requirements workforce, which usually receives requests for corrections, discovered none from Santos or his representatives.)
He took goal at particular people in journalism and politics, who he mentioned had slandered him with concocted tales that will stay perpetually in print and on-line searches.
“As a journalist, and fairly frankly, as a journalist who wrote the very first story about me, how does that even make you’re feeling?” he requested me.
It was query.
Nonetheless, only a few folks had heard of George Santos when Michael and I began making calls. Two months later, he was being parodied on “Saturday Night Live,” his life all of the sudden open to ridicule and threats.
A number of the protection and commentary has taken on a meanspirited tone, mocking his look and sexuality. He has acquired loss of life threats — probably the most virulent from a Florida man, described in reports as a homosexual rights activist, who left Santos a voice mail message promising to bash his “head in with a bat” till his mind was splattered throughout the wall. The person, who additionally threatened Santos’s husband and used an anti-gay slur, is now dealing with federal legal prices within the Southern District of Florida.
“We’ve needed to defend ourselves,” he informed me.
“That’s horrible. I’m actually sorry to listen to that, George,” I mentioned.
“I’ll provide you with one, I’ll provide you with one story that no one talks about,” he replied, earlier than telling me how his 5-year-old niece disappeared from a playground in Queens, solely to be positioned 40 minutes afterward a surveillance digital camera with two Chinese language males.
He mentioned the incident was the topic of an energetic police investigation, implying closely that it might need been in retaliation for his vocal stance in opposition to the Chinese language Communist Occasion.
“So that you assume it was China?” I requested, clarifying.
“Look, I don’t wish to go into like, conspiracy idea,” he mentioned. “However you realize, if the shoe suits, proper?”
In all, the primary name lasted just below 45 minutes. I used to be in a daze for the remainder of the day questioning if all that had actually simply occurred, and why. Was it frustration that had led him to achieve out, or curiosity?
There was one different query that was bothering me as effectively: his story in regards to the Chinese language Communist Occasion kidnapping. I reached out to a colleague with connections to regulation enforcement officers to be taught extra in regards to the investigation.
A high-ranking police official confirmed that officers had been referred to as and had appeared into the incident. However they discovered no proof of Chinese language Communist Occasion involvement, or of any kidnapping in any respect.
“We discovered nothing in any respect to counsel it’s true,” the official mentioned. “I’d lean into, ‘he made it up.’”
‘I’m operating towards you guys now’
I initiated the second name every week later, catching him on his method to a migrant shelter exterior Creedmoor Psychiatric Heart in Queens the place, weeks earlier, he appeared at a protest.
The looks was a part of a post-indictment technique to court docket consideration in practically any manner potential — information conferences, Twitter Areas, protests, even a town-hall gathering — to speak about something besides himself.
After some pleasantries, we obtained all the way down to enterprise.
“What do you want from me?” he requested.
I informed him that I’d been questioning why he referred to as me final week.
“Oh, that’s an awesome query,” he replied. “It’s as a result of I’m operating towards you guys now. I’m not operating away from you guys.”
He had been silent too lengthy, he informed me, and allowed false narratives to take maintain. The difficulty was, now that he had the time, he was having hassle getting the eye.
“My identify shouldn’t be as very handy for clicks because it was in January or February,” he mentioned wryly.
Quickly sufficient he was arriving at his vacation spot and bid me a well mannered goodbye.
However he referred to as me again later that night to ensure that we had been completed. Over the approaching weeks, he would name me a handful extra instances to debate the day’s political maneuverings and to rage at his critics — lots of whom, he mentioned, weren’t themselves above reproach.
It obtained in order that my spouse would come to know his voice on the opposite finish of the cellphone. When he would name, she would roll her eyes, realizing that no matter we had been doing must wait. George was calling.
Santos defends himself
In most of our conversations, Santos remained fiercely, even relentlessly, constructive. However not on a regular basis.
“I actually threw my total life into the bathroom and flushed it to get elected,” he informed me, shortly including that he would do it once more.
Effectively, not all of it.
In his telling, he’s responsible solely of surrounding himself with the flawed folks. He spreads the blame amongst back-stabbing consultants and unscrupulous marketing campaign aides.
There was Samuel Miele, who was indicted in August on prices of impersonating a staffer of the previous Home speaker, Kevin McCarthy, as he made fund-raising calls on Santos’s behalf.
Santos has not been charged in that scheme and stresses that he fired Miele the “nanosecond” he came upon.
