It’s scandal season in Washington. (When is it ever not?) For weeks, the saga of George Santos, the incoming congressman from Long Island who faked just about everything, has provided a salacious mix of near-daily revelations and Republican squirming. In a town full of liars, the G.O.P. newcomer turns out to be truly world-class. His résumé was faked. His religion was a lie. He was not, it now seems clear, the grandchild of Holocaust survivors. (Well, he said, when challenged, he meant he was “Jew-ish,” not Jewish.) He did not graduate from college or work at Goldman Sachs. This week, we learned that he lied about his mother being at the Twin Towers on 9/11. He was even accused of stealing three thousand dollars from a GoFundMe that was set up to save a homeless veteran’s dying dog.
Multiple investigations have now been launched into various unanswered questions, such as where Santos, a Donald Trump superfan who listed no assets to speak of in 2020, got hundreds of thousands of dollars to loan his campaign two years later. On Thursday, Andrew Kaczynski, one of the reporters tracking down his trail of deceit, published a list of the different names that Santos went by in his various scams: Anthony Santos; George Santos; Anthony Devolder; George Anthony Devolder; George Devolder; George A.D. Santos; Anthony Zabrovsky; George Anthony Santos-Devolder. As a grifter, the thirty-four-year-old who may or may not have had an alternate life as a drag queen in Brazil puts even Trump and his old John Barron routine to shame.
But, with politics being what it is, House Republicans have decided to seat him as a member of Congress in good standing anyway. This week, despite the new disclosures, they offered him two committee assignments, on the Small Business and the Science, Space, and Technology panels. The explanation is simple math: Kevin McCarthy, the new House Speaker, has such a vanishingly small majority that he cannot afford to lose Santos’s vote. As far as McCarthy is concerned, Santos is a problem for the people of New York’s Third Congressional District to deal with in the next election.
The bigger problem, from McCarthy’s perspective, is that the Santos scandal is a distraction from all the other scandals—Democratic scandals—that Republicans hope to focus political attention on in 2023, using the considerable powers that come with their new control over the House. Call it payback, or revenge, or just politics as usual. Their list of targets includes the alleged “weaponization” against Trump and conservatives of the F.B.I., the Justice Department, and other parts of the federal government. It is such a sweeping conspiracy, according to Republican hard-liners, that they demanded, in exchange for their support in the Speakership race, that McCarthy devote an entire subcommittee to it. Other investigations unleashed in the name of congressional oversight are likely to place uncomfortable scrutiny on the Biden Administration’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan, its enforcement of border policies, and its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Also in the spotlight will be one of Trump’s great obsessions from his 2020 campaign: Hunter Biden’s laptop, which has become Republican shorthand for another sweeping conspiracy, this one involving the President’s son, alleged Ukrainian and Chinese influence-peddling, liberal-media complicity in the supposed coverup, and various additional matters that I either don’t understand or am forgetting. The transparent goal here is not to take down the President’s son; it is to go after the President himself. “This is an investigation of Joe Biden,” James Comer, the Kentucky Republican who is the new chairman of the House oversight committee, has said.
Biden, as everyone knows by now, has made himself a much bigger target in the past couple weeks, since it was revealed that he, like Trump, kept classified documents in his home and think-tank office after leaving the Vice-Presidency, in 2017. The President, who has mocked his congressional opponents as Trump-addled “ultra MAGA” extremists, will now have to answer their questions concerning why his situation differs from Trump’s. That awkward juxtaposition was made all the more problematic by Biden’s own decision, in a “60 Minutes” interview last September, to pop off at Trump for his conduct, without apparently having had the good sense to check first whether he, too, might be sitting on some top-secret papers. “How could anyone be that irresponsible?” Biden wondered back then. How indeed?
In the ten days since news of the classified documents was revealed to the public, neither Biden nor his advisers has done a remotely credible job of answering even basic questions: How many documents were found? Why did it take so long after Biden left office to find them? And why, once they were found in searches on November 2nd and December 20th, did it take so long to publicly reveal their existence? For the current state of Biden’s explanation, the Washington Post on Thursday offered this extensive report, which is long on detail but short, it seemed to me, on convincing excuses. A special counsel of the Justice Department has already been appointed to more authoritatively answer these questions—most important, whether any actual wrongdoing was involved or if it was, as Biden’s defenders have been quick to assert, simply sloppiness and disorganization. House Republicans have, of course, seized on the revelations to discredit both Biden and the ongoing probe of Trump’s classified stash at Mar-a-Lago. The Democratic response, meanwhile, can be mostly summed up by the loud groans that I’ve heard whenever the topic has come up. That, and lamentations along the lines of “How could they be so stupid?”
This Friday is the second anniversary of the Biden Presidency. For the most part, up until now, he has been more unlucky than stupid, with his tenure marked by interlocking crises that would sorely test any Chief Executive—including a lingering pandemic, highest-in-decades inflation, and a radicalized Republican Party that has refused to disavow Trump and his lies about the 2020 election. Democrats, for decades, have feared that conservative Justices on the Supreme Court would strike down Roe v. Wade, and with it the guarantee of women’s reproductive freedom. It finally happened on Biden’s watch. In Europe, Vladimir Putin has long threatened Russia’s neighbor Ukraine, but it was at the start of Biden’s second year in office that Putin unleashed the largest ground war in Europe since the Second World War.
Given such a dreary moment, the perennially upbeat Biden has come out of it not so badly. Even with a fifty-fifty Senate the last couple years, he managed to pass an array of sweeping legislation boosting spending on infrastructure, health care, and climate-change mitigation. He assembled and held together a bipartisan coalition to send billions of dollars in military assistance to Ukraine. He’s held off, for now, the threat of a recession.
If anything, Republican overreach has offered Biden a political path out of the morass, with the 2022 midterm results far less catastrophic than expected, at least in part because of the G.O.P.’s insistence on selecting Trump-backed extremists as nominees in battleground states. Trump himself has long been the most effective argument on Democrats’ behalf, and there is a reason this cartoonish con man became the first incumbent since Herbert Hoover to lose the House, Senate, and White House in just four years.
The past couple weeks, though, are a reminder that Democrats cannot simply count on Republican excess in the name of Trump to carry them through. A screwup is a screwup, and this one by Biden—whether or not it matters that much to voters, who often don’t care about the inside-the-Beltway scandals that obsess us Washingtonians—will go down at a minimum as an self-inflicted bit of political malpractice. The big news at the midway point of his Presidency is that Biden seems determined to run again, no matter how risky it may seem to put the fate of his Party—and the Republic—in the hands of a gaffe-prone octogenarian. His opponents are real-life insurrectionists. What if next time his luck really does run out? ♦