“I have learned from what has been an incredibly difficult situation for me as well as other people,” he said, appearing to become emotional as he spoke. “I have learned an important lesson. I am sorry. I am sorry for whatever pain I have caused anyone. I never intended it.”
Cuomo (D), 63, maintained that he had never touched any woman “inappropriately” but admitted that his behavior had caused harm in ways he said he did not recognize at the time.
“It was unintentional, and I truly and deeply apologize for it,” he said. “I feel awful about it, and frankly I am embarrassed by it, and that is not easy to say. But that is the truth.”
He said he would not step back from his official duties, despite his mistakes.
“I’m not going to resign,” he said. “I work for the people of the state of New York. They elected me.”
The three-term governor had faced increasing pressure for more than a week, after two women he worked with alleged he had sexually harassed them, accounts that were at least partially backed up by contemporaneous records.
Advisers have said they believe he can weather the scandal if no more women come forward and the independent investigation by Attorney General Letitia James (D) fails to show anything more damning than what has been alleged so far.
Cuomo decided to appear publicly Wednesday, after a day when no new women came forward, according to a person close to him, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal discussions. The governor still has not spoken to his entire staff about the allegations.
His comments at Wednesday’s news conference were promptly rejected by Cuomo’s critics, who argued that he still had not come clean on what he knew about the discomfort he had been causing women who worked for him.
“The Governor repeatedly said he had no idea he made anyone uncomfortable,” attorney Debra Katz said in a statement. “My client, Charlotte Bennett, reported his sexually harassing behavior immediately to his Chief of Staff and Chief Counsel. We are confident that they made him aware of her complaint.”
Another of his accusers, Lindsey Boylan, tweeted an quick condemnation of the governor’s new defense, as well.
“How can New Yorkers trust you @NYGovCuomo to lead our state if you ‘don’t know’ when you’ve been inappropriate with your own staff?” she wrote.
The accusations by the women have eroded Cuomo’s political standing, leading prominent members of his own party, such as President Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) to call for an investigation into his behavior. Some New York legislators and one House member from the state’s Democratic delegation have demanded his resignation.
Cuomo’s office has asked prominent state Democratic lawmakers not to blindside them with calls for resignation, a person familiar with the request said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. But Cuomo is not exerting the kind of brute political force he has in the past to wield power over lawmakers, this person said.
Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, an influential group of New York CEOs, said the business community is not jumping to judgment on the issue and will await the review from the attorney general.
“Business considers Cuomo their only ally most of the time when it comes to critical tax and economic issues, and his vulnerability right now is shaking the confidence of the private sector generally in the recovery of the city,” Wylde said.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, the New York activist and community leader, said he does not want to “prejudge” the investigation and said whether Cuomo would have to resign or not run for reelection depends on what evidence emerges.
“The general attitude I’m getting among my constituency is people want to wait and see the evidence of what comes out,” Sharpton said. He praised Cuomo for taking on racial inequities in the pandemic, passing the Eric Garner law on policing and “reaching out to the Black community more than most other politicians.”
“His standing in the Black community before this has been probably good. His standing is probably better than most. The only one with higher standing, or as high, is the attorney general,” Sharpton said.
Sharpton said the governor had made a mistake by not holding the news conference sooner. “What he should be doing is what he did today, but he should have done it two days ago. My takeaway is that he handled it pretty well today, but he gave them room in not holding a news conference, it looked like he was running for the press.”
Sharpton said he had known Cuomo for 35 years, and “we’ve had good days and bad days . . . we’re not buddy, buddy. We don’t go to the movies.”
“But I’ve never seen that,” he said, of the accusations from the women. “I’ve never seen or heard anything like that.”
But lawmakers and activists who have already turned against Cuomo maintained their stance Wednesday afternoon. State Sen. Gustavo Rivera (D) tweeted that the news conference was a “master class in gaslighting,” a form of psychological abuse where the perpetrator makes a victim question their own perceptions or memories.
“His deeply toxic style of leadership does not lead to good governance,” Rivera wrote. “He needs to resign.”
On Monday, after trying to arrange earlier investigations under his own auspices, Cuomo referred the matter to James, who announced that she would hire outside investigators and produce a public report of their findings.
Cuomo also is facing an investigation by federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York into his administration’s handling of nursing homes during the pandemic, including a decision to delay the release of the total number of nursing home deaths.
Calls for a harassment investigation arose in late February when Bennett, 25, his former executive assistant, told the New York Times that the governor asked her in the spring of 2020 about her sex life, asked if she had slept with older men and told her that he would be interested in relationships with women in their 20s.
She said she gave a statement about the interaction with a special counsel to the governor and showed the New York Times contemporaneous text messages discussing Cuomo’s behavior. She voluntarily moved to another job in the Cuomo administration but said she later left government service because of the anger she felt over what had happened.
Bennett’s allegations followed claims by Boylan, a former New York economic development official, who said that Cuomo harassed her on multiple occasions, including one incident where he kissed her without her consent.
Cuomo’s advisers said Boylan’s claims were untrue, and Cuomo released a statement saying he never “inappropriately touched anybody.” But in response to Bennett’s claims, the governor released a statement saying that he has a habit of joking with people, in public and private, about their personal lives as part of an “attempt to add some levity and banter to what is a very serious business.”
“I now understand that my interactions may have been insensitive or too personal and that some of my comments, given my position, made others feel in ways I never intended,” Cuomo said in the statement Sunday. “I acknowledge some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation. To the extent anyone felt that way, I am truly sorry about that.”
A third woman Monday posted an account of unwelcome encounter with Cuomo at a 2019 wedding in which he touched her back and, when she removed his hand, clasped her face, kissed her and called her aggressive. Unlike the others, Anna Ruch was not a government employee working with Cuomo.
Cuomo said that he typically greeted people with hugs and kisses, and pointed to existing photographs of this behavior as evidence that he had no ill intent.
“You can find hundreds of pictures of me kissing people,” he said. “It is my way of greeting people.” He noted that it was also a habit of his father, former New York governor Mario Cuomo.
Andrew Cuomo met Ruch at a wedding for an adviser, Gareth Rhodes, who announced this week that he is leaving the governor’s office, according to a person familiar with the situation. Rhodes’s wife, Alexa Kissinger, tweeted support for Ruch after she went public on her interaction with Cuomo.
“I’m so proud of Anna for sharing her story,” Kissinger wrote. “This pattern of behavior is completely unacceptable.”
Cuomo’s remarks Wednesday came as part of another streamed briefing on declining coronavirus infection, hospitalization and death rates. He announced that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine had arrived in New York and that large vaccination sites in the state planned to stay open 24 hours a day.
“We have really made tremendous progress, and this is really good news,” Cuomo said of the pandemic fight, before again pleading with New Yorkers to remain vigilant about mask-wearing and social distancing. “The light at the end of the tunnel is in sight, but we can’t stop driving now.”