WASHINGTON — Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, was not expecting to see Representative George Santos, the embattled first-term Republican from New York, perched near the aisle of the House chamber at the State of the Union on Tuesday night, close enough to reach out for a presidential handshake.
To Mr. Romney, it was shameless. It was brazen. For a lawmaker under scrutiny for what appears to have been a yearslong pattern of deception to thrust himself into the center of the action degraded the annual tradition of the president’s address to a joint session of Congress, he thought — and he said so.
“You don’t belong here,” Mr. Romney told Mr. Santos as he walked by, in a hostile exchange that was captured on video and quickly went viral. The unpleasantness was apparent in their body language, even without knowing what words had been said.
“Go tell that to the 142,000 that voted for me,” Mr. Santos replied, according to an account he gave later.
After the speech, Mr. Romney, a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints, told reporters that Mr. Santos is “a sick puppy, he shouldn’t have been there,” in what could be construed as the Mormon equivalent of an eviscerating, curse-filled diatribe. “Given the fact that he’s under ethics investigation, he should be sitting in the back row and being quiet instead of parading in front of the president.”
The confrontation between Mr. Romney, the 2012 G.O.P. nominee for president and former governor of Massachusetts, and Mr. Santos, a freshman lawmaker who has admitted to fabricating his résumé and is under investigation in the United States and Brazil, where he faces criminal charges, was a striking juxtaposition of two Republicans who represent polar opposites in their party.
Mr. Romney is the ultimate institutionalist, who has described his decades-long political career as part of a larger moral mission informed by his faith. Wealthy, well-educated, and so decorous he has sometimes been ridiculed for it, Mr. Romney has long been out of step with a party that has increasingly shaped itself in the brash mold of former President Donald J. Trump.
Biden’s State of the Union Address
- Challenging the G.O.P.: In the first State of the Union address of a new era of divided government, President Biden delivered a plea to Republicans for unity but vowed not to back off his economic agenda.
- State of Uncertainty: Mr. Biden used his speech to portray the United States as a country in recovery. But what he did not emphasize was that America also faces a lot of uncertainty in 2023.
- Foreign Policy: Mr. Biden spends his days confronting Russia and China. So it was especially striking that in his address, he chose to spend relatively little time on America’s global role.
- A Tense Exchange: Before the speech, Senator Mitt Romney admonished Representative George Santos, a fellow Republican, telling him he “shouldn’t have been there.”
Mr. Santos, by contrast, invented what now appears to have been a largely fictional persona to propel himself to Congress, and has spent his first weeks on Capitol Hill thumbing his nose at convention and refusing to address the cascade of allegations against him. He encapsulates the ethos that has come to drive the Republican Party since the rise of Mr. Trump, in which shamelessness in the face of attacks is rewarded and the notion of keeping one’s head down, even in the midst of scandals of one’s own making, is seen as a sign of weakness.
“It’s not the first time in history I’ve been told to shut up and go to the back of the room, especially by people who come from a privileged background,” Mr. Santos said Wednesday afternoon. “I’m never going to shut up and go to the back.”
The run-in between the two men symbolized the broader clash between Republicans like Mr. Romney, a rapidly dwindling group, and the ascendant right wing that is dominating the new House Republican majority.
Surrounded by Republicans who defended Mr. Trump through two impeachment trials and lambasted Mr. Romney for voting twice to convict and remove him as president, the Utah senator has long found himself an island within the G.O.P.
On Tuesday night, the hall was similarly filled with Republican leaders and members who have mostly refused to punish Mr. Santos or call on him to resign. Mr. Romney, by contrast, said that not only should Mr. Santos have been keeping a low profile in the chamber on a meaningful night, he “shouldn’t be in Congress” at all.
Some observers said that criticism was actually a broader critique of the G.O.P.
“George Santos certainly deserves the stern Mitt Romney lecture,” said Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump Republican strategist. “But so does the whole Republican Party right now.”
Mr. Santos clearly does not feel chastened, and it is plain to see why. Rising stars of the House Republican conference like Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia have employed some of the same tactics and been rewarded handsomely. Ms. Greene punctuated President Biden’s address Tuesday night with outbursts and jeers, behavior that is anathema to Mr. Romney, but that has helped vault her to prominence and popularity within the Republican Party.
Mr. Santos did his own heckling online on Tuesday night after his confrontation with Mr. Romney by tweeting, “Hey @MittRomney just a reminder that you will NEVER be PRESIDENT!”
Mr. Romney knows that.
During Mr. Trump’s first impeachment trial in 2020, Mr. Romney, the lone Republican vote in the Senate to convict, said he understood the serious political ramifications his defection would bring, but that his “oath before God” demanded it.
“I believe that our Constitution was inspired by providence,” he said at the time. “I am convinced that freedom itself is dependent on the strength and vitality of our national character.”
Ms. Greene, who was stripped of her committee assignments by the Democratic-led House for online posts that advocated violence against Democrats and spread dangerous and bigoted misinformation, is now one of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s most trusted advisers. She sits on the Oversight and Homeland Security Committees, her two first choices.
Mr. Romney is in a far different position. Liberated by the fact that there is no future for him on the national stage in the Republican Party, he often says things others in his party will not.
“Romney is clearly a leader for whom the moral dimension of politics has always been central,” said the historian Michael Beschloss. “In recent years as a senator, he has been all the more free to be himself, with a strong sense of freedom and duty to say inconvenient things about the behavior of a Trump or, in a different way, a Santos, and to remind other political leaders that ethics and morality and good conduct have always been crucial elements of our democracy.”
For now, Mr. Santos is a vivid example of the chaos in the House Republican ranks. He sold himself as a “seasoned Wall Street financier and investor” with a family-owned real estate portfolio and an animal rescue charity that had saved more than 2,500 dogs and cats.
But, in addition to other false credentials, he appears to have made up any work history at Citigroup and Goldman Sachs, and he has been accused of stealing thousands of dollars from a GoFundMe account that was intended to pay for lifesaving surgery for a disabled veteran’s cancer-ridden service dog, which died after it failed to receive the operation.
Even Mr. McCarthy, who initially said Mr. Santos should be allowed to serve in Congress — “the voters elected him” — and appointed him to two congressional committees, has been changing his tone. When Mr. Santos volunteered to recuse himself from his committees last week, Mr. McCarthy made it clear that there had been no pressure for him to do so, though he agreed with the decision.
But on Tuesday, Mr. McCarthy told reporters on Capitol Hill that “we’re not allowing him to be on committees from the standpoint of the questions that have arisen,” noting that the Ethics Committee would be looking into the allegations against Mr. Santos.
For now, Mr. Santos is making the most of his own infamy, feasting on Tuesday night’s confrontation as evidence that he is being unfairly targeted.
“I think it’s reprehensible that the senator would say such a thing to me in the demeaning way he said,” Mr. Santos said of Mr. Romney on Wednesday. “It wasn’t very Mormon of him.”