Yet Cuomo seems to think this is just another political attack to be navigated.
In a 14-minute video released shortly after the report was published, Cuomo offered a precise response to the allegations and the broader criticisms of his administration’s culture that investigators suggested were contributing factors to the alleged abuse. But the presentation was a very good example of the distance between an effective statement driven by political experience and a wild misread of the political room.
We can start with the photo montage.
“The New York Times published a front-page picture of me touching a woman’s face at a wedding and then kissing her on the cheek. That is not front-page news,” Cuomo said at one point, referring to images of him kissing a woman named Anna Ruch. “I’ve been making the same gesture in public all my life. I actually learned it from my mother and from my father. It is meant to convey warmth, nothing more. Indeed, there are hundreds, if not thousands of photos of me using the exact same gesture.”
The mention of his father was one of several, meant to remind his constituents that he’s the son of the lionized Mario Cuomo, New York’s governor in the 1980s and early 1990s. If Mario Cuomo did it — as seen in this photo right here — how could it be wrong?
But, wow, what a whiff from a public relations standpoint. Cuomo’s deadpan presentation as photos of his kissing a bafflingly selected group of people came off not as exonerative but as defensive. The montage went on and on, with Cuomo at multiple points pausing to let it continue. In a lengthy document released by Cuomo’s office in response to the report, 23 of the 85 pages were dedicated solely to presenting similar (and at times the same) photos as those in the video, including images both of Cuomo hugging and kissing people and photos of other politicians, like Vice President Harris, doing the same.
Amazingly, the video montage even included the photo obtained by the Times, showing a grimacing Ruch being confronted by Cuomo. It served only to immediately raise an obvious question: What about the other allegations from Ruch? And what about the allegations from the other women who alleged more seriously inappropriate contact?
Ruch, for example, told investigators that Cuomo first put his hand on her bare back. When she moved his hand, he allegedly replied, “Wow, you’re aggressive,” then asking if he could kiss her before doing so without waiting for her response. Is that what Mario Cuomo taught him to do?
And did Mario Cuomo teach his son to (allegedly) stroke the back of a state trooper serving in his protective detail, or to (allegedly) put his hand on her stomach as she walked? Did he teach Andrew to touch women’s buttocks or breasts as other women have alleged? Are these also things that Kamala D. Harris does to people she’s just met? Or, as was usually the case with the women making the allegations, are these things she did to people who were in her employ?
The rest of Cuomo’s message was similarly misdirected or cringey. He did apologize to one accuser, Charlotte Bennett, who worked for him as an assistant. But his apology was predicated on the idea that he’d simply been trying to help Bennett process a different assault that she’d said she experienced.
“I was trying to make sure she was working her way through it the best she could,” Cuomo said of the interactions, as though it’s normal for a boss to take on the role of sexual assault counselor. Later, he seemed to imply that Bennett was viewing his actions as inappropriate because of her prior experience.
“I have heard Charlotte and her lawyer, and I understand what they are saying, but they read into comments that I made and draw inferences that I never meant,” he said. “They ascribe motives.”
The report documents Bennett’s claims at length. They include an array of comments that are hard to dismiss as efforts to be supportive, like allegedly asking her if she slept with older men. She eventually reported the interactions to the governor’s team, prompting a cursory investigation that apparently validated her claims. Bennett was transferred and a policy instituted of “avoid[ing] situations where the Governor might be seen as being in a compromising situation with any woman” — though this was allegedly “more for the Governor’s protection.”
Later in the video, Cuomo announced that he was bringing in an expert to design a new sexual harassment policy, even though “the state already has an advanced sexual harassment training program for all employees, including me.”
From the report:
“Ms. Bennett remembered overhearing, at some point in 2019, Ms. Benton talking to the Governor and saying that she would be completing the sexual harassment training on behalf of the Governor.”“... [I]n her sworn testimony, Ms. Benton admitted that she was the one who signed the 2019 sexual harassment training attestation form for the Governor, after they both claimed the Governor reviewed the training material.”“... In response to our request for all certifications or records of completion of training for the Governor from January 1, 2013 to the present, the Executive Chamber has only been able to produce that one attestation form for 2019 for the Governor.”
Perhaps the most egregious claims made by Cuomo in the video involved his trying to spin the allegations into evidence of how supportive he was of women. At one point, he criticized the suggestion that he and top aides — including women — allowed a difficult or abusive work environment by suggesting that such assertions were discriminatory.
“A strong male manager is respected and rewarded, but a strong female manager is ridiculed and stereotyped,” Cuomo asked. “It is a double standard. It is sexist and it must be challenged.”
Later, he scolded those who were “using this moment to score political points or seek publicity or personal gain” as “actually discredit[ing] the legitimate sexual harassment victims that the law was designed to protect.”
If Cuomo is somehow innocent of the allegations, a bit of righteous indignation. If he is not? Gross cynicism.
It may be the case that Cuomo serves out his term in office despite the new revelations. Others have, including Trump. But Cuomo’s situation isn’t precisely comparable to either Trump’s or that of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) after he was discovered to have posed in a racist photo in college. Cuomo will be held to a different standard by Democratic officials than Trump was by Republicans. Already, every member of New York’s House and Senate delegations have called on him to resign. The allegations he faces, meanwhile, are much more recent than Northam’s, extending into last year — and contrasting very unfavorably with the salvation-of-the-people angle Cuomo tried to work during the pandemic. Then, he was hailed by New Yorkers for his actions — something he tried to tap into by noting the pandemic at the end of his video Tuesday. But the current moment would seem to call for a very different sort of leadership.
The most important force for corrective action in American politics, as we continue to learn, is a sense of personal shame. Cuomo, who’s been saturated in the industry since he was a young man, is one of the most experienced political actors in the country. He clearly thinks that he can survive these allegations, despite how well-documented they are. What he doesn’t seem to consider is whether he should.