- The Handbasket
- I talked to the guy who wrote a book about George Santos
I talked to the guy who wrote a book about George Santos
"It was very strange that this guy who I've been trying to get people interested in for a long time—now everyone knew who he was."
Mark Chiusano and I first met at a place no two sane people should be: A meeting of the Mastics-Moriches-Shirley Community Library Board of Trustees. It was a rainy Monday evening in late January and we’d both trekked out to eastern Long Island hoping to catch a glimpse of Nancy Marks, campaign treasurer for the already infamous Congressman George Santos, who was one of the trustees. But Marks—who has now pleaded guilty to conspiring with Santos to commit wire fraud, among other things—never showed.
This was just one of the remarkably random places someone on the George Santos beat was forced to go for a story, and Chiusano made many more similarly bizarre trips in the process of reporting his new book, “The Fabulist: The Lying, Hustling, Grifting, Stealing, and Very American Legend of George Santos.”
I spoke with Chiusano by phone Monday afternoon about his book (on sale today), whether or not George reads The Handbasket, and the surreal experience of the whole world getting to know the strange man about whom he’d been reporting since 2019. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
MARISA KABAS, The Handbasket: First of all, can you imagine if Santos gets expelled from Congress the same week your book comes out?
MARK CHIUSANO, Author of The Fabulist: It's really looking like that's what's gonna happen. You know, he's looking like he's gonna be in real trouble, right? Wednesday seems to be the day. If not, then certainly soon.
KABAS: So you think the odds are good that he's done this week?
CHIUSANO: I think so. From the members of Congress I've been speaking to, they seem to have a head count that's enough to get rid of him. But, you know, as with everything in this story, you never really know until it happens. So, I wouldn't stake my life on it or anything.
KABAS: Right. And so that's a pretty dramatic change from a couple of weeks ago, from the last vote, because they need 80 Republicans to get him out. Is that right?
CHIUSANO: Yeah, I think that's right. I'm probably not telling you something your readers don't know, but I think that the House Ethics Committee report really gave enough members of Congress cover to flip. Obviously a lot of that stuff, there's been reporting on, sort of gesturing at—a lot of it's in my book. But the committee had access to the bank statements, right? So it was a little bit more sturdy than some of the reporting that's been out there so far. So I think it sort of allows members of Congress to say, ok, he's had his due process, this is pretty significant. The House isn't throwing him in jail, obviously: The House is just deciding to expel him, if that's what they do.
KABAS: So let's travel back a little bit. How did you first get on the Santos beat?
CHIUSANO: In 2019, my editor at Newsday turned to me and said, “Hey, there's a new guy running against Tom Suozzi [the incumbent Democrat in NY-03] for Congress. Can you give him a call and write just a little intro about his campaign?” And so that was obviously Santos, and at Newsday we were doing this political newsletter called “The Point,” which did these quick little snippets about Long Island politics. And so I called him for an item in that newsletter, and he picks up pretty quickly. But the weird thing was, I said, “Can I come see your first campaign event? Are you launching your campaign?” And he was like, “Yeah, I'm launching it today. Right now.” And I was, like, “Great. Ok. Where, where is it?” And he says, “Oh, no, I'm in Florida right now on business. And I'm launching the campaign from Florida,” which was strange, obviously because this is a Queens and Long Island district. And so that was the first strangeness with him.
KABAS: So you knew pretty much from the first phone call that something was up with this guy.
CHIUSANO: Something definitely seemed to be off for sure. And then I wrote that little intro about him, which was pretty basic. And then I wrote about him a bunch more during that campaign and the next campaign, usually in the newsletter, kind of raising questions about him, like where did he live? He was kind of unclear on whether or not he was [living] in the district. I wrote about him flip flopping on abortion, and sharing QAnon material, and then opening this sketchy recount campaign committee that he was fundraising for even after he lost his first run. So, yeah, I was poking into him and was kind of surprised at how strange he was from pretty early on for sure.
