As he watched Rep. George Santos (R-NY) become consumed by scandal, Vish Burra knew he wanted in. Burra didn’t hesitate when asked by TPM if the scandal surrounding Santos’ lies about his personal history and the myriad questions surrounding his campaign finances drew him to work for the newly elected congressman.
“Of course,” Burra said during a phone call on Friday evening. “That’s my brand.”
Burra, who recently became Santos’ director of operations, thrives on chaos and revels in controversy. As reporters have swarmed outside Santos’ office each day, Burra has quite literally stood behind the embattled politico. And while Capitol Hill staffers typically stay away from the cameras, behind the scenes, that’s not Burra style: He was a high-profile activist in his own right before joining Santos’ team, and this isn’t Burra’s first time in the eye of the storm. In his wide ranging conversation with TPM, Burra talked about his political philosophy and past experience leading a controversial Republican club, standing by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) during another recent scandal, and playing a pivotal role in the Hunter Biden laptop saga.
Bald, bearded, and broad shouldered, Burra stands out in a crowd. That’s just how he likes it. Prior to joining Santos’ team, Burra was a regular on the right-wing podcast and web broadcast circuit. In one of these interviews last February, Burra talked to the YouTuber Silas Amunga about his philosophy for “activism and institutional infiltration.” He turned to manga metaphors describing his “style” as “two katanas to the neck.”
“For those out there who watch ‘Dragon Ball Z,’ you know, political activism is kind of like … trying to summon a spirit bomb,” Burra said. “You need to sit there, and you need to gather the energies, organize the energies, and the resources, and the power into a spot where you can control it, manipulate it fully, and then you aim it out and shoot … and destroy.”
Anime is an apt comparison since Burra’s politics are clearly inflected with the aggressiveness, dark humor, and taste for publicity that are hallmarks of the Trump-era online alt right. Indeed, as the child of South Indian immigrants, Burra sees his very presence in Republican politics as an exercise in trolling.
“Talking about the quiet part out loud, we are not the demographic that should be at the forefront of defending these, quote en quote, ‘values,’” Burra said in the interview with Amunga. “So, when we do it, it’s like an extra shitpost.”
Burra’s path to becoming a MAGA movement provocateur and joining Santos’ staff began in New York City. It wound through a venerable Manhattan Republican organization, a gala bash that featured white supremacists, a mysterious unnamed mentor, and the “war room” of former President Trump’s on-again-off-again strategist Steve Bannon.
Burra grew up in Staten Island, the Big Apple’s infamously esoteric and conservative fifth borough. As a kid, Burra had trouble channeling his energy. He says he made it to one of the city’s three elite specialized public high schools before having to leave for another program where he earned a GED.
“I was smart enough to be above the others, but I was too interested in other shit to sit down and study,” Burra said.
As he got older, Burra, who is 31-years-old, couldn’t stay out of trouble. During his college years, Burra built what he described to TPM as a drug dealing “empire.” It came crashing down in mid-2014 when he was busted with over two pounds of marijuana and a small amount of hallucinogens. Burra said he got into the business in pursuit of “respect.”
“I wanted people to realize that I was the best in the room,” he explained.
Not long after Burra’s drug bust, Trump launched his first presidential campaign. Burra found himself increasingly pulled to the world of Republican politics. Trump’s contradictory brand of hypercapitalist anti-establishment populism spoke to Burra.
“I’ve had my own red pilling experiences slowly over time, but it all clicked with Trump,” Burra said, using an online right phrase for awakening.
Burra’s “red pilling” also included questioning prevailing narratives about racism in this country. He never “bought into” the idea of discrimination, he said, because he never had trouble finding work in majority-white Staten Island. He also appreciated Trump’s hard-line stance on immigration, and suggested his parents’ generation of immigrants was fundamentally different than the one Trump would seek to restrict.
“The justifications and the reasons why immigration made sense in my father’s time is not the situation today,” said Burra. “The mentalities are different of, like, the immigrants who come today and the immigrants of before.”
While economists generally agree immigrants have a positive effect on the wider economy, Burra takes a dark view on those who might send remittances to their home countries or ultimately return there.
“My father came to this country, landed in New York, decided he never wanted to leave and wanted to build here. Immigrants that come today come here because the dollar converts better in their local currency, and then they decide to invest that back home,” he continued. “And then when they retire they go and live there like kings.”
Along with the platform, Burra was attracted to Trump and his MAGA movement due to the opposition of his family and friends. In his telling, some of the people closest to him “revolted” and called him a “racist” when he expressed skepticism about Trump’s Democratic Party rival in the 2016 presidential race, Hillary Clinton. This hardened Burra’s position.
“Then I thought, OK, he needs to win to show he’s right because I think I’m right,” Burra said of Trump, adding, “You know, that’s very human.”
