For much of 2020, Andrew Cuomo pitched himself as the greatest crisis manager in American politics. His Covid-19 press conferences set the tone, oscillating between light touches—discussions of familial dynamics in quarantine, celebrity cameos, and props—stern warnings, and inspirational speeches. For a time, they proved to be the perfect counter-programming to the avalanche of distortions and ravings coming from the White House. While all this was happening, Cuomo was cashing in: He received at least $4 million for a book, American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the Covid-19 Pandemic, which ultimately sold about 45,000 copies.
As it turns out, he was also covering up. His staff worked tirelessly to prevent accurate statistics about the number of nursing home deaths in the state. But none of that mattered. Cuomo was, for large swathes of Blue America, not only a shadow president but an anti-Trump: The country needed a leader, and much of the public and news media found it in the gruff, uncharismatic, and perfidious form of Andrew Cuomo.
Things haven’t gone to plan in 2021. New scrutiny of New York’s management of Covid-19 revealed that the Cuomo administration had deliberately undercounted nursing home deaths—and that it may have done so to bolster the governor’s new and lucrative political prominence. Not long afterward, Cuomo was accused of sexual harassment by 11 women, including a number who worked in his office. These allegations were both credible—some included documentary evidence—and revealing. Cuomo ruled over a workplace defined by toxicity, bullying, and intimidation. (This, it should be underlined, had long been an open secret, both in Albany and in the media.) Nearly every Democrat in the country called on Cuomo to resign, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Joe Biden.
On Tuesday, Cuomo hit a new low. New York state Attorney General Letitia James released the findings of an investigation into the sexual harassment allegations leveled against Cuomo. That report found that Cuomo broke state and federal laws, that he sexually harassed multiple women, and that he retaliated against at least one for making claims against him. “Governor Cuomo sexually harassed current and former state employees in violation of both federal and state laws,” James said about the report. “The independent investigation found that Governor Cuomo harassed multiple women, many of whom were young women, by engaging in unwanted groping, kisses, hugging, and by making inappropriate comments.” James’s report also revealed that Cuomo was being advised by an inner circle that included former aides and his brother, CNN anchor Chris Cuomo.
Cuomo responded to this crisis of his own making with a prerecorded video that was depraved even by the standards of recent American politics. Cuomo insisted that, in spite of the detailed report from the state’s attorney general, “the facts are much different from what has been portrayed.”
“I never touched anyone inappropriately or made inappropriate sexual advances,” Cuomo said. “I am 63 years old. I have lived my entire adult life in public view. That is just not who I am, and that’s not who I have ever been.”
Then the slideshow started. Images flashed by of Cuomo hugging supporters and friends, including Robert De Niro, Charlie Rangel, and Al Gore. “I do it with everyone,” Cuomo said. “Black and white, young and old, straight and LGBTQ, powerful people, friends, strangers, people who I meet on the street.”
When it comes to surreal press conferences, it is hard to find a comparable event in American politics. The names Mark Sanford and Rod Blagojevich come to mind; Anthony Weiner also strikes a similar chord. In more recent years, one might recall Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s infamous press conference when he offered to moonwalk after a photograph of him wearing blackface in medical school emerged.
But this was quite a hill for Cuomo to mount a defense atop: He couldn’t have committed sexual harassment or created a hostile work environment because he was such an inveterate kisser, hugger, and toucher of others. In his telling, the brief against him was all one big misunderstanding—and one in which Cuomo, a touchy-feely Italian-American paisan of the people, was the victim. That Cuomo’s slideshow also contained photographs of many powerful and famous people also suggested a kind of threat: This is a man who may be wounded but he still possesses incalculable power and influence. Cuomo’s defense of allegations that he bullies and intimidates those around him were intimations of future bullying and intimidating.
Cuomo’s office then released an 85-page report that included photos of other people hugging the governor, including Joe Biden, and one of Cory Booker greeting Kamala Harris with a kiss—you see, because some people hug and kiss in an anodyne and friendly manner, Andrew Cuomo can’t have done so in a threatening or harassing manner. (Twenty-five of the report’s 85 pages consist of pictures of people hugging and kissing.) That report also targets one of Cuomo’s accusers, in particular, before concluding that “her agenda and motivations are obvious.”
Who helped prepare these ready-to-go audiovisual materials? For the moment, this remains a mystery. But the fact that Cuomo was brewing up this elaborate and outlandish self-defense behind the scenes colors the last few months of his governorship, which have largely lacked the lofty rhetoric of Cuomo’s Covid-19 press conferences or in American Crisis. Those days when Cuomo might have more easily sold himself as an agile foil to President Trump have passed into the rearview mirror, as well. Cuomo now more completely resembles a diligent student of the Trump playbook. He has vigorously denied the allegations, gaslighted his victims and the public, and refused to give an inch. He has held onto his post with a level of shamelessness rarely seen in American politics—with the exception of the twice-impeached former president. He has consistently damaged the Democratic Party’s credibility on sexual harassment and what little remains of his own reputation.
Cuomo is hanging on by a thread, hence his kitchen sink strategy. If the State Assembly has the votes to impeach, he is almost certainly screwed—the Senate is all but certain to convict him. Cuomo has rebuilt New York’s Democratic Party in his image and has millions in the bank. He does still have some allies, including several powerful interest groups. These shameless displays may ultimately save his political skin.
But they also only underscore who Andrew Cuomo really is. For much of the Trump era, Cuomo cast himself as a caring, competent alternative to the madness emanating from Washington D.C. Here was a Democratic politician who cared about doing things the right way, who embraced #MeToo, who made the kinds of tough decisions in crises from which other politicians blanched. Now we have an inescapable view of who Cuomo really is, and it’s a far cry from the portrait he projected in the spring of 2020: He is a petty tyrant, a bully, and, ultimately, a pathetic figure obsessed only with his own survival.