David Remnick: In the Trump years were a frenzy of daily deliberate fabrication. Perhaps the revelations about Congressman George Santos is self-fashionings aren't as shocking to us as they should be, but you've got to give him credit. His lies are extra. They've ranged from the injuries he got on a college volleyball team, by the way, a sport he never played at a college he never attended to alleged criminal misrepresentation on campaign finance. He's gone from punch line to pariah even in his own party.
Speaker 2: He's a national joke, he is an international joke but these jokes got to go.
Speaker 3: He is a stain on the House of Representatives. He's a stain on the third congressional district.
Speaker 4: Mr. Santos, haven't you done enough harm?
David: Most of us first learned about Santos from reporting in the pages of the New York Times but the story really emerged months earlier in a newspaper called The North Shore Leader. They were sounding the alarm. Except nobody really heard it. Staff writer Clare Malone, who covers the media and politics wanted to find out how the story actually started.
Clare Malone: I went out to Long Island to meet with Grant Lally, who is the publisher of The North Shore Leader and also with Maureen Daly who is the managing editor of the paper. Yes, I'm Claire Malone. Are you Maureen?
Maureen Daly: I am.
Clare: Maureen, lovely to meet you.
Maureen: [unintelligible 00:01:32] How are you?
Clare: I'm good.
Maureen: We're probably going to bring you into the conference room. Do you mind if I go ahead?
Speaker 7: No, wherever you want to go?
David: Clare. What is The North Shore Leader? What kind of paper is it?
Clare: The North Shore Leader serves kind of a wealthy pretty white suburban area of Long Island, and it has about a circulation of 5000. It's pretty small.
Grant Lally: This is a cutting edge story about a Christmas tree lighting.
Clare: It says Merry Christmas Happy Holidays across the top [unintelligible 00:02:00]
Grant: I believe this is the Oyster Bay. Downtown Oyster Bay Main Street associations holiday celebration. They have a-
Clare: Your four lead stories are World Cup Party, Thieves Are Very Busy, New Year's Eve and Glen Cove and Bayville Lights The Menorah.
Grant: That's it. These are locally. I mean, in our I guess our top story inside is, The Leader Told You So. It said, The Leader Told You So: US Rep Elect George Santos is a Fraud and Wanted Criminal and we published this just a couple of days after the Times piece came out.
David: Along with the menorah lighting, they're watching the local politics pretty carefully.
Clare: Yes. Grant Lally, the publisher is a lawyer by trade, but he is also someone who's in politics. He's run it three times for the same congressional seat that George Santos is now sitting in, and Grant is pretty connected and involved in local Republican politics out there. I've already spotted two Reagan bus, how many more?
Grant: That was actually my dad did that.
Maureen: His dad sculpt it.
Grant: My dad sculpt it. That one he didn't do.
Clare: The Teddy Roosevelt as well.
Grant: He had a sculpture manufacturer company one time.
Clare: The paper has endorsed Democrats before. They endorsed incumbent Tom Suozzi for this seat previously who is a Democrat. In 2022, the paper endorsed Robert Zimmerman who was Santos's Democratic opponent.
Grant: When my dad bought the paper, there was somebody and she passed away, but she came with the papers. She was Tom Suozzi's babysitter when he was a baby.
We could never endorse against Tom Suozzi.
Clare: When did you first become aware of George Santos?
Grant: I got a telephone call from a someone who had helped me out in my campaign and said she was working with George Santos, and could we please meet and have lunch.
Clare: What year is this?
Grant: Oh, this was January of 2020. It was down the street at the Carl Place diner. I went down, I had lunch with him. George Santos was sitting back glowing in the attention, and he was bizarre, would be the best description. He was very boastful and very evasive. I had run for this seat before, and we have the newspaper, so it was a dual role. He was looking for help and support and advice and at the same time, it wasn't an interview, but I was sizing him up for coverage in the future.
