(CNN) — Embattled GOP Rep. George Santos refused to take off the table a potential plea deal with the federal government and acknowledged mistakes in his handling of key issues outlined in the criminal indictments against him even as he forcefully defended himself.
In a wide-ranging interview with CNN, the New York Republican blamed “stupidity” and “insecurity” for his extensive fabrications about his biography, but insisted he is working to prove his debunked claim that his grandparents fled the Holocaust. Santos said he will “absolutely” run for reelection in 2024 even if he is expelled from Congress. He also attempted to distance himself from his former campaign treasurer who has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the United States and has implicated Santos in the process.
Santos, a 35-year-old freshman congressman under siege, has remained defiant in the face of mounting legal issues and calls to resign. He survived a second attempt to oust him last week when a House vote on a resolution to expel him failed. But some of his fellow New York Republicans, who pushed for the vote against him, say they believe GOP holdouts will support expulsion after the House Ethics Committee, which is investigating Santos, releases its report.
Santos summed up what the past year has been like for him in one word: “Hell.”
“I lost privacy. I lost the ability to just have a normal life,” he said. “Not having the ability to just, you know, take my husband, and let’s go for a walk in the park without the fear of having some psycho try to, I don’t know, hurt me or him.”
The congressman has pleaded not guilty to 23 federal charges, including allegations of fraud related to Covid-19 unemployment benefits, misusing campaign funds and lying about his personal finances on House disclosure reports. But when asked in the interview about the charges he is facing, Santos conceded that he had made missteps.
According to prosecutors, Santos made false statements on multiple financial disclosure reports to the House of Representatives during his two congressional races.
Pressed on the allegations, Santos said, “Were there mistakes made on those forms? Now I know they were. Were they malicious? No. Did I understand the reporting date? So, this is from last year to current date this year? No, I didn’t understand how that worked, and I’m a new candidate and I’m sorry that mistakes were made.
“I didn’t understand the forms. That’s just plain and simple,” he went on to say. When asked whether he filled out the forms, he said, “With some help, but most of them yes.”
Santos is also accused of fraudulently applying for unemployment benefits, with prosecutors alleging he falsely claimed to be unemployed in an application for a pandemic-related unemployment insurance program. Because of repeated false assertions he is alleged to have made to the unemployment program, Santos received $24,744 in benefits, according to prosecutors.
When asked about those charges, Santos said that he is “not admitting anything” and that he did what he thought he “was qualified for.”
“There’s people out there who have gone through this process of overtaking a check or two or whatever the case is and then just having to pay it back. Nobody gets criminally indicted. That’s crazy,” he said.
Pressed on why he claimed to be unemployed when he was not, according to prosecutors, Santos said, “That’s not true,” but then said, “I had my wages severely cut.”
In the interview, Santos also did not rule out a potential plea deal.
“I’m not saying I’m not ruling out – as of right now, it’s not on the table,” he said. “I’m not exploring any of that right now. Those conversations are yet to be had … right now I’m pretty focused on my defense.”
Claims to have proof ancestors survived Holocaust
Among the most controversial of Santos’ disputed representations of his background is the claim his grandparents were Jewish refugees who fled Europe during the Holocaust. Santos, who has previously self-identified as “half Jewish” and a “Latino Jew,” told CNN on Friday he never meant he was Jewish, but said he’s spent months working to obtain records proving his ancestors fled the Holocaust.
“This is the biggest lift that I’ve had to do my entire life, but that’s something I’m gonna prove before I die,” Santos said.
“I am working on finishing getting the last pieces of it, specifically the piece in Brazil, where they go to Brazil and then have documents forged so that they can blend in and all of that stuff,” he added.
CNN previously reported that Santos’ claims his grandparents fled the Holocaust as Ukrainian Jewish refugees from Belgium are contradicted by records on Jewish refugees, interviews with genealogists and family histories compiled by genealogy websites.
As recently as November 2022, Santos said he was “very proud” of his “Jewish heritage” during an appearance with the Jewish News Syndicate. Yet Santos maintains he has never misrepresented himself as Jewish and only made references to his claimed Jewish lineage.
“I never said I was Jewish. I would always joke for years and say I’m ‘Jew-ish.’ I was raised Roman Catholic,” Santos said. “This is something I’ve always made very clear. I’m Catholic. I come from a Jewish family. Here’s my Jewish family’s history. Why is this now a problem?”
Yet despite questions about his connection to Judaism, Santos stood by his familial ties to the Holocaust while stressing he never meant to offend members of the Jewish community. His disputed claims of Jewish ancestry have sparked a backlash from Jewish constituents in his home state of New York.
“I never intended to hurt anybody. I never wanted anybody to feel like I misrepresented myself or my family’s heritage,” he said. “I will not stop working until I have every single part of that put together.”
Santos attempts to distance himself from former campaign treasurer
Santos’ former campaign treasurer, Nancy Marks, pleaded guilty last month to one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States and implicated Santos in an alleged scheme to overstate his campaign’s fundraising totals to draw additional investment from Republican Party officials. Marks said she took action “in agreement with” Santos and “for his benefit.”
“I did these things in agreement with co-conspirator #1,” Marks said in court, referring to Santos, “for his benefit and to obtain money for his campaign by artificially inflating his funds to meet thresholds set by a national political committee.”
Santos denied knowingly misrepresenting his campaign’s fundraising totals and at first suggested he was not responsible for handling his campaign’s financial records.
“I never, ever submitted or even looked at a single report,” Santos said. “I’m a candidate, candidates do not handle money, candidates do not handle finances, candidates do not handle filings. I don’t even know what the FEC filing system looks like.”
Yet Santos later said, “The buck should stop at the candidate, that’s true.”
When asked about what Marks said in court, Santos said, “People will say whatever they have to say cut whatever deal they have to cut in order to save their hide. And this isn’t surprising.”
“I’m not accusing her of anything. All I’m saying is she has her story, I’m going to come with my facts, and I’m going to tell my side of the story,” he added.
Santos plans to run for reelection in 2024 even if expelled
Santos said he would “absolutely” run in 2024 if he is expelled. The New York Republican said he believes he could win a primary and projected confidence for his prospects in a general election.
When pressed on his extensive fabrications about his resume and biography, Santos said, “I’ve already told you that it’s insecurity, stupidity. I don’t know. Look, I’m human. We make mistakes. I’ve apologized and I will continue to apologize profusely for this and with remorse.”
But he argued that his constituents didn’t vote for him based on his biography as he downplayed past fabrications.
“Nobody knew my biography. Nobody opened my biography who voted for me in the campaign,” he said.
Santos said he didn’t regret running for office but does regret “some of the stupidity and human mistakes” he’s made. And he suggested he’s benefitted from not serving on committees as a result of his legal problems, including by being able to handle issues such as passport services for his constituents.
“I sit in my office, I talk. I take my constituents’ calls. I do that, I’m not serving on committees. So there’s no excuse for me to not say, ‘Hey the congressman’s busy,’” Santos said.
CNN’s Sam Fossum and Devan Cole contributed to this report.
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