The Talented Mr. Santos

george santos and his fabrications
“One person said to me there at 60 to 80 crazy people running. We can’t investigate them all,” Robert Zimmerman told Bill about his entreaties to the media to investigate George Santos. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
William D. Cohan
January 25, 2023

In the early morning hours of December 19, a month after the self-proclaimed redeemer George Santos pulled off his somewhat surprising victory in New York’s uber-wealthy 3rd congressional district, The New York Times published its first gangbusters, multi-bylined, report unraveling his various tall tales, lies, mistruths, and fabrications. Surprise, surprise, Santos had never worked at Goldman Sachs, nor Citigroup, nor was he Jewish. Nor did his mother die on 9/11, nor is his given name George Santos. It’s hard to keep up, to be honest.

Before he’d even been sworn in to support Kevin McCarthy’s narrow Republican majority in the House, Santos was already an enigma, seemingly spun-up by central casting as ready-made for a sublime Jon Lovitz send up. In November, he defeated candidate Robert Zimmerman by some 20,000 votes, 53.8 percent to 46.2 percent to carry a big chunk of Long Island’s so-called Gold Coast, including such tony north shore towns as Locust Valley, Syosset, Roslyn, Old Brookville and Oyster Bay, as well as parts of northeast Queens—a very prosperous district with a median household income of around $130,000 and population of about 750,000. 

Zimmerman had no idea the New York Times piece was coming. A friend texted him at 5:30 in the morning telling him about the story. He quickly read it online. He was dumbfounded. He had had his doubts about parts of the Santos biography but did not realize the full extent of his opponent’s deception until he read the article. “On one level I was thinking, ‘Thank goodness it finally got out’,” Zimmerman told me by phone recently. “And then I shouted into my pillow a couple of times, ‘Why didn’t this happen in October??!!’ I’m not gonna lie. But look, I’m not a journalist. I understand. My agenda shouldn’t be a journalist’s agenda. I get it.” He stared at the ceiling a few more times, wondering again why the story didn’t come out in October. He sighed. “We all knew nothing about this guy added up,” he continued. “This is not a master criminal. He’s a sociopath. And we all knew he was a liar. No one I think fully appreciated the fact that every aspect of his life was an entire lie. No one, I think, could grasp that in full. But you saw a lot of the issues where there clearly were lies.” 

Zimmerman said in the past month, since the Times article appeared 

—followed by the relentless coverage of Santos and his fabrications across nearly the entire media spectrum—he’s heard from all sorts of people wondering why he didn’t ferret out this saga about Santos on his own, before the election. “Everybody’s got a brother in law, a college buddy, a cousin who’s an expert in opposition research who could have cracked the case in a week,” he said. “You just accept that as sort of a reality of life. Everyone’s got a Monday morning quarterback.”

The problem, Zimmerman said, was how to document Santos’s lies. The campaign couldn’t do it, he said, because private institutions like Goldman Sachs, Baruch College, and NYU, where Santos claimed to have worked and attended school, weren’t going to provide information on his employment or attendance to a rival politician. “But if the media calls up and asks about a congressman-elect, they’re going to pay attention,” he said. 

Perhaps inadvisably in retrospect, Zimmerman told me that his campaign relied heavily during the general election on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s 87-page “research memo” about Santos, provided in July 2022, especially where the charges against him could be documented, such as his lies about his involvement in the January 6 insurrection—he actually attended Donald Trump’s speech and wrote a check to help get the insurrectionists out of jail but denied any involvement. He lied about his position on abortion and lied about his position on Social Security. 

“It laid out many important examples of where he lied and that was helpful to our campaign,” Zimmerman said. There were other instances where the D.C.C.C. report raised “red flags” about Santos but they were not well documented, including questions about a charity, past evictions, and about his finances, both how he was financing his campaign and about his personal income. (There was no mention in the D.C.C.C. report of Santos’s days as a drag queen in Brazil.)

Some have questioned why Zimmerman didn’t use some of the $3.1 million he raised in both the primary and general elections to hire a private investigator to do his own deep dive on Santos. But he told me it just wasn’t practical for his campaign to spend money tracking down every one of Santos’s claims since he had to refill his depleted coffers after the competitive primary and most of the $1.7 million he raised for the general election came in late. “We did what campaigns do in that situation,” he said. “We turned to the media to see if they could provide the investigative support to explore these issues… We were not in a position to send a team of people to Brazil to check into his past. We were not in a position to hire a genealogist to check out his Jewish ancestry. One person earnestly told me I should have hired a facial recognition expert. That may work in the movies but that’s not real life. Issues we could document we went after him on; issues we couldn’t, we turned to the press. And many people from the press were very sincere in wanting to help. But they made the point that, after a bit, they didn’t have the resources or the time or the personnel to address them. One person said to me ‘There are 60 to 80 crazy people running. We can’t investigate them all.’” 