I mean, I asked him at the time, I had friends from Brazil. I know a bit about Brazilian society, and he boasted about his finance by being in finance and being a very successful wealthy financier. He was only 32 at the time. Maybe 31 at the time, very young, bragging about his millions. It didn't click. It didn't mesh with truthfulness.
Clare: I noticed that you guys didn't endorse him in 2020.
Clare: Did you know anything was concretely amiss or was it more just a feeling?
Grant: He was not a serious candidate in 2020. I mean, it was Tom Suozzi. It was the same district I ran in, but Tom Suozzi was well established. He was the former county executive. Santos really ran that year as a throwaway, as a non-serious candidate. He was just some guy running and he was Brazilian, and nobody's ever run a Brazilian before.
It was almost like an outreach candidate. Let's see what he can do and he was openly gay. I think he's the first person that ran in the county who was openly gay. It was really, let's give him a shot. Let's see what he can do but no one at any level expected him to be competitive or certainly not to win.
Clare: Sure. Fast forward two years. Redistricting that happens with the third district.
Grant: Two things. This is actually the key to the whole thing this year, is everyone expects meeting everyone, all the political pros, all the political people expected that you have a one party democratic government in New York State and looking at any time you have a one-party government, in any state, they will redistrict the lines to favor their party. It's called gerrymandering.
In February of 2022, the legislature came out with a map that was heavily gerrymandered to favor the Democrats. The governor signed it and this district, the third district went from a three county reasonably competitive seat into a five county completely noncompetitive seat that wrapped around through Queens up through the Bronx, along the shore in Westchester and then for whatever, I still want to know who designed it, but sent shot a tentacle up to Westchester airport. Got to Westchester airport, went halfway down the runway and stopped. It was not a competitive seat. He wanted to run for it and nobody else wanted to.
Clare: Just to clarify, not competitive, favoring Democrats.
Grant: It was a democratic seat, no Republican could have won it. It doesn't matter whether red wave here or no red wave here that was a democratic seat. He's running for it. No other candidate filed and then the New York State Court of Appeals, the top court issued a decision throwing out the map claiming it was too partisan, and that they also have not followed the proper procedures under New York law for redistricting commission to meet. Basically, people boycotted and didn't allow the commission to meet.
The Court of Appeals threw it out said there's no time. Legislature is actually enjoined and barred from trying to weigh in at that point and the court issued a brand-new map for New York State.
Clare: At that point, the Republican Party around here has already canceled a local primary and George Santos is the presumed candidate.
Grant: They gave a very short window about 10 days for if anyone else wants to jump in and wager primary, you have 10 days to stand up a congressional campaign, raise $1 million dollars, go out and collect 2000 signatures.
Clare: Grant, did you consider it?
Grant: I talked to a few people, because I could see instantly that the new district was a marginally Republican district.
Clare: I was browsing the website and I saw there's one headline mass thugs rob store in Huntington, national crime. Was crime a big issue out here? What were the things that were resonating with Republican voters?
Maureen: I think crime definitely was. The biggest stories are the local, often the students the success stories, but I'd say the second most important thing to the readers is the crime.
Clare: For listeners who would be unfamiliar, can you talk a little bit about the issues that that George Santos brought up or was it mostly he had an interesting biography. I mean, what was it about Santos that resonated over the Democrat-
Grant: What was interesting was, he really didn't run, and this is part of what we saw, which really, nobody else, frankly, even in other parts of the region saw is that there was no campaign. I mean, he did nothing. There was not a campaign office open, not a lawn sign printed or put on a lawn, not a mailer sent to people's homes, not a TV commercial on television, not a radio ad on radio, nothing until Labor Day.
If you walked around in August, you have no idea. You had no idea who this George Santos is, you wouldn't even know his name. This is what we saw. We pulled his campaign filings, his campaign finance disclosures, and he claimed to have already spent over $1 million dollars on a congressional campaign. Some people run entire congressional campaigns on $1 million dollars or less. He, by August, doing with nothing claims he already spent $1 million dollars. That was a disconnect that we saw and we said, there's something really wrong here.
