© 2024 Allbritton Journalism Institute
Henry Cuellar
Eric Gay/AP

House Democrats Insist Henry Cuellar Is No George Santos

“Where’s the presumption of innocence?” Rep. Jim Clyburn told NOTUS of the indicted Texas Democrat.

House Democrats don’t want to talk about Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat now under criminal indictment. But they’re upfront about one thing: His case, they say, is nothing like disgraced former Rep. George Santos’.

The Department of Justice indicted Cuellar and his wife, Imelda Cuellar, last week on bribery and foreign influence charges related to $600,000 in alleged bribes from two foreign entities. Since then, hardly any Democrats have publicly condemned Cuellar.

“Where’s the presumption of innocence?” Rep. Jim Clyburn told NOTUS on Monday night. “His membership in the Congress is not our business. It has never been our business. Why would we start now?”

Rep. Pramila Jayapal had a similar sentiment, telling NOTUS, “I think it’s a concerning situation, but I think we just need to let it play out and let the justice system do its job.”

NOTUS spoke to almost two dozen Democratic lawmakers, who also expressed that they would rather let the DOJ investigation develop before weighing in.

Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries told reporters that Cuellar was “entitled to his day in court.” Many Democrats have followed his lead.

“I support the Jeffries statement,” Rep. Ted Lieu told NOTUS.

“I’ll leave that to our leadership,” Rep. Ro Khanna said.

Cuellar hasn’t won any popularity contests in the Democratic caucus, given his conservative-leaning views, including on abortion. Yet Democrats’ response to his indictment is a marked departure from how they reacted to Santos’ indictments that ultimately led to his expulsion from Congress.

All but two Democrats joined 105 Republicans in December in voting to expel Santos, who came into Congress with a long and unique record of fabrications. Months earlier, Democratic Rep. Robert Garcia introduced a resolution to expel Santos from Congress with the support of Democratic leadership. At the time, Garcia told reporters his goal was to “put Republicans on the record” regarding allegations that Santos had laundered money, committed wire fraud and pilfered public funds.

They don’t have the same energy for Cuellar.

“There’s nobody in the history of Congress that will occupy the same space as George Santos,” Rep Dan Kildee told NOTUS. “There have been other people who’ve been under investigation or charged. They typically are given some time. In the case of Mr. Santos, it was just a train wreck from day one.”

Other Democrats insist they’re not being hypocritical by not calling for Cuellar’s resignation so early after helping boot Santos.

“The George Santos situation is somewhat different in that he had serious investigations taking place within the House initially,” said Rep. Gregory Meeks. “They made a determination that his conduct was not up to the standards of the House. So, for me, it was not simply that he was indicted; it was about his overall conduct.”

Rep. Sydney Kamlager-Dove concurred. “If ethics wants to do [an investigation on Cuellar], I mean, that’s also their prerogative,” she said. “But in the case of Santos, I think people were demanding his expulsion far sooner than it happened because we allowed the process to play out in its entirety.”

Sign up for the latest from NOTUS.

Many Democrats have been similarly hesitant to call for Sen. Bob Menendez to resign after he was indicted on his own set of sprawling federal charges.

What does Santos think of the discrepancy between how Democrats reacted to Cuellar’s charges compared to his?

“So here’s the thing… is miss thang @RepRobertGarcia going to draft an expulsion resolution for Henry Cuellar?” he said in a post on X. “Inquiring minds want to know.”

Tinashe Chingarande and Calen Razor are NOTUS reporters and Allbritton Journalism Institute fellows.