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Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles Times
Nicholas Goldberg

Nicholas Goldberg: Embattled politicians' strategy is brazenness. Will it work?

It was highly amusing to watch then-Congressman-elect George Santos ducking and weaving to avoid the media scrum on his first day on Capitol Hill. Darting in and out of corridors, chased down the halls by reporters, he often seemed lost but he kept moving, refusing to answer questions about his resume embellishment and the lies he's told about his background.

"Hey George, what's your name today?" one reporter shouted. "You plan to resign?" called another. "Why did you lie on your resume?" Santos wouldn't make eye contact but walked on, stone faced, often talking into his phone, although I doubt anyone was on the other end.

Santos is under extraordinary pressure. Especially when you add the mounting complaints and official investigations to the ceaseless media attention. But, for the moment at least, he shows no sign of caving under the stress or of resigning.

It's not that different from the situation facing Los Angeles City Councilman Kevin de León, who has barely been able to set foot in the council chamber for the last three months because he's dogged everywhere he goes by jeering protesters angry over his offensive comments on a leaked audio recording. De León is ignoring his opponents where possible (except when he physically fights with them) and, like Santos, is refusing to step down. "No, I will not resign because there is a lot of work ahead," he told one interviewer.

Then there's Benjamin Netanyahu, who was just sworn in for the sixth time as prime minister of Israel despite a host of ongoing bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges. His criminal trial has been underway since May 2020, but asked if he'll quit, he says he's not going anywhere. "I feel a deep obligation to continue to lead Israel in a way that will ensure our future," he has explained.

See the pattern? It's the latest trend among politicians accused of wrongdoing: Brazen it out. Stand firm in the face of accusations that in any previous era would likely have ended your career. Pretend to be on the phone, ignore the curses and catcalls, deny the charges. Stonewall. And see what happens.

Because why not give it a shot?

I think of this as the Al Franken effect. Franken, D-Minn., resigned from the U.S. Senate when he was accused of sexual misconduct in 2017 rather than stick around and fight — only to conclude later that he had quit too quickly. His peers and colleagues from both parties watched closely and saw that he might have saved his job if he'd just hung on.

Meanwhile, they were also watching President Donald Trump as he modeled the alternative approach, taking brazening-it-out to a whole new level. When candidate Trump was caught on tape crowing about grabbing women by the genitals, he offered a perfunctory apology and dismissed the brouhaha as "locker room banter."

The Teflon president then withstood two impeachments (as compared with President Richard Nixon, who in 1974 resigned rather than face the possibility of even one), insisting that he was the victim of a "witch hunt."

When Trump ran for reelection, he got 74 million votes.

Wait it out for as long as you can.

It's the height of arrogance and cynicism, of course, to assume that you can just stonewall the voters, and that their anger will fade thanks to their short attention spans. But as often as not, it appears to be a decent strategy.

President Joe Biden himself called on de León, a piddling City Council member, to step down, but he paid no attention.

To be clear, I don't believe politicians should necessarily resign the moment they're accused of wrongdoing. Politicians accused of criminal behavior should have the chance to stand trial and present a defense before they're hung out to dry. Unproven assertions should not destroy careers.

But many of these cases aren't about unproven assertions. Santos, for instance, is facing facts, as far as I can tell. Schools he says he attended, jobs he said he held, property he says he owned, whether he's Jewish — documents and straightforward fact-checking fail to back up his claims. He shouldn't get to just wait this scandal out and then proceed as if everything was normal.

In the end, whether stonewalling works usually comes down not to the gravity of the transgression or even to the quality of the evidence, but to simple politics. Santos could successfully hang on until the voters forget about him — or he could be forced out tomorrow.

"I did nothing wrong, period. I am not resigning," said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2021, when he was facing allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct. Three months later, though, he did just that, because he had few political allies left, new allegations kept emerging, and the state's attorney general — from Cuomo's own party — had issued a damning 165-page report on his misbehavior.

Franken quit after losing the support of Senate Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and other key allies in the early days of the #MeToo movement.

In the case of de León, the politics are still playing out. He seems defiant, even with a recall campaign underway. We'll see if he can avoid resignation.

But the broader point is this: We're living in a time when not only do voters have short attention spans, but when the bar for what constitutes unforgivable misbehavior has been raised beyond previous imagining. Thanks in part to Trump but also to many others, voters are used to their leaders' bad behavior, and even expect it.

It's no surprise that officials who get caught think they might as well wait and see if the voters will forget or forgive.

But when it comes to serious transgressions — and Santos' repeated lying to voters surely qualifies — they should not.


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