It was just after noon on an early September Saturday when the first call came.
It already had been an unusual day. Typically, I’d be tackling a project or cajoling my wife into a day hike near our home in upstate New York. Instead I was in a hotel room in Philadelphia, having just finished a journalism panel on political disinformation — a topic I knew well after nearly a year of covering George Santos.
And then his name appeared on my caller ID.
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“This is George Santos. I hear you’ve been trying to get a hold of me.”
It was true. I had been trying to get hold of him in one way or another since last November, when my colleague Michael Gold and I were first assigned to look into the incoming Republican congressman from Long Island and Queens. We quickly found ourselves down a rabbit hole of secrets and lies.
Six weeks later, The New York Times published our exposé that revealed how the congressman had falsified his background on the campaign trail.
Lies, Charges and Questions Remaining in the George Santos Scandal
George Santos has told so many stories they can be hard to keep straight. We cataloged them, including major questions about his personal finances and his campaign fund-raising and spending.
By now, the biographical fictions are well known: the jobs at Citigroup and Goldman Sachs that he never had, the Baruch and N.Y.U. degrees he never obtained and the volleyball team he never played on. There were also unresolved fraud charges in Brazil — a precursor to what would soon follow.
Santos now faces 23 felony counts — including 10 new ones added earlier this month — for a variety of financial schemes, many of which involve his campaign. He has pleaded not guilty.
But even as I spent the better part of the past year covering every dimension of his campaign and criminal trial — poring over his campaign filings, watching every interview and ringing up his old colleagues, family members, lovers and friends — I had never had an actual conversation with the man.
This was not for a lack of trying. Michael and I made numerous attempts to reach him, calling or texting him directly and leaving messages with his lawyer and staff members. Michael rang the doorbell at his listed address, only to find that he hadn’t lived there for months.
I did catch him on the phone once, but the call abruptly ended when he heard my name. He called back a minute later to clarify that he does not “hang up on people,” but assured me he would not be answering my questions, now or ever.
Mr. Santos has made more public appearances since his federal indictment, and has begun to give more interviews, including to The Times’s Grace Ashford, left center.Credit…Johnny Milano for The New York Times
His silence left me feeling a bit like a landlocked oceanographer. I knew his birthday, his dog’s name, his verbal tics and tendencies, but I couldn’t get to the man himself.
Suddenly, all that changed.
Roughly half a dozen phone calls followed — often initiated by him, sometimes by me — that cast me headfirst into the ocean. Combative and collegial in equal measure, they teased answers to the questions I’d spent a year of my life asking.
“Am I ever gonna be your friend? No,” he told me on that first Saturday. He would go on to make clear that he held me personally responsible for much of his misfortune, and was no fan of The Times.
Over time, his stance softened.
“Were you a piece of annoyance in my life for a while?” he asked on a call about a month later. Absolutely, he answered, inserting a profanity into the word.
“But I don’t wish you harm; I don’t wish you ill.”
The conversations touched on his criminal case, his political beliefs, his preferred gift at a baby shower, both of our pets and the many, many people who have wronged him.
We called each other by our first names. The conversations were on the record, except for a few instances where he stipulated that he was speaking on background or off the record.
I came to know his sense of humor and his penchant for working on the weekends, his positivity and charm. And the more we spoke, I came to know something else as well: the peculiar experience of being confided in and lied to at the same time.
The first call
For an instant I was frozen, seeing his name on my phone. Then my journalistic instincts kicked into gear.
“I’m hearing some murmurings that you might be about to negotiate a plea deal,” I told him.
“Wild rumors,” he spat back.
I explained what I’d heard about prosecutors using the leverage of additional evidence or even charges to pressure defendants into pleading.
“That’s not what’s happening,” he said.
I was beginning to wonder why he had called.
“Is there anything else? I would love your perspective on the reporting about the case itself, anything you think we’re missing …”
This time he barely let me get the question out.
“I think the reporting, on all ends, of every single journalist in this country has been bad,” he said, before launching into a list of what he considered the low points. There were the allegations that he had stolen a scarf, the accounts of his falsely telling people he was a journalist and the reports that he was being propped up by Russian or Chinese oligarchs. And, of course, his past as a supposed drag queen.
