Joe Biden delivered the State of the Union address on Tuesday but the Republican congressman George Santos still managed to grab some headlines, over an apparently tense exchange with Mitt Romney, the senator from Utah and former Republican presidential nominee.
“He shouldn’t be in Congress,” Romney later told reporters.
Santos won election to the House in New York’s third district last year. He has since been shown to have largely fabricated his résumé, including a number of outlandish claims, while his past behavior, sometimes under the name Anthony Devolder, financial affairs and campaign finance filings are under relentless scrutiny.
He has also been accused of sexual harassment by a former congressional aide.
On Tuesday night, as senators entered the House chamber before Biden’s speech began, Santos and Romney were seen to speak for about 10 seconds.
Efforts at lipreading spread across the internet. Most thought Romney said “You ought to be embarrassed”, or similar. CNN reported that someone who witnessed the exchange said Romney told Santos: “You don’t belong here.”
Santos continued speaking to Romney as the senator walked away.
After Biden’s speech, in a scrum of reporters, Romney was asked about the exchange. Confirming he said “You don’t belong here,” he added: “He shouldn’t be in Congress.”
Pointing to calls for ethics investigations, Romney said: “They’re gonna go through the process and hopefully get him out. But he shouldn’t be there and if he had any shame at all, he wouldn’t be there.”
The House speaker, Kevin McCarthy, has stood by Santos, whose vote is part of the narrow majority with which the Republican leader must work. Santos did withdraw from two committees.
Santos has admitted embellishing his résumé but denied wrongdoing and repeatedly said he will not resign.
“He said he embellished his record,” Romney said. “Embellishing is saying you got an A when you got an A minus. Lying is saying you graduated a college you didn’t even attend.”
Santos said he went to Baruch College and New York University. He did not.
Romney also said Santos “may have” responded to him in the House chamber, but he didn’t hear how.
In the echo chamber of social media, as footage of the exchange spread, Santos tweeted: “SOTU category is: GASLIGHTING!”
After the speech, he added: “Hey Mitt Romney just a reminder that you will NEVER be PRESIDENT!”
A former governor of Massachusetts, Romney was defeated for president by Barack Obama in 2012, when Biden was vice-president. Romney entered the Senate in 2018 and has emerged as a moderate voice in a Republican party pushed far right.
Earlier on Tuesday, a delegation of New Yorkers from Santos’s district, which covers parts of Long Island and Queens, staged a mini-rally outside his Washington office, calling for him to resign.
Jody Kass Finkel, the group co-ordinator, said Santos was “a grifter and now he’s grifting his way to Congress … Nobody trusts him.”