Maureen: It's like, "What did you do with the $1 million we gave you last week? Where did it go?" You do look at the filings. What is great with the FEC and with our system is you do have to record everything up to that $199.99. That can go without being detailed. There were so many expenses that were just $199.99. I don't have to tell you what I spent that on. That's just a red flag that says, "Wait a second here. You can't be buying everything for $199.99."
Grant: We heard story after story after story about him doing bizarre things about bragging about his mansions.
Clare: You hear the story and you say--
Grant: We hear the stories and we know everybody, meaning we know a lot of people in the district. Santos would tell one lie to one person, another lie to another person. We would hear from the both of those people, compare notes and realize he's making all of this up. He's a total liar. When you know he's a total liar, then you start looking more closely. Look, he was so well known, at least in the more active political circles, to be a liar that by early summer he was already being called George Scamtos.
Clare: Did you talk to Democrats about the weirdness with Santos?
Grant: The DCCC the Democratic posted a, I thought very weak bit of research on Santos. We looked at that, it was about 75 pages or so, but most of it was pretty much boilerplate. It raised a lot of the questions that we had, but didn't really provide answers. He put down in February of 2022 that he loaned his campaign. He personally loaned his campaign $700,000. Now, this is a guy who had no assets, zero assets just 18 months before and that was disclosed in his 2020 personal financial disclosures plus--
Clare: They made $55,000 a year.
Grant: Yes. They made $55,000. Where did $1.5 million dollars in earnings come from?
Clare: By the way, do we know anything about that $700,000?
Grant: Look, I suspect, my suspicion is that it's fake, that he just put it down. It never happened. He put it down on the reports to try to enhance himself so he could go to wealthy people on the North Shore tell them he's Jewish and tell them all sorts of lies and say, "I really need money and I'm in. I put $700,000 of my own money in. I'm wealthy like you are, but I really need your help too."
Clare: How did this blatant of a lie happen? Does some fault come to the local GOP where they just never--
Grant: Congressional campaigns are by law separate legal entities. The local parties cannot--finance cannot control congressional campaigns.
Clare: The story comes out in September. What's the reaction? What do you hear?
Grant: Different reactions. Some people said, "Oh, we knew this all along. This is not surprising. George Scamtos. We've been calling him that already." Some people said, "Yes, we understand it." Other people were hostile. We got a lot of negative pushback from some local Republican party officials.
Maureen: We had people outraged. What are you attacking our own for? We will still get that. We're hearing them on social media and all. "This was a Republican, why would you say anything against him?" The truth is the truth. We didn't write his history. He did. We exposed it. Yes. There was some feedback from the party, from lifelong people who work to get people elected their whole life volunteered, and all that. There was a bit of, you shouldn't have done this.
Clare: This is a bigger question, but like, we're obviously in the era of super partisan politics. There's a lot of very Republican towns out here. What makes a Republican truly unelectable?
Grant: If they knew in June what they know now, he would never been the nominee. He was running as a sacrificial candidate. When really was hard to find anyone else to run, and then suddenly the New York State Court of Appeals transforms what was a--
Clare: Transform Cannon fodder into a Congressman.
Grant: Yes. From Cannon fodder into a congressman. That's a great-- I like that.
Clare: There you go.
Grant: I like that. That's great.
Clare: That's the movie title.
Did the story just not get traction in the way that you thought it might?
Grant: Well, Robert Zimmerman called. I know he tried very hard when we put these stories out to promote the stories to the daily newspapers. I don't know exactly what he did. He told me at one point he said 85,000 social media blasts out and he sent daily reports on what we had reported to the major daily newspapers.
Clare: As a media reporter, to me that's very interesting. You write the story in September, the Democratic candidate is aware of it. You get some pushback from local Republicans. The guy still wins in November. December comes and the New York Times publishes this investigation to Santos that has some of the stuff that you guys had but also goes a little further of lying about jobs, lying about a pet charity.