“I do drag for a freakin’ festival in Brazil, and now I have a career!” he exclaimed.
He was particularly preoccupied by the claim that he stole money meant to benefit a dying dog, repeatedly insisting that he had never met the man who accused him of the theft and claiming to have evidence that he was not reliable. (The Times has reviewed text messages which appear to show that at the very least, the two had been in contact.)
He went on to find fault with the people Michael and I had spoken to for our initial article, which he said contained “a lot of factual and timeline errors.”
(When I requested specifics, he would only say that his team had requested numerous corrections, all of them ignored. Our standards team, which typically receives requests for corrections, found none from Santos or his representatives.)
He took aim at specific individuals in journalism and politics, who he said had slandered him with concocted tales that would live forever in print and online searches.
“As a journalist, and quite frankly, as a journalist who wrote the very first story about me, how does that even make you feel?” he asked me.
It was a good question.
Our reporting on his campaign’s financial irregularities and unorthodox fund-raising has been followed up on by good government groups and law enforcement.
Still, very few people had heard of George Santos when Michael and I started making calls. Two months later, he was being parodied on “Saturday Night Live,” his life suddenly open to ridicule and threats.
Some of the coverage and commentary has taken on a meanspirited tone, mocking his appearance and sexuality. He has received death threats — the most virulent from a Florida man, described in reports as a gay rights activist, who left Santos a voice mail message promising to bash his “head in with a bat” until his brain was splattered across the wall. The man, who also threatened Santos’s husband and used an anti-gay slur, is now facing federal criminal charges in the Southern District of Florida.
“We’ve had to defend ourselves,” he told me.
“That’s horrible. I’m really sorry to hear that, George,” I said.
“I’ll give you one, I’ll give you one story that nobody talks about,” he replied, before telling me how his 5-year-old niece disappeared from a playground in Queens, only to be located 40 minutes later on a surveillance camera with two Chinese men.
He said the incident was the subject of an active police investigation, implying heavily that it might have been in retaliation for his vocal stance against the Chinese Communist Party.
“So you think it was China?” I asked, clarifying.
“Look, I don’t want to go into like, conspiracy theory,” he said. “But you know, if the shoe fits, right?”
In all, the first call lasted just under 45 minutes. I was in a daze for the rest of the day wondering if all that had really just happened, and why. Was it frustration that had led him to reach out, or curiosity?
There was one other question that was bothering me as well: his story about the Chinese Communist Party kidnapping. I reached out to a colleague with connections to law enforcement officials to learn more about the investigation.
A high-ranking police official confirmed that officers had been called and had looked into the incident. But they found no evidence of Chinese Communist Party involvement, or of any kidnapping at all.
“We found nothing at all to suggest it’s true,” the official said. “I’d lean into, ‘he made it up.’”
‘I’m running toward you guys now’
I initiated the second call a week later, catching him on his way to a migrant shelter outside Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens where, weeks earlier, he appeared at a protest.
The appearance was part of a post-indictment strategy to court attention in nearly any way possible — news conferences, Twitter Spaces, protests, even a town-hall gathering — to talk about anything except himself.
After some pleasantries, we got down to business.
“What do you need from me?” he asked.
I told him that I’d been wondering why he called me last week.
“Oh, that’s a great question,” he replied. “It’s because I’m running toward you guys now. I’m not running away from you guys.”
He had been silent too long, he told me, and allowed false narratives to take hold. The trouble was, now that he had the time, he was having trouble getting the attention.
“My name is not as very convenient for clicks as it was in January or February,” he said wryly.
Soon enough he was arriving at his destination and bid me a polite goodbye.
But he called me back later that evening to make sure that we were finished. Over the coming weeks, he would call me a handful more times to discuss the day’s political maneuverings and to rage at his critics — many of whom, he said, were not themselves above reproach.
It got so that my wife would come to know his voice on the other end of the phone. When he would call, she would roll her eyes, knowing that whatever we were doing would have to wait. George was calling.
Santos defends himself
In most of our conversations, Santos remained fiercely, even relentlessly, positive. But not all the time.
“I literally threw my entire life into the toilet and flushed it to get elected,” he told me, quickly adding that he would do it all over again.
Well, not all of it.