“I Hope More Keeps Coming”

In any event, Zimmerman is glad the truth about Santos is now flooding out. I asked him what his life has been like since December 18. (Disclosure: I have known Zimmerman for years and donated to his primary campaign.) “It’s a campaign that never ends,” he replied. “But this is the most important part of the campaign. As much as I wanted to win, as much as I gave so much of my life to winning, right now it’s so much bigger than me. It is now about seeking accountability and justice for a crime and a fraud that Santos perpetrated against our democracy and against our district. It’s about getting him removed from Congress so we can have a new election. And hopefully the steps we take will lead to real changes in the way candidates are scrutinized both in political circles and beyond that.” (For his part, Santos has admitted finally to “embellishing his resume” and that he never graduated from college, nor did he work for Goldman Sachs or Citigroup. He insists that he did not commit “any crimes” and will not resign from Congress.) 

Since the revelations about Santos, Zimmerman told me he has been speaking at rallies in the district and in front of Democratic groups. He said he’s been “encouraged” by the “energy and activism,” he sees building in these Long Island communities. “We’re really building a bipartisan coalition to keep the pressure on removing him,” he continued. “Many of the local elected Republicans who claimed they didn’t know, they read the editorials in the North Shore Leader, they saw what was written in Newsday, and in Blank Slate Media. They didn’t ask questions. They didn’t raise any issues. The Republican leadership in Congress were accomplices to his crime because they know what he did. The Times has pointed out that a number of Republicans knew the story of this guy, knew that he was a fraud, but they didn’t care. They looked the other way.” 

He told me the story of going to a Martin Luther King Day interfaith service at a temple in Great Neck. There were about 700 people in the audience. Letitia James, the New York State Attorney General, was the guest speaker. Local celebrities were introduced and asked to stand, including Zimmerman. “I got such an ovation,” he said. “I literally stood up twice to acknowledge it. And then Tish James mentioned my name and said something about ‘He’s a congressman-in-waiting’ and I got another ovation. I just wasn’t expecting it. It really blew me away.”

He doesn’t know how this all will play out, of course. Clearly, McCarthy can’t take the political risk of expelling Santos from Congress and have either Zimmerman, or another Democrat, fill his vacant seat, by appointment or after a special election. McCarthy’s razor-thin Republican majority in the House augurs, sadly, for doing nothing about Santos, and his lies, for as long as politically possible. But Zimmerman is encouraged by the support he’s been getting from people in the 3rd District and by the public’s rabid desire to get to the bottom of Santos’s lies, and to have some accountability for them. “I’m very thankful that it’s finally coming out,” Zimmerman told me. “And I hope more keeps coming forward so that finally Santos is brought to justice and removed from Congress. This is not about just running for political office. This congressional district has been my home since I was nine years old. I grew up here. I still live here. I was educated locally here. I worked for members of Congress representing this district on Capitol Hill and locally. I built my business here. So to see a fraud committed and to see crimes committed by Santos against the people of our district, against our democracy, against the House of Representatives, an institution I hold with reverence, is very, very sad. It’s painful and it’s motivating.” 

After Zimmerman lost the election in November to Santos, he made a point of calling Santos to concede the race. He wanted to do that because—no surprise—Santos is an election denier and believed his own 2020 race against Democrat Tom Suozzi, which Suozzi won, was stolen from him. Santos even moved into an office in the House of Representatives after that election while the results were made official. (When he lost, Santos had to vacate the office.) Zimmerman wanted to make sure that Santos knew he was respecting the electoral process and the will of the people in the newly redrawn district. He made multiple efforts to speak to Santos on election night. But Santos never called him back. Zimmerman called Santos again the next day. His phone went to voicemail. Santos’s mailbox was full, understandably. 

He sent Santos a text message on November 9. “I want to congratulate you on your victory and wish you well in representing the people of our congressional district,” he wrote. A few days later, on Sunday, Santos texted him back. “I want to thank you for a hard fought race,” Santos wrote, “and I look forward to working together to bring back solutions for our people. We deserve so much better than a political divide happening in D.C.” 

A week later, on November 18, Santos texted Zimmerman some Happy Hanukkah wishes, you know, as one Jew-ish fellow to another, I guess. A month later, before sunrise, the front page article in the New York Times appeared.

This article has been updated.