Grant: It was great journalism. The New York Times did great work on this. It's also reflective that if you have the resources and you can put a team of reporters, you can do the research and the background research and dig up these materials. This wasn't an easy bit of reporting. This was reporting in the United States and reporting in Brazil.
Clare: When you saw that story, was there, or when you saw it, Maureen, was there any saltiness or, "Oh, I wish we could have pushed it harder," or was it, "Oh, okay."
Grant: No, I was actually very happy to see it come out because it really vindicated us because George Santos was running around telling people openly that he was going to sue us and he was going to shut us down for having published the expose that we published on him.
Clare: Did you ever have any worry about that?
Grant: No. Everything was well-sourced and we had backup for everything we said.
Clare: Did you ever hear from George Santos after that original September story or just through the--
Grant: I have not spoken to George Santos and he would not even speak to us after we endorsed Tom Suozzi in 2020.
Clare: Have you guys talked to the New York Times? The people who broke the story?
Grant: Yes. I've spoken to Grace Ashford.
Clare: You weren't credited in that story. Was there any bad feeling about that?
Grant: It's a competitive world. I'm glad that they followed through on the story we started. It would've been nice to be credited.
Clare: To that end, you guys have been doing a lot of press around this story.
Grant: Oh my God, it's killing me. It's just killing me.
Clare: Is it helping subscribership or circulation at all?
Grant: Definitely the newspaper's gotten a lot of attention and good attention. It's actually very gratifying to get that.
Maureen: The social media is just blowing out of the water. We're just constantly getting new subscribers, new followers, and great comments. Great follow-up direct messages congratulating us and thanking us for doing the story.
Grant: It is disappointing that George Santos was elected, even though we had exposed these massive issues with him. He actually trailed Lee Zeldin by three to four points. Behind Lee Zeldin in this district. Lee Zeldin got almost 58% in this district. He got 54%. It did have an impact. The shame of it is, a lot of people just vote reflexively. They just vote one party or the other and so they say you could run anyone or anything on a ballot, and they would still get 40% of the vote because people don't think about it.
Clare: The depth and breadths of the lies are so tremendous. What does this say about us that this guy has got all the way into Congress?
Maureen: I think it says basically we want to believe and we're always looking for that person to fulfill the-- check all the boxes for us. Maybe that's unrealistic. I come from Brooklyn, so we have that kind of-- if it's too good, it's too good.
Clare: What was the Ed Koch thing you were saying earlier?
Maureen: Oh, well, Ed Koch always said that pick your top 10 issues if you agree with me on six of them vote for me, if you agree with me on 10, have your head examined.
Clare: Have you noticed that people read less local news? Is it about the same? Has there been any change?
Grant: I think they read about the same. We have a really loyal readership. Our website traffic is up 31,000%, I think.
Maureen: It's amazing.
Grant: Somebody asked me, I said, "Well, I know there's smoke coming out of the server."
David: Grant Lally and Maureen Daly of The North Shore Leader. Claire Malone covers the media for The New Yorker. Now, Claire, as we follow the Santos news, the daily pile-up of fabrications is glorious. I just wonder if you see his rise to Congress as a Trump-related phenomenon or is he merely pathological?
Claire: I certainly think that George Santos perhaps thought that he could-- Maybe Donald Trump and his world-famous fibbing of gave George Santos a permission structure to say, "Well listen, people who are Republican partisans are going to vote for a Republican." I think the difference is Donald Trump is an ingrained famous character in the US culture for the past, who knows? 40, 50 years, and George Santos is a no-one's-ever-heard-of-him guy.
I do think it still does matter I think to Republicans if someone comes out and they've just made up from whole cloth their resume, but I do think that the oddly permissive structure that the Republican Party has created for candidates on a gamut of issues, ranging from domestic abuse to allegations of sex trafficking, lots of crazy stuff that's popped up in politics over the past few years, I think maybe Santos thought, "Eh, who's going to check?"
David: You can find Claire Malone's reporting at newyorker.com. This is The New Yorker Radio Hour. More to come.
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