NEW YORK — One of Rep. George Santos’ first-known forays into politics was an attempt to raise $20,000 for a pro-Trump rally in 2019 in Buffalo, N.Y. that never happened.
The five-figure fundraising goal drew questions from members of the small New York state-based group United for Trump. Santos — who was the group’s president at the time — claimed he needed $750 to hire an accountant, $2,500 to keep a lawyer on retainer and thousands more for a keynote speaker.
The plans were “over-the-top,” group member Lisa Bennett Joseph said in an interview. Santos wanted to raise too much money, she said. “You have to start small and local.”
Santos was defensive about the unusually high price tag for a local event.
“Understand that I’m not here for personal gains or for any kind of financial gains,” he said in a spring 2019 video message to the group posted on its Facebook page. “All monies raised are solely for structuring this movement slash organization.”
Santos was only able to pull in $645 out of a $20,000 goal. It’s unclear what happened to the funds.
While Santos was ultimately unsuccessful in raising $20,000 for the Trump group, his extravagant asks drew questions about whether he was out for personal, financial gain. The episode has echoes of other fundraising efforts that have made Santos the target of state and federal prosecutors. The Federal Election Commission is probing questionable campaign expenses including nearly $11,000 spent on rent for his Long Island home and the FBI is investigating claims that he absconded with $3,000 in donations meant for a disabled U.S. Navy veteran’s dying service dog.
Santos was a fringe player in 2019. He’s now a national political figure — but not for anything he’s accomplished. Instead, the Republican congressman who was elected in November in a swing district on Long Island, is best known for largely inventing his campaign biography. He has resisted calls for his resignation, saying his resume was only embellished, although he did step away from committee assignments citing the “ongoing attention surrounding both my personal and campaign financial investigations.”
Naysa Woomer, Santos’ communications director, said she could not comment on any campaign or personal matters, and calls to Santos’ personal attorney were not returned.
In spring 2019, a year before his first, unsuccessful run for Congress, Santos became a founding member of United for Trump, a grassroots group supporting President Donald Trump’s reelection. At a March 23 rally at Trump Tower in Manhattan, Santos was filmed holding a “Gays for Trump” sign.
By March 25, Santos set up a GoFundMe account that other United for Trump members pushed to the group to raise money for a future “Northeast tour” of Trump rallies.
He posted a video in the United for Trump Facebook group to introduce himself to other members that month.
Santos had a few specific asks: He said he wanted to establish an LLC with an accountant, at a cost of $500 to $750. United for Trump also needed a lawyer — “to keep in our back pocket and just to retain” — for $2,500.
In the March video, Santos alluded to “a lot of confusion as to what we are raising money for,” acknowledging it can cost less than $100 to get permits for rallies. But, he explained, United for Trump would be different than what members were used to, calling it “an organization to actually give power.”
In May 2019, Santos was listed in a Facebook post as the group’s “president” using part of his full legal name, George Anthony Devolder. Other United for Trump committee members included Joseph, who organized central New York rallies for a group called ACT for America, described as a “national anti-Muslim hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Joseph said she met Santos when he introduced himself to her at the March Trump Tower rally and that he “seemed like a sweet kid.”
“In grassroots, we accept everyone who wants to join and do a little work,” she said, adding that after the New York City rally, most of United for Trump’s other events envisioned for that year “didn’t get off the ground.”
Joseph said she was preoccupied with other things and began fading away from the group around the time Santos became its president, and said she didn’t remember the group getting very far with organizing events while she was involved.
In July 2019, Santos did help organize a counterprotest to an Impeach Trump rally in Buffalo — an event that turned violent.
Rus Thompson, a longtime conservative activist from Buffalo, was the lead organizer of the counter-rally. He had no recollection of Santos attending the event. The New York congressman should “never have been elected,” Thompson said in a recent telephone interview.
United for Trump planned to hold another Erie County rally at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center on August 3, 2019, according to administrator posts in the group’s Facebook page.
Santos had asked United for Trump members to help raise six-figures for the August event.
“Need your help. The est. cost to bring the pro-Trump rally to Buffalo with credible speakers is $20,000,” according to a call for donations that went out in the Facebook group.
Thompson questioned the $20,000 price tag for Buffalo speakers.
“I never paid speakers,” he said.
Planning for the August Buffalo rally was the last time Santos seemed to be involved with United for Trump. In October 2019, he announced his 2020 candidacy for Congress at a Queens Village Republican Club dinner. His biography for the event doesn’t mention United for Trump.
Thompson said he didn’t remember an event happening in Buffalo around that time. The location Santos proposed, he said, didn’t make sense.
“That’s really expensive and not set up for a rally,” Thompson said. “Car or boat show, yes, but political rally? No.”