KABAS: So, when he lost his election in 2020, did you think that was gonna be the last of him?
CHIUSANO: You know, that's what we thought on Election Day as it became clear that he was losing. But then my colleagues and I were sort of surprised at him embracing this kind of Stop the Steal narrative and suggesting that he won just because the in-person votes had gone his way. But this was kind of the common with the Red Mirage in 2020 where all the in-person votes went for Republicans because of Donald Trump, etc., and then all the absentee ballots, or a lot of them, went for Democrats. So everyone knew he was gonna lose significantly. He lost by more than 12 percentage points in 2020. But he made up this fake thing that he'd won, and he actually went down to new member orientation, which I wrote about, too. And that was another moment of like, this guy is different, you know. He's built different.
KABAS: He would probably say the same thing about himself.
CHIUSANO: I'm sure.
KABAS: He made a lot of noise in the immediate aftermath of 2020 but then as it went into summer 2020/early 2021, were you hearing about him? Did you know that he was planning on running again?
CHIUSANO: I called him on the day he finally officially conceded to Suozzi. And he was actually leaving DC [from his ill-fated orientation trip] to come back to New York. And he said, “I promise I'm running again,” or something like that. And sometimes you take those things with a grain of salt. Like, every losing candidate says, “This isn't the end.” But he was still involved and active in particularly Queens political stuff in the months afterwards. So he didn't seem to be going away.
KABAS: From your early reporting, were there any red flags about the way he managed his first campaign?
CHIUSANO: Totally. I mean, that recount campaign committee was a big red flag because it's certainly not a common move—if the race isn't actually close, you know, and to really do a ton of fundraising and spend a lot of money in kind of weird ways. So that was a big red flag. And of course, tons of other reporters were raising other red flags. Like, Will Bredderman at the Daily Beast had done a great job about his kind of sketchy past employment history. And so there were plenty of these red flags. The problem was that we didn’t connect all the dots and say, “Oh, not only are there lots of weird things about this guy, but everything is weird about this guy.”
KABAS: Right. So then fast forward to November 2022. He wins. What was going through your head after covering him for the previous two years? Like, could you even conceptualize how that was possible?
CHIUSANO: Yeah, I thought that he had a real chance to win it. I really thought that it was kind of a coin toss as to him winning or losing because I've been reporting on these sort of political currents on Long Island which were making it shape up to be a really big red wave year. The gubernatorial race was a big part of that and the debates over bail and criminal justice reform that Republicans were jumping on. So it was a super bad year for Democrats: To give a sense, Chuck Schumer lost in Santos’ district. Chuck Schumer is super powerful nationally and also a really dedicated local campaigner. He's everywhere, and the fact that he lost in that district, I think shows how much of a red year it was.
KABAS: How did it feel for this very local story to suddenly go hyper-national/international?
CHIUSANO: I'm sure you had feelings about this, too, but it was so bizarre because this is a guy who I had been telling friends about for years. They’d be like, “What are you working on, Mark?” And I’d say, “Oh, I'm working on another little thing about this kind of weird congressional candidate,” and, you know, people kind of nod off and don't really pay attention because he's just one sort of random congressional candidate.
KABAS: And he lost the first time.
CHIUSANO: Exactly. And in the beginning, before the district changed, it seemed like he could very easily lose again. Right until this sort “red wave” crested. So yeah, it was very strange that this guy who I've been trying to get people interested in for a long time—now everyone knew who he was.
KABAS: Did you feel kind of, I don't know if protective is the word. But did you feel some sort of like, ownership over his story?
CHIUSANO: No, I mean, it's his story, which is what he would say, I'm sure. But it made me want everyone reading about him and finding out as much as we could about him.
KABAS: So it was probably a relief in some ways.
CHIUSANO: It was. It was interesting just to see this guy who had been living in my head for so long—suddenly everyone else knew who I was talking about.
