Op-Ed: Was George Santos Groomed to be a Russian Agent?
By Benjamin Frankel
The New York Times’ Michelle Cottle awarded the “2022’s Top Con Man” award to Congressman-Elect George Santos (R-NY3) — quickly adding: “If that’s even his real name…”
“Pick a campaign claim by the representative-elect from New York’s Third Congressional District, and chances are, it was false,” she wrote.
The controversial freshman lawmaker was sworn into the 118th Congress early Saturday morning amid unsettling admissions he defrauded voters in the run-up to a November victory and that most of the resume he presented to voters was nothing more than a concoction of lies.
The North Shore Leader newspaper was the first to report that among the multitude of falsehoods Santos has created, the most intriguing item – and likely the source of Santos’s most serious potential legal trouble – are his campaign finances.
“Given that much of Santos’s biography has apparently been fabricated, it’s possible the most troubling components of that fabrication — from a campaign finance perspective, anyway — have not yet been fully revealed,” stated Saurav Ghosh, the director of federal campaign finance reform for the Campaign Legal Center, told The Hill.
And one of the more troubling aspects of Santos’s campaign finances is the money he has received from individuals close to Russia’s president Vladimir Putin.
William Bredderman of the Daily Beast reported that the Santos campaigns of 2020 and 2022 have been the beneficiaries of generous contributions by Viktor Vekselberg, one of Putin’s wealthiest and most influential cronies.
Vekselberg’s money was funneled to Santos’s campaigns by Andrew Intrater and his wife. Intrater’s is Vekselberg cousin, and he has operated several US-based corporate entities, whose business is tightly intertwined with that of Vekselberg.
Intrater and his wife gave the failed 2020 Santos campaign $11,600 - the maximum contribution amount then allowed. But Federal donation limits would prove a small obstacle:
“Then - Starting in March 2021, Intrater and his wife began pouring tens of thousands of dollars into auxiliary committees backing Devolder-Santos: $20,000 directly to GADS PAC, a leadership political action committee bearing the candidate’s initials, plus $12,100 to Devolder Santos Nassau Victory — but that account made just two federal expenditures this cycle, the larger of them by far being the purchase of lawn signs supporting Devolder-Santos,” wrote Bredderman.
All this came on top of $12,400 Intrater gave the Devolder-Santos for Congress committee.
Bredderman writes that “Devolder-Santos was far and away the largest beneficiary of Intrater’s largesse this year. Further, Devolder-Santos’s committees are the only ones that received gifts from Intrater’s wife this cycle.”
Santos’s lies, his murky finances, and the fact that his two campaigns have received large sums of money from Russian oligarchs close to Putin, is cause of real alarm in the U.S. intelligence community.
“Every congressman has eligibility for access to classified information and that terrifies security professionals, because they haven’t been really reviewed for it,” Dan Meyer, now the managing director of the law firm Tully Rinckey’s Washington, D.C. office, told the New York Post. “We don’t know whether they’re a potential espionage threat.”
Brad Schwartz, a doctoral candidate of International Affairs at Johns Hopkins University, writes in The Island 360 that “Until his background and finances can be fully vetted and cleared, political expediencies should not continue to overlook the fact that his profile now objectively meets intelligence criteria for a suspected foreign agent or colluder. Lesser cases would prompt investigation into potential foreign operations or infiltration.”
Jim Geraghty writing in National Review summed it all up: “For all we know, some foreign power may have bought itself a congressman. This isn’t outlandish speculation.”
And it’s not an outlandish speculation because we now know that Russia has covertly given at least $300 million to political parties, officials, and politicians in more than two dozen countries since 2014, and plans to transfer hundreds of millions more, with the goal of exerting political influence and swaying elections.
This information is contained in a document which the State Department distributed to U.S. embassies in early fall, and which summarizes a recent U.S. intelligence review.
“The Kremlin and its proxies have transferred these funds in an effort to shape foreign political environments in Moscow’s favor,” the document said.
Russia has almost certainly given even more that has gone undetected, the document said.
That part of that money was likely directed to what the Leader called a “sketchy” candidate like Santos is not surprising. The State Department memo notes that, since 2014, Russia has supported populist politicians and movements all around the world.
The common thread is that the political parties and movements funded by Russia have all called for the weakening of western economic and military alliances – like NATO - which were created after WWII to contain the USSR, and for policies which would be more favorable to Russian interests.
Santos parroted the Kremlin propaganda line on Ukraine even before the February 2022 invasion, and persisted in questioning the U.S. support for Ukraine for a few weeks after the invasion. He even called the Ukrainian government of Voldomyr Zelensky “fascistic” and “totalitarian” and implicitly supported the Russian invasion.
Santos changed his public statements only after local people blasted him for his pro-Putin line, and polls showed that such a stance would be a loser. And not only did he change his position, he suddenly declared that he had Jewish grandparents from Ukraine “who had survived the Holocaust.” That claim was a lie, too.
Many members of Congress were clear about what they thought of Santos, including members of the New York delegation.
"Santos represents, I believe, a grave national security risk," said Rep.-elect Pat Ryan (D), who represents New York's 19th congressional district. "Every member of Congress gets a top secret security clearance. This is something I held as a combat veteran as an intelligence officer. He should not have access to that classified information."
Republican Congressman Nick LaLota, from the neighboring First District, has called for the congressional Ethics Committee to examine Santos and his lies. Such an examination – a thorough one - cannot come too soon.
Benjamin Frankel is Editor of the Homeland Security Newswire.