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Inside CNN’s decision to fire Chris Cuomo: ‘He gave me his word’

An unrelated sexual misconduct claim may have only hastened Jeff Zucker’s decision to dismiss his star anchor for crossing ethical lines to help his brother

On Dec. 4, CNN fired host Chris Cuomo, just four days after announcing that he would be indefinitely suspended. (Video: Reuters)

CNN staffers were prepared last week for a long bout of uncertainty regarding the future of star anchor Chris Cuomo.

The cable news network suspended him Tuesday for his efforts to assist his governor brother, and it had promised “further evaluation” of Cuomo’s conduct, which seemed to suggest a weeks-long process before his fate was decided. CNN’s own media correspondent, Brian Stelter, speculated on-air that Cuomo might be restored to his prime-time show after the holidays. And CNN President Jeff Zucker had already stood by the network’s top-rated host through months of sharp criticism.

So when the news of Cuomo’s firing came late Saturday, many were shocked that it happened so fast — but then, looking back, surprised it took so long.

The network’s decision was almost certainly accelerated by the emergence last week of a sexual misconduct claim against the host, made by a lawyer who described her client as a former junior colleague who encountered Cuomo before he joined CNN in 2013. Yet the cable news giant took pains over the weekend to assert that Cuomo had already done enough to merit dismissal earlier this year, when he helped his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, combat an unrelated sexual harassment scandal.

“Chris had been much more deeply involved than we had ever known, and than he’d ever told us,” Zucker told employees during a staff meeting Monday morning, citing the results of a three-day review by a law firm CNN hired to investigate.

Zucker framed Cuomo’s lack of candor as a betrayal, noting that “he gave me his word that there was no involvement” beyond advice and support to his brother. “And in the weeks and months that followed, he gave repeated, similar assurances not just to me but to other key members of our management team here.”

CNN had turned to the law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore to review their anchor’s conduct after the New York attorney general on Monday released documents from her investigation into the allegations that prompted Andrew Cuomo to resign in August; they included Chris Cuomo’s texts and emails to his brother’s staff as well as his statements to investigators.

The network initially expected to interview Cuomo as part of its evaluation, but it did not end up doing so, a person close to the situation said.

Since it was first reported last spring that Cuomo had joined strategy calls with his brother’s staff, the newsman had defended his involvement as simply “family first,” an effort to counsel his brother through a difficult time. Yet after the state documents showed his involvement was greater than originally described, criticism of Cuomo grew louder last week from an array of media observers, who noted it would have been considered a firing offense for most journalists.

“In using his journalistic skills and access to aid his brother, Cuomo broke trust with his employers and, more important, his audience,” wrote David Graham for the Atlantic. “By keeping Cuomo on the air and in his job, CNN would send the message that journalistic ethics are only for the little people and viewers are on their own.”

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Cravath returned its report to CNN on Friday morning, showing that the anchor had lied in his statements to viewers during his live show (“I never made calls to the press about my brother’s situation,” he said on-air in August) about the extent of his involvement.

In the interim, CNN had learned last Wednesday of the sexual misconduct claim against Chris Cuomo from employment lawyer Debra S. Katz. By Friday, Katz said, she was in talks with CNN about the possibility of “providing documentary evidence” of her client’s allegations and making the person, who has not been identified, available for an interview.

But CNN didn’t wait for that process to play out. Zucker said he made the decision to fire Cuomo on Friday night and informed the host on Saturday afternoon by phone.

“He’d clearly violated our standards and practices,” Zucker told employees Monday. “The network had cause to fire him.”

Cuomo expressed sorrow about his dismissal Saturday night in a message thanking his staff; hours later, when news of the sexual misconduct claim emerged, a spokesman hotly denied it. “If the goal in making these false and unvetted accusations was to see Mr. Cuomo punished by CNN, that may explain his unwarranted termination,” said Steven Goldberg in a statement Saturday.

What comes next is uncertain. Cuomo’s use of the term “unwarranted” could portend legal action against the network, and the Daily Beast reported on Saturday that he is speaking with lawyers. Goldberg did not respond when asked by The Washington Post if Cuomo, himself a lawyer, is considering such action.

Goldberg also told the Wall Street Journal that Zucker and Cuomo had been in regular contact about the host’s involvement with his brother’s political crisis. On Sunday night, though, CNN pushed back against that claim.

“We are disappointed with Chris’s statement,” a CNN spokesman said. “He has made a number of accusations that are patently false. This reinforces why he was terminated for violating our standards and practices, as well as his lack of candor.”

CNN had not investigated the veracity of the sexual misconduct claim against Chris Cuomo before it fired him. A person close to the situation said it played less of a factor in the network’s decision-making because it involved Cuomo’s behavior before he joined CNN. But on Monday, Zucker told employees that Cravath will explore the woman’s allegations “as it relates to CNN.”

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A replacement still has not been picked for Cuomo’s 9 p.m. show, which was often the highest rated on the network. His sudden firing presents Zucker with a mammoth task: filling a major hole in his prime-time lineup that could reshape CNN’s identity at a moment when cable news ratings have declined since Donald Trump left the White House.

In the meantime, Zucker has tapped talk-radio veteran and frequent Cuomo substitute Michael Smerconish to fill in temporarily this week. “We’ve made absolutely no programming decisions for that hour beyond this week,” Zucker told his staff Monday. “We’ll begin to think about that soon, I assure you.” CNN is scheduled to host a town hall meeting with employees on Tuesday.

Cuomo said on Monday afternoon that he plans to “take a step back and focus on what comes next,” and announced that he is ending his SiriusXM radio show. “The way my time ended at CNN was hard,” he wrote, adding that his suspension and termination was “extraordinarily difficult” for his family.

Former CNN anchor Brooke Baldwin lobbied management to pick a woman as Cuomo’s replacement, noting that the network’s prime-time hours are dominated by men. “Not me,” she clarified in a video posted on social media. “There are plenty of brilliant women they can choose from.”

Exhausted by Cuomo’s seemingly never-ending controversies, some CNN employees are glad to be closing the book on him. “The rank-and-file want to move on,” said a veteran producer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly.

CNN’s management appears to feel the same way.

“I fully understand that this has been a very unfortunate distraction for this organization, and I totally get it,” Zucker told his staff on Monday. “At the same time, as I have said many times, the world is relying on us, and we do need to move forward.”

This story has been updated with the news of Cuomo ending his radio show.