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Romney goes after Santos in tense exchange at the State of the Union

Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) chatted briefly on the House floor before President Biden’s State of the Union address on Feb. 7. (Video: The Washington Post)
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Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) exchanged harsh words on the House floor Tuesday night before the State of the Union began, with the Republican senator telling the freshman GOP lawmaker that he should not be in Congress.

As lawmakers and other guests were entering the chamber ahead of President Biden’s speech, Romney and Santos were spotted having a brief but tense conversation. Romney glared at Santos, who smiled slightly, nodded and seemed to dismiss Romney before continuing to greet others.

Romney later said that he told Santos — who has admitted to fabricating large swaths of his biography and whose campaign finances are under investigation — that he did not belong there. Santos is facing a possible investigation by the bipartisan House Ethics Committee and last month stepped down from his committee assignments.

“I didn’t expect that he’d be standing there trying to shake hands with every senator and the president of the United States,” Romney told reporters after Biden’s speech concluded Tuesday night, when asked why he had confronted Santos.

“Given the fact that [Santos is] under ethics investigation, he should be sitting in the back row and staying quiet instead of parading in front of the president and people coming into the room,” Romney added.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said after the State of the Union address on Feb. 7 that Rep George Santos (R-N.Y.) "shouldn't be in Congress." (Video: Jessica Koscielniak/The Washington Post)

Romney said that Santos’s claims that he had “embellished” his record were absurd.

“Look, embellishing is saying you got an A when you got an A-minus. Lying is saying you graduated from a college you didn’t even attend,” Romney said. “And he shouldn’t be in Congress. And they’re going to 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.”

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Romney told reporters that Santos may have responded to him, but that he did not hear it on the House floor. After the State of the Union concluded, Santos lashed out at Romney on social media.

“Hey @MittRomney just a reminder that you will NEVER be PRESIDENT!” he posted to Twitter.

On Wednesday, Santos said in a brief interview with ABC News that Romney’s comments were “reprehensible" and “it wasn’t very Mormon of him.”

Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) later defended Santos, describing Romney’s words as “the rudest I’ve ever seen a human being be to another human being.”

But Rep. Nick LaLota, a fellow freshman Republican from New York, sided with Romney, calling Santos a “sociopath.”

“Mitt Romney is right on this one. I’ve been clear on George Santos for months now,” LaLota said in an interview with CNN on Wednesday morning. “He does not deserve to be in Congress."

“He’s a sociopath, George Santos. He looks for that attention, even the negative attention drives him. It’s become an embarrassment and a distraction to Republicans in the House,” said LaLota, who like Santos, represents a district on New York’s Long Island.

Dozens of Republicans in New York state, including several in Santos’s district from Nassau County, have called on him to resign. Joseph G. Cairo Jr., the Nassau County party chairman, has said Santos’s campaign was one of “deceit, lies, fabrication.”

Romney, who was the Republican nominee for president in 2012, was the only Republican to stand and clap when Biden said unemployment was at a 50-year low Tuesday night, and applauded alongside Democrats at other points in Biden’s speech.

More on the 2023 State of the Union address

The speech: President Biden used his 2023 State of the Union address to emphasize popular ideas from job creation to health care, pitching himself as a friend of ordinary Americans. Here are a few takeaways and a fact check of Biden’s speech.

A combative night: Midway through the State of the Union address, the room turned feisty as some Republican lawmakers began booing Biden. In one of the most disruptive moments of the night, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene yelled toward Biden: “Liar!” There was also a harsh exchange between Mitt Romney and Rep. George Santos. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy excused the hecklers, saying they were “passionate.”

The Republican response: In her rebuttal to the State of the Union address, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders accused Biden of caring more about “woke fantasies” than Americans’ economic concerns and called him “unfit to serve."