Shortly after Trump took office in 2017, Burra got in deeper. He went to his first meeting of the Staten Island Young Republicans, and also checked out the New York Young Republican Club, which bills itself as the nation’s “oldest and largest” and touts its connections to presidents Lincoln and Taft. The organization was also recently in the headlines for hosting a December 2022 gala at which Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), Donald Trump Jr., Roger Stone, and Steve Bannon brushed shoulders with PizzaGate promoting conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec and white nationalist couple Peter and Lydia Brimelow. Also in attendance: A just-elected member of Congress from Long Island who would soon cause a good deal of controversy. The next week, the New York Times would publish its expose that began the deluge of questions about George Santos’ resume and revelations about the shifting and largely fabricated life story he told while campaigning.
But the organization that hosted that gala was not the same organization Burra joined. Not yet. In Burra’s telling, despite its storied history, the New York Young Republican Club was “underutilized” at the start of the Trump era and suffering from stuffy, sparsely attended events.
“That’s where I started making my plans, and my moves, and started using my street smarts and my guile to like organize and get in front of people … just kind of like showing that I’ve got the verve, I know what you want, and you’ve got to roll with me to get it,” said Burra.
In that 2022 YouTube interview, Burra suggested booze was a key part of that strategy.
“One thing I do understand about New Yorkers is we love to party, and we love to get together and drink, hang out, and have fun,” Burra said. “That’s a way to organize young people that I know works personally. … I could organize 50 people around eating a Snickers bar in New York if you told them there’s a cocktail.”
Inside the club, Burra teamed up with Gavin Wax, an activist that he has called his “partner in crime.” By 2018, the pair managed to take over the club’s leadership, with Wax becoming president and Burra being named vice president. In an emailed statement to TPM, Wax brushed off criticisms of the organization’s associations with white nationalists and praised Burra.
“The New York Young Republican Club takes pride in being a forum for open and constructive dialogue. We host speakers of diverse viewpoints at our events, and we do not deny access to guests based on thoughtcrimes the media alleges them to have committed,” Wax wrote. “I have been proud to work alongside Vish to make the New York Young Republican Club the largest and most successful organization of its kind. We are proud of our objective successes, and we are undeterred by our opponents’ critiques.”
Their ascendance shocked members of the city’s more traditional GOP establishment. In an op-ed published that year, John William Schiffbauer, the former deputy communications director for the New York Republican State Committee, linked Burra and Wax with a leadership change at the Metropolitan Republican Club and said it meant the organizations that “form the backbone of the Manhattan GOP’s voter and volunteer base” were “now firmly under the control of Trumpist alt-right acolytes.”
Burra, who is currently the executive secretary of the New York Young Republican Club, has claimed the new leadership drove a surge in membership. Along with alcohol, their strategy involved leaning into militant rhetoric and aligning the organization openly with controversial far-right figures. While this may have scandalized more moderate Manhattan Republicans, it helped Burra win friends in Washington including Steve Bannon. Burra claims he first met Bannon through a “mentor” who he declined to identify saying he prefers to keep their relationship “close to the vest.” In November 2019, Bannon spoke at the Young Republicans’ annual gala where he invoked Napoleon: “When you set out to take Vienna, take Vienna,” he declared.
Bannon and Burra, who both tend to rush towards the spotlight and dramatically cast their strategies as military tactics, make a natural pair. Burra said he made an impression on the former Trump White House strategist and one month after that bash, he became a founding producer on Bannon’s podcast, “War Room.” He worked on the show for much of 2020, as it chronicled the pandemic, protests and Trump’s final year in office.
“I consider myself a man blessed with many mentors, but Steve is probably my greatest mentor, considering I was quarantined with him all through 2020,” said Burra.
Bannon declined to comment on this story.
Working on the show gave Burra a front-row seat as Bannon and Rudy Giuliani acquired a laptop that had belonged to then-candidate Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden. Burra has said he served as a “navigator” and used past experience as a software professional to make copies of the laptop as Bannon and Giuliani gave the data to reporters and others in an effort to generate stories criticizing the Biden family’s foreign business dealings and Hunter’s substance abuse. In his conversation with TPM, Burra described the episode as “one of my most proudest projects and accomplishments.”
His time on Bannon’s “War Room” also connected Burra with leading figures on the MAGA right including Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL). Last April, after Gaetz placed a copy of the laptop into the congressional record, he had Burra on his own podcast to talk about the laptop affair.
“You were essentially Bannon and Giuliani’s Indian tech guy,” Gaetz quipped.
“I was their IT guy,” said Burra with a laugh.
Gaetz, according to Burra, admired his ability to “work with Steve and keep him happy.” The pair became close and Burra joined Gaetz’s congressional staff in mid-2021. A spokesperson for Gaetz did not respond to a request for comment.