In his telling, he is guilty only of surrounding himself with the wrong people. He spreads the blame among back-stabbing consultants and unscrupulous campaign aides.
There was Samuel Miele, who was indicted in August on charges of impersonating a staffer of the former House 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 found out.
He is more bitter about his now-soured relationship with his campaign treasurer, Nancy Marks.
He maintains that she is to blame for any and all campaign finance issues. He maintains he was her victim, as the recipient of criminally negligent advice at best, embezzlement at worst.
“I was never even a signer on a single bank account,” he said once, using an expletive for emphasis. “I didn’t have the power, or card, to go in the bank and say, ‘Give me five bucks.’”
He insists that most of the federal charges against him are a collection of mistakes and misunderstandings, many of them caused by his treasurer’s dishonesty or incompetence.
“I am ready to prove my innocence,” he told me. “People think that I’m just going to get steamrolled. No, I’m going to prove my innocence.”
Marks has complicated that plan. Earlier this month, she pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy, saying that she and Santos filed falsified campaign reports with fictional donations and a fake $500,000 personal loan from Santos to his campaign.
In one of our conversations, before her indictment and the second round of charges, I asked him outright about the loans and whether he was worried that she might testify against him.
“All the money is legitimate,” he assured me. “All the money came from me, period.”
In a subsequent conversation, he tried to clarify that only the timing was wrong. He said he made the $500,000 loan to his campaign in September and October 2022. Why campaign finance reports indicated the loan was made earlier, in March, only Marks knew, he said.
It sounded possible. Perhaps the loans, much like Schrödinger’s cat, might be both fake and real at the same time, if the money came in at some point after March 2022.
It was also possible that George was lying to my face.
He was strangely compelling in our conversations. But just as odd was the cognitive dissonance of being misled so brazenly.
I came to think of him a little like Wile E. Coyote running off a cliff — able to keep from falling so long as his legs kept moving.
Something to believe
In one of our first conversations, I had mentioned to George that for much of the last year, The Times had asked me to set aside my usual Albany coverage to cover him.
He brought this up several times in subsequent calls, chiding me for areas in which he felt my work was deficient — like when I took a few days off earlier this month and missed his media blowup involving a Jewish peace activist and an unidentified baby.
“You’re taking off on the wrong week,” he told me. “I had the absolute existential meltdown of anger yesterday, something that I never display.”
The man had approached Santos in the House while he was holding the unidentified baby, and asked what the congressman was doing about Israel’s bombing in Gaza. Things escalated quickly. George, a staunch defender of Israel who has made debatable claims of Jewish heritage, soon was screaming at the man, calling him “human scum.”
He said that he had felt cornered and vulnerable because he was holding a baby. “It was scary,” he told me.
I was reminded of one of our early conversations, when I asked him if he would ever consider resigning, just to make the circuslike attention stop.
He dismissed the idea out of hand.
Not only did he need to support his family, he said, but he loved being a congressman. He loved working with people. And of all of the things he has said, this is the one that is most believable.
Despite being excluded from House committees and rejected by much of his local community, Santos has forged ahead, introducing more than 40 bills.
He has given dozens of speeches on the floor of the House and attended local events, as though maybe, if he kept on message, a day would come when people stopped asking whether he had stolen from a dying dog.
And why not? From an early age, he has been manifesting a life like this for himself — a life of consequence and power. Now that he’s made it, why let it go?
“Me leaving office doesn’t end this, this will be for the rest of my life,” he told me in that first call.
Even if he was to resign, it is unlikely that his legal problems would go away. One of the newer charges, aggravated identity theft, carries a two-year mandatory minimum sentence. He is set to be arraigned on the new charges at the end of this month.
Resigning would also do little to ease the burden of being George Santos — his exploits serving as tabloid fodder, his name a punchline. Indeed, stepping away out of the spotlight would accomplish little for him — particularly if the spotlight is where he wants to remain.
“In office I actually have a platform,” he told me. “I have a voice.”
When I told George I would be writing a story about our conversations, he reacted angrily. I tried to assure him that we would be fair and that the article might actually serve his purpose: to get his authentic voice out there.
He said that he would never speak to me again.
Ashley Southall and Michael Gold contributed reporting.
Audio produced by Sarah Diamond.