He’s extra bitter about his now-soured relationship with his campaign treasurer, Nancy Marks.
He maintains that she is in charge for any and all marketing campaign finance points. He maintains he was her sufferer, because the recipient of criminally negligent recommendation at greatest, embezzlement at worst.
“I used to be by no means even a signer on a single checking account,” he mentioned as soon as, utilizing an expletive for emphasis. “I didn’t have the facility, or card, to go within the financial institution and say, ‘Give me 5 bucks.’”
He insists that many of the federal prices in opposition to him are a group of errors and misunderstandings, lots of them attributable to his treasurer’s dishonesty or incompetence.
“I’m able to show my innocence,” he informed me. “Individuals assume that I’m simply going to get steamrolled. No, I’m going to show my innocence.”
Marks has difficult that plan. Earlier this month, she pleaded guilty to at least one depend of conspiracy, saying that she and Santos filed falsified marketing campaign reviews with fictional donations and a pretend $500,000 private mortgage from Santos to his marketing campaign.
In one in all our conversations, earlier than her indictment and the second spherical of prices, I requested him outright in regards to the loans and whether or not he was frightened that she may testify in opposition to him.
“All the cash is reputable,” he assured me. “All the cash got here from me, interval.”
In a subsequent dialog, he tried to make clear that solely the timing was flawed. He mentioned he made the $500,000 mortgage to his marketing campaign in September and October 2022. Why marketing campaign finance reviews indicated the mortgage was made earlier, in March, solely Marks knew, he mentioned.
It sounded potential. Maybe the loans, very like Schrödinger’s cat, could be each pretend and actual on the identical time, if the cash got here in in some unspecified time in the future after March 2022.
It was additionally potential that George was mendacity to my face.
He was unusually compelling in our conversations. However simply as odd was the cognitive dissonance of being misled so overtly.
I got here to consider him a bit of like Wile E. Coyote operating off a cliff — in a position to hold from falling as long as his legs saved transferring.
One thing to consider
In one in all our first conversations, I had talked about to George that for a lot of the final 12 months, The Occasions had requested me to put aside my common Albany protection to cowl him.
He introduced this up a number of instances in subsequent calls, chiding me for areas through which he felt my work was poor — like once I took a number of days off earlier this month and missed his media blowup involving a Jewish peace activist and an unidentified child.
“You’re taking off on the flawed week,” he informed me. “I had absolutely the existential meltdown of anger yesterday, one thing that I by no means show.”
The person had approached Santos within the Home whereas he was holding the unidentified child, and requested what the congressman was doing about Israel’s bombing in Gaza. Issues escalated shortly. George, a staunch defender of Israel who has made debatable claims of Jewish heritage, quickly was screaming on the man, calling him “human scum.”
He mentioned that he had felt cornered and weak as a result of he was holding a child. “It was scary,” he informed me.
I used to be reminded of one in all our early conversations, once I requested him if he would ever take into account resigning, simply to make the circuslike consideration cease.
He dismissed the concept out of hand.
Not solely did he must help his household, he mentioned, however he cherished being a congressman. He cherished working with folks. And of all the issues he has mentioned, that is the one that’s most plausible.
Regardless of being excluded from Home committees and rejected by a lot of his local people, Santos has solid forward, introducing greater than 40 payments.
He has given dozens of speeches on the ground of the Home and attended native occasions, as if possibly, if he saved on message, a day would come when folks stopped asking whether or not he had stolen from a dying canine.
And why not? From an early age, he has been manifesting a life like this for himself — a lifetime of consequence and energy. Now that he’s made it, why let it go?
“Me leaving workplace doesn’t finish this, this will likely be for the remainder of my life,” he informed me in that first name.
Even when he was to resign, it’s unlikely that his authorized issues would go away. One of many newer prices, aggravated id theft, carries a two-year necessary minimal sentence. He’s set to be arraigned on the brand new prices on the finish of this month.
Resigning would additionally do little to ease the burden of being George Santos — his exploits serving as tabloid fodder, his identify a punchline. Certainly, stepping away out of the highlight would accomplish little for him — significantly if the highlight is the place he needs to stay.
“In workplace I even have a platform,” he informed me. “I’ve a voice.”
Once I informed George I might be writing a narrative about our conversations, he reacted angrily. I attempted to guarantee him that we might be honest and that the article may really serve his objective: to get his genuine voice on the market.
He mentioned that he would by no means communicate to me once more.
Ashley Southall and Michael Gold contributed reporting.
Audio produced by Sarah Diamond.