KABAS: It's like an imaginary friend has suddenly become flesh.
KABAS: What were some surprising things that you learned about Santos throughout the process of writing this book?
CHIUSANO: I think what was most surprising was how committed to the hustle and the scheming he'd been since pretty early on. And so that was kind of the fun part about the book, was digging into his childhood and family background. My reporting shows that he was kind of mooching off his elderly grandmother living in Brazil. He stole from his Aunt Elma. He ripped off the 16-year-old kid who was living in his house who didn't really speak English. It just never ended with him. It was sort of compulsive.
KABAS: So this George that we know now is who he's always been.
CHIUSANO: I think so, yeah, as far back as people remember him. I also tried very hard in the book not to take people's word for things. He has so many lies that he's doubled down on, and I really tried to separate the facts from the fiction. And there were sort of lurid lies that ended up having like some little tiny grain of truth. And I think that's kind of the key with Santos: One of his family members told me that with him, there's always a pebble of truth and a mountain of lies, which I think is a really great way to put it. So I really tried to kind of dig into those pebbles.
And I think what was surprising to me was how you almost want to like, believe that what someone's telling you is true, right? And he kept saying like, no, I'm not lying about this, XYZ. And with each thing, again and again and again, I would find out, yes, indeed, he really was lying about it. It's a strange experience to find someone like that who just keeps committing to the lie.
KABAS: At a certain point did you feel like you had really good, like, George-dar? Could you tell what was true and what wasn't?
CHIUSANO: Wow, that's a great question. I don't know because they were all so weird, and they all came from such different areas of the culture.
Like his Horace Mann thing, which I ended up getting someone at Horace Mann to go through their records dating back to like the early 20th century and they found nothing. And even then he doubled down and said, “No, I really did go there for six months,” or something. And so then I was like, OK, well, let me get the yearbook from the years that he could conceivably have been there. And so I turned through like hundreds of pages of yearbooks and he's not there. He's not in any of the pictures. I even found a Gabriella Santos in one of them who would have been there when he says he was there, and I called her and I said, “Hey, Miss Santos, do you remember another Brazilian guy with your same surname?” And she said “No, absolutely not. And like, I definitely would have remembered someone who had my same last name.”
So these are the kinds of the lengths that you have to go with Santos to try to disprove a negative.
KABAS: A big part of his story that really interested me early on was him fabricating stuff about being Jewish, or having ties to the Holocaust. Especially because he now represents a very Jewish district. And I’m wondering how you handled that piece of it.
CHIUSANO: Yeah, that was another one that I really tried to dig in and see what pebble of truth there could be. And so what I learned was that his family has this kind of tradition, that somewhere far back there may be some Jewish heritage. Very, very far back. I spoke to a genealogist in Brazil who went all the way back into, I think it was the 1700’s, and found two ancestors of Santos who had what may have been a Jewish-sounding name. So, we're all kind of bending over backwards to see if there's any truth to the story. That's kind of as good as it gets for his claim of Jewish heritage.
But, and what's interesting is, it would be one thing if he had just said, “Oh, yeah. You know, supposedly I might have some relatives far back who were Jewish.” I don't think that would have been such a crazy thing, even if it wasn't true. Family memory is an interesting thing and people tell stories and whatever. And in some ways it vaguely started that way with him, where in early iterations of this story, he would just talk about his descendants. But then over time, as he got more and more into politics, he would change the story, and it became more and more directly, “I am Jewish,” or, “My mother is Jewish.” And it seems pretty entirely untrue, and in the venues that he told that story—which included Jewish groups or Jewish reporters for Jewish outlets—it does seem like he had a kind of cynical political purpose when he was making those claims.
KABAS: It's all so cynical. Was the Jewish thing the most cynical part to you, or was there another part that really stands out?