Burra’s time on Gaetz’s team coincided with an investigation into the congressman for alleged underage sex trafficking. Burra described the accusations against Gaetz as “categorically false.” By last September, prosecutors recommended against bringing charges against Gaetz due to what the Washington Post described as “credibility questions with the two central witnesses.”
As the scandal was dying down last March, Burra left Gaetz’s team. To hear him tell it, the thrill was gone.
“If the FBI and the DOJ are no longer coming after you, it’s not a fun job any more,” Burra explained.
Burra still had plenty of other avenues to court controversy, including the New York Young Republican Club. Last month, at the now-famous gala, the group hosted a collection of ultra-nationalist figures, from leaders of Austrian and German far-right parties to Peter and Lydia Brimelow, the couple behind VDare, a website that has cast immigration as an “invasion,” warned against “the multicultural inferno that awaits America in the years to come,” and repeatedly suggested that there are genetic gaps in intelligence between different races. Burra said the Brimelows simply “bought a ticket” and noted that the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, also had representatives at the event. While he attempted to distance himself from the Brimelows’ branding, Burra does believe the white race is being targeted in this country, which is a core tenet of many on the extreme right.
“I do not share the white supremacy ideology, but I do believe that there is a virulent strain of anti-white racism in this country and I think it’s very dangerous for the harmony of our nation,” Burra said. “That is definitely a top three concern of mine.”
Those radical guests weren’t the only elements of the party that courted controversy. In a speech at the event, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene referenced allegations that she and Bannon had organized some of the protests against Trump’s 2020 election loss that turned violent on Jan. 6, 2021.
“I will tell you something, if Steve Bannon and I organized that, we would have won,” Greene said. “Not to mention, it would’ve been armed.”
Greene’s speech made national headlines and drew condemnation from the Biden White House. Burra, who said he isn’t concerned about militancy and authoritarianism on the right, loved it.
“I like to keep consistency with the brand and, in New York, the young guys on this side of the football punch really hard, and talk really loud, and talk a lot of smack — and that’s the brand,” he said, adding, “We invited Marjorie hoping she would fill out the brand that we have set up and she hit a grand slam.”
For Burra, the club is an opportunity for the far-right smashmouth brand of Republican politics to take the forefront and “clear the brush.”
“We should be in leadership on how to, like, actually move the machine forward and then, once you move the machine forward, everyone can play nicely,” Burra said. “The machine needs to move forward and we are the ones who are really good at that and have the gall to do it.”
Now, Burra is trying to move Santos’ machine forward. He said he “immediately” put in for a position last December when the stories began breaking about Santos’s lies and issues with his finances.
“I guess you could say that I love the challenge, but George is also a friend. I’ve known George since 2020,” said Burra. “George has always been there for our club, and we’ve always supported him. And he’s under fire, and so I don’t turn my back on my friends, period.”
Santos did not respond to a request for comment on this story. When he joined the team, Burra became one of a handful of staffers working with the embattled congressman. Burra rejected the notion Santos is having trouble attracting talent.
“We have resumes. We’re going through them,” said Burra. “Right now it’s just that we have to be more diligent in the way we hire because of the situation. … we’re just moving through it in a way that’s adding layers of diligence.”
Around Christmas, as the series of stories about his lies and irregular campaign finances began to break, Santos vowed to explain himself. Over a month later, as NBC News recently noted, Santos has “only scratched the surface of the allegations he faces — which have grown considerably.”
While Burra clearly isn’t afraid to talk about himself and doesn’t shy away from controversy, he declined to weigh in on any of the myriad questions swirling around his new boss.
“I’m not responsible for communications,” Burra said. “I’m only responsible for operations.”
The lack of answers from the Santos camp has led to the daily ritual of reporters staking out his office and swarming around the congressman each time he emerges — often with Burra in tow. Burra’s presence on the Hill is evidence of how the new right that flowered around Trump is establishing itself in Washington. And he is clearly trying to employ that movement’s aggressive willingness to court controversy and tendency towards tongue-in-cheek trolling as a defense for Santos’ unprecedented scandals. For Burra, the whole thing is another shitpost.
Burra clearly relishes the attention and he insisted Santos does as well. He described Santos as seeing the humor in the spectacle. However, it seems he and the congressman are in on a completely different joke than the rest of us.
“Of course he is,” Burra said when asked if Santos enjoys the daily skirmishes outside his office. “Because, like, it’s such a farce. It’s all a farce. All the lies that Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren, all these people, have told and they’re going to give him crap? Like, you know, it’s ridiculous.”
Of course, whatever lies Democrats have told, there is essentially no one in the modern history of Washington who has been busted with a completely false backstory like Santos.
Still it’s hard to argue with the core of Burra’s contention about Santos’ presence in Congress.
“One part of this is going to be, like, you know, just exposing the farce for what it is,” Burra said.