With his admission this week that he lied to voters about his credentials, Representative-elect George Santos has catapulted to the top of the list of politicians who have misled the public about their past.
Mr. Santos, a New York Republican, fabricated key biographical elements of his background, including misrepresentations of his professional background, educational history and property ownership, in a pattern of deception that was uncovered by The New York Times. He even misrepresented his Jewish heritage.
While others have also embellished their backgrounds, including degrees and military honors that they did not receive or distortions about their business acumen and wealth, few have done so in such a wide-ranging manner.
Many candidates, confronted over their inconsistencies during their campaigns, have stumbled, including Herschel Walker and J.R. Majewski, two Trump-endorsed Republicans who ran for the Senate and the House during this year’s midterms.
Mr. Walker, who lost Georgia’s Senate runoff this month, was dogged by a long trail of accusations that he misrepresented himself. Voters learned about domestic violence allegations, children born outside his marriage, ex-girlfriends who said he urged them to have abortions and more, including questions about where he lived, his academic record and the ceremonial nature of his work with law enforcement.
Mr. Majewski promoted himself in his Ohio House race as a combat veteran who served in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but the U.S. Air Force had no record that he served there. He lost in November.
Some of the nation’s most prominent presidential candidates have been accused of misrepresenting themselves to voters as well; perhaps none more notably than Donald J. Trump, whose 2016 campaign hinged on a stark exaggeration of his business background.
While not as straightforward a deception as Mr. Santos saying he worked somewhere he had not, Mr. Trump presented himself as a successful, self-made businessman and hid evidence he was not, breaking with decades of precedent in refusing to release his tax records. Those records, obtained by The Times after his election, painted a much different picture — one of dubious tax avoidance, huge losses and a life buttressed by an inherited fortune.
Prominent Democrats have faced criticisms during presidential campaigns too, backtracking during primary contests after being called out for more minor misrepresentations:
Joseph R. Biden Jr. admitted to overstating his academic record in the 1980s: “I exaggerate when I’m angry,” he said at the time. Hillary Clinton conceded that she “misspoke” in 2008 about dodging sniper fire on an airport tarmac during a 1996 visit to Bosnia as first lady, an anecdote she employed to highlight her experience with international crises. And Senator Elizabeth Warren apologized in 2019 for her past claims of Native American ancestry.
Most politicians’ transgressions pale in comparison with Mr. Santos’s largely fictional résumé. Voters also didn’t know about his lies before casting their ballots.
The Spread of Misinformation and Falsehoods
Here are some other federal office holders who have been accused of being less than forthright during their campaigns, but got elected anyway.
Madison Cawthorn’s 2020 House campaign
Madison Cawthorn became the youngest member of the House when he won election in 2020, emerging as the toast of the G.O.P. and its Trump wing. North Carolina voters picked him despite evidence that his claim that the 2014 auto accident that left him partly paralyzed had “derailed” his plans to attend the Naval Academy was untrue.
Reporting at the time showed that the Annapolis application of Mr. Cawthorn, who has used a wheelchair since the crash, had previously been rejected. Mr. Cawthorn has declined to answer questions from the news media about the discrepancy or a report that he acknowledged in a 2017 deposition that his application had been denied. A spokesman for Mr. Cawthorn did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Mr. Cawthorn, whose term in Congress was marked by multiple scandals, lost the G.O.P. primary in May to Chuck Edwards, a three-term state senator who represents the Republican old guard.
Andy Kim’s 2018 House campaign
Andy Kim, a Democrat who represents a New Jersey swing district, raised eyebrows during the 2018 campaign when his first television ad promoted him as a “a national security officer for Republican and Democratic presidents.”
While Mr. Kim had worked as a national security adviser under President Barack Obama, his claim that he had filled a key role in the administration of former President George W. Bush was not as ironclad.