CHIUSANO: That's definitely high up on the cynical scale. The saddest part of the story to me was the lies he told about his parents. My reporting suggests that they were very hard-working immigrants who came to this country and took jobs that they could find to make a living, and they did make a living, and they carved out a real life here. And that didn't seem to be good enough for Santos, and he made up these totally different lives for his parents that they didn't live. And I think that’s sad in a way, that he couldn't be grateful for and proud of his parents for who they were.
KABAS: So did George actually speak to you for the book?
CHIUSANO: I spoke to him for stories when I was at Newsday, and he would usually either pick up the phone or answer a text or his campaign people would respond in some fashion, even if it was a denial or something. And then that all sort of stopped when I got the book deal. He was very angry. He stopped answering. And then one day, towards the beginning of my reporting process, I gave him a call from a different phone number. And he picked up that call, maybe because he didn't recognize the number. And he very quickly just said, “I'm not gonna talk to you.” And I was trying to persuade him and then he hangs up. But then he calls back a couple minutes later and keeps railing at me and—I talked about this in the book. There's a whole scene about our interactions—and it must have gone on for a long time. Just him criticizing me, saying that he wasn't gonna talk. So then he hangs up again, and I text him either later that day or the next day, just to follow up. And he texts back more threats, how he's gonna call the police on me if I keep knocking on his family members doors. And so that was kind of it. He would respond every once in a while by text from then on out when I would say, “Hey, like, can I do some fact-checking with you? Would love to show you what I found,” and he basically would say, “I'm not gonna do it,” and just sort of criticize me or threaten me while saying no
KABAS: So he refused to fact-check any of the stuff that you put in the book?
CHIUSANO: Yeah, he absolutely refused to fact-check. But he did say that he'll criticize anything that he thinks is unfair. So I'm sure that's coming. But one sort of strange thing with this book is, I'm not even sure what I would have done if he had sat down with me. Like, how could I have used it? How would I have had to frame that interview? Because we can't take his word for the total truth, right? So in the book, in general, I tried to triangulate details as much as I could and look at things we have public records for, as well as my interviews with over 100 people who knew Santos. So we'll see how it goes.
KABAS: I'm sure that there's an angry Twitter thread coming your way. Did your publisher send him a copy of the book?
CHIUSANO: Not yet, but they're available. He knows where to buy them. And always happy to talk, George, if you're reading this. You know my phone number.
KABAS: I have a sneaking suspicion that he does read this.
CHIUSANO: I think he might! I mean, we all, we know he loves his media coverage. And he's interested in what people think of him. So, you never know.
KABAS: And he loves attention.
KABAS: Would you say your book is a comedy or a tragedy?
CHIUSANO: I think it's both. It's a tragedy with comic elements. It's like a kind of Wolf of Wall Street or Catch Me if you can rise and fall of this really incredible chameleon grifter who's fascinating and clever and really good at what he's doing. And then things don't turn out so well for him. So that's the tragic part. It's also tragic for American democracy. I think there's a lot of sad things to be learned about how this kind of guy slips through the institutional cracks. But it definitely has comic elements. It's definitely funny. And it's a fun story, just following along with this guy as he cons his way from one from one level to another.
KABAS: So if this is his last week in Congress, what do you think comes next for George?
CHIUSANO: I think that eventually he will most likely serve some time in prison. That seems to be coming. But as far as what he's been charged with and likely sentencing, he won't be in forever, right? This is not like a Sam Bankman-Fried type thing. So that would suggest that he'll get out and he won't be that old of a man. And I think that he's the kind of guy who would really relish a second act, whether that's Dancing with the Stars or being on Cameo. That's kind of what he got into this for in the first place.
KABAS: Most important question: Is The Handbasket mentioned in your book?
CHIUSANO: It is. It is, indeed. And thank you for your reporting. There's a whole host of great reporters who’ve done great Santos work, like Jacqueline Sweet, and obviously the New York Times reporters Michael Gold and Grace Ashford. People can see in the book I thank a whole host of those reporters who really helped us learn more about Santos.