How Is George Santos Different from Donald Trump?
How does George Santos lie? Let us count the ways.
It is far too easy to mock Santos. His serial fantasies seem, in some ways, more amusing and frivolous than serious and dangerous. Who, after all, lies about being a volleyball star? If you are going to lie, go big—at least claim to be a basketball star.
But mocking Santos in this way both trivializes his rampant criminality and obscures his potent symbolism. Santos is not just a criminal in his own right; he is also a Donald Trump Mini-Me, exemplifying the intersection of the “Big Lie” form of politics and serial criminality. In his indictment, there are lessons to learn about both the degradation of politics and the limits of criminal law’s ability to resist that degradation.
Some of Santos’s alleged criminality is almost prosaic. Prosecutors allege that in June 2020, during the early months of the COVID pandemic, Santos sought unemployment benefits in New York, even though he was employed by a Florida investment firm (apparently, Harbor City Capital) earning a salary of $120,000 annually. If these facts are proven true, Santos is little more than a garden-variety crook trying to scam the federal government.
The more notable allegations involve Santos’s fundraising activities during his campaign for Congress. Santos is alleged to have personally profited from a fraud involving his solicitation of contributions to assist in his congressional campaign. Election finance law allows the creation of a tax-exempt organization under section 501(c)(4) of the tax laws for the purpose of making independent expenditures on behalf of a candidate. Because these independent organizations have only limited obligations to disclose the sources of their funding, they are considered an effective and useful way of influencing elections without too much public exposure.
But to be lawful, the 501(c)(4) organization has to be an actual non-profit and spend money independently to advance a candidates’ campaign. According to the prosecutors, in Santos’s case, neither happened. The company in question appears to be a for-profit Florida company named RedStone Strategies, and the money collected was sent to Santos’s personal bank accounts where he used the money to buy luxury designer clothing and pay part of his outstanding car loan, among other things.
In other words, even though Santos and those who worked for him told the contributors that the money would pay for political ads to advance Santos’s campaign, Santos instead put the money in his own pocket and used it for his personal benefit. The lies that Santos told by email and by text are at the heart of the criminal wire fraud charges against him. And transferring $74,000 from the company to his own personal account is said to be evidence of laundering the criminal proceeds for his own benefit.
Again, a simple fraud—a lie told in an effort to separate the rubes from their money. But this time it is a crime with larger political implications, not because of Santos, but because of how his alleged crimes mimic Trump and those around him. In 2019, a New York judge ordered Trump to pay $2 million because money Trump raised supposedly for veterans actually went to his presidential campaign. The House January 6th Committee uncovered that money Trump raised for his “legal defense” (i.e., his efforts in court to overturn the 2020 election) actually went to a political action committee. Former Trump advisor Steve Bannon was charged with fraud for raising money putatively to building a wall on the southern border, then pocketing it.
Special Counsel Jack Smith is said to be gathering evidence about whether or not Trump’s team solicited donations with false claims of election fraud. The idea is that Trump lost the 2020 election and that he knew he had lost. At least two outside consulting firms hired by the Trump team investigated those claims and reported to the Trump team that his claims of election fraud were not supported by any evidence.
It appears, however, that notwithstanding their knowledge that the election was lost fair and square, Trump’s Save America PAC solicited and received hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from donors via email solicitations that claimed the election had been stolen. In much the same way that Santos’s lies soliciting funds came to form the basis of charges against him, one can readily imagine that emails sent out to small-dollar donors saying, in effect, “send us $25 so we can prove that Trump won the election” would likewise be subject to potential fraud charges if those who crafted them or who directed that they be sent knew that it would not be possible to prove the election claims.
To be sure, there are differences in the two cases. Fund-raising solicitations are well-known for the proliferation of vague, unprovable, and overblown claims. It is no crime, for example, for Trump to say, “elect me and I will cut taxes,” even if he knows he cannot achieve that goal. Whether or not Trump’s solicitations crossed the line from grandiose puffery to criminal fraud depends on the precise phrasing of the solicitations, how they were perceived by the victims who donated funds, and the depth of the knowledge of falsity held by those who sent the emails. These are all questions that need to be further examined.
And, likewise, unlike Santos (and Bannon), there is, as yet, no evidence that Trump put the money in his own pocket. So the personal profit motive that Santos is facing may not be present in a Trump-related case. Those differences may well matter in the end.
Or they may not. The charges against Santos, like those against Bannon, are a template for potential charges involving the Trump campaign. While personal profit is a robust motivation, so is maintaining the narcissistic fiction of a stolen election. Whatever the motivation, it is a crime to lie to those from whom you solicit money.
Bannon was pardoned by Trump for that crime. Santos faces criminal charges. Both are Trumpian fraudsters on a smaller scale. And so, perhaps, the Santos case is a trial run for these types of allegations. If so, Trump may yet face fraud charges as well.