A Washington Post fact check found that Mr. Kim had held an entry-level job for five months as a conflict management specialist at the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Mr. Kim’s campaign manager at the time defended Mr. Kim, telling The Post that he played a key role as a public servant during the Bush administration that involved working in the agency’s Africa bureau on issues like terrorism in Somalia and genocide in Sudan.
Voters did not appear to be too hung up about the claims of Mr. Kim, who last month was elected to a third term in the House.
Marco Rubio’s 2010 Senate campaign
Marco Rubio vaulted onto the national political stage in the late 2000s after a decade-long rise in the Florida Legislature, where he served as House speaker. Central to his ascent and his 2010 election to the Senate was his personal story of being the son of Cuban immigrants, who Mr. Rubio repeatedly said had fled during Fidel Castro’s revolution.
But Mr. Rubio’s account did not square with history, PolitiFact determined. In a 2011 analysis, the nonpartisan fact-checking website found Mr. Rubio’s narrative was false because his parents had first moved to the United States in 1956, which was before Castro had returned to Cuba from Mexico and his takeover of the country in 1959.
Mr. Rubio said at the time that he had relied on the recollections of his parents, and that he had only recently learned of the inconsistencies in the timeline. He was re-elected in 2016 and again in November.
Mark Kirk’s 2010 and 2016 Senate campaigns
Mark Kirk, who was a five-term House member from Illinois, leaned heavily on his military accomplishments in his 2010 run for the Senate seat once held by Barack Obama. But the Republican’s representation of his service proved to be deeply flawed.
Mr. Kirk’s biography listed that he had been awarded the “Intelligence Officer of the Year” while in the Naval Reserve, a prestigious military honor that he never received. He later apologized, but that was not the only discrepancy in his military résumé.
In an interview with the editorial board of The Chicago Tribune, Mr. Kirk accepted responsibility for a series of misstatements about his service, including that he had served in the Persian Gulf war of 1991, that he once commanded the Pentagon war room and that he came under fire while flying intelligence missions over Iraq.
Mr. Kirk attributed the inaccuracies as resulting from his attempts to translate “Pentagonese” for voters or because of inattention by his campaign to the details of his decades-long military career.
Still, Illinois voters elected Mr. Kirk to the Senate in 2010, but he was defeated in 2016 by Tammy Duckworth, a military veteran who lost her legs in the Iraq war. In that race, Mr. Kirk’s website falsely described him as an Iraq war veteran.
Richard Blumenthal’s 2010 Senate campaign
Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, misrepresented his military service during the Vietnam War, according to a Times report that rocked his 2010 campaign.
Mr. Blumenthal was a Marine Corps reservist but did not enter combat. After the report, he said that he never meant to create the impression that he was a combat veteran and apologized. Mr. Blumenthal insisted that he had misspoken, but said that those occasions were rare and that he had consistently qualified himself as a reservist during the Vietnam era.
The misrepresentation did not stop Mr. Blumenthal, Connecticut’s longtime attorney general, from winning the open-seat Senate race against Linda McMahon, the professional wrestling mogul. She spent $50 million in that race and later became a cabinet member under Mr. Trump, who has repeatedly zeroed in on Mr. Blumenthal’s military record.
Wes Cooley’s 1994 House campaign
Wes Cooley, an Oregon Republican, had barely established himself as a freshman representative when his political career began to nosedive amid multiple revelations that he had lied about his military record and academic honors.
His problems started when he indicated on a 1994 voters’ pamphlet that he had seen combat as a member of the Army Special Forces in Korea. But the news media in Oregon reported that Mr. Cooley had never deployed for combat or served in the Special Forces. Mr. Cooley was later convicted of lying in an official document about his military record and placed on two years of probation.
The Oregonian newspaper also reported that he never received Phi Beta Kappa honors, as he claimed in the same voters’ guide. He also faced accusations that he lied about how long he had been married so that his wife could continue collecting survivor benefits from a previous husband.
Mr. Cooley, who abandoned his 1996 re-election campaign, died in 2015. He was 82.
Kirsten Noyes contributed research.