The juxtaposition highlighted the dilemma facing a president who has positioned himself as a champion of women’s rights and the #MeToo movement. Biden spent his earliest weeks in office promoting a raft of policies supporting women, but he is now being tested by a scandal surrounding a prominent Democrat with whom he has long had a close relationship.
For now, Biden is keeping his distance, neither defending Cuomo nor calling for his ouster. He made no mention of the governor on Monday. The White House has not been in touch with Cuomo’s team on the matter, according to a senior administration official. West Wing aides are following the coverage but focusing on other issues, chiefly their sweeping coronavirus relief bill.
Biden’s situation is especially sensitive because he himself has faced accusations of unwanted touching by women, in addition to leading a party that is seeking to consolidate the surging support among women that propelled it to power last year.
Biden is trying to strike a delicate balance. He and other Democrats say the women who have accused the governor should be listened to and treated respectfully, while stopping short of concluding that Cuomo is guilty.
Asked Monday whether Biden feels Cuomo should resign in the wake of new allegations reported by The Washington Post and others over the weekend, the White House referred to comments by press secretary Jen Psaki last week. In those comments, Psaki voiced support for the investigation by New York Attorney General Letitia James (D), adding that Cuomo’s accusers should “be treated with dignity and respect and should have their voices heard.”
Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, in an interview Monday with Washington Post Live, sounded similar notes.
“The allegations are serious and they need to be investigated thoroughly, not only for the sake of the women who have stepped forward,” Clinton said. “I am very confident the attorney general will conduct an independent, comprehensive investigation and I think we should all wait to see what those results are.”
Cuomo has been accused of making inappropriate personal comments and unwelcome physical contact by several women who’ve worked with him. They include an allegation from a woman who told The Post she was summoned by Cuomo to a dimly lit hotel room where he embraced her, pulling her back toward him even as she pulled away. Another woman has said Cuomo kissed her without her consent. Cuomo has denied these encounters.
Separately, other women who worked for him have said that he made inappropriate remarks to them, including asking detailed questions about their dating lives. Cuomo has apologized for this, saying he didn’t intend to cause offense or pain.
One person close to the White House, who like others quoted in this article spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive conversations, said they did not sense strong pressure from outside activists to change course. The White House’s overarching strategy, in this person’s estimation, was to stay as far away from the situation as possible.
“I still think the investigation is the right path forward,” said Shaunna Thomas, co-founder of UltraViolet, a group that promotes women’s right and has called on Cuomo to step down. She added that the central question now is whether Cuomo is “going to be held accountable when the investigation is complete.”
Biden’s approach was evident Monday as he and his aides commemorated International Women’s Day but did not address the Cuomo accusations.
The president signed an executive order directing the Education Department to review a Trump-era regulation that spells out due process rights for those accused of harassment or assault at colleges and universities. Another order established a White House Gender Policy Council.
Biden later announced his nominations of Air Force Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost as commander of United States Transportation Command and Army Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson as commander of the United States Southern Command. Pentagon leaders reportedly held back their nominations until after the election, concerned that President Donald Trump would reject them because they are women.
“Today’s is International Women’s Day and we all need to see and recognize the barrier-breaking accomplishments of these women,” Biden said. He also spoke out on sexual assault, calling it “abhorrent and wrong at any time.”
Several people close to Cuomo said Biden’s muted response is helpful to the governor. They noted that Cuomo has been friendly with Biden for decades, praising him repeatedly and publicly in recent days. Biden is one of the few figures who could shift Cuomo from his instinctively pugilistic stance toward greater contrition, they said.
Rich Azzopardi, a senior Cuomo adviser, signaled in a statement Monday that the governor is not thinking about resigning, taking the opportunity to praise the Biden administration.
“There’s a job to do and New Yorkers elected the Governor to do it — he remains focused on vaccine distribution and the state budget and we’re thankful for the help that the administration has provided on both those fronts,” Azzopardi said.
Cuomo and his team also asked New York lawmakers Monday to hold off on public calls for a resignation until James’s investigation is complete, arguing that it would undercut her work, one person familiar with the conversations said. Cuomo also appeared with Black ministers in New York City to tout coronavirus vaccines. But he did not take any questions, and the event was not open to the press.
Advisers described a frenzied series of calls and meetings over the weekend to discern how bad any new accusations be. Several people who have been in touch with the governor and his team said his circle views the allegations as mostly political, a way for lawmakers who have long disliked Cuomo’s brash, hard-hitting style to exact revenge.
Biden himself is not among the many Democrats who have had testy relations with the governor over the years. As Cuomo was battling a progressive primary challenge from Cynthia Nixon in pursuit of his third term, he sought Biden’s help.
Biden, who described a “deep personal friendship” with Cuomo, spoke at the final day of the New York State Democratic Convention in May 2018. In a 45-minute speech, Biden praised Cuomo as a liberal champion who made Biden think of his late son Beau — one of the highest compliments he can bestow on a politician.
“Our families have a lot in common,” Biden said. “We were raised in homes, one Italian, one Irish, where we were taught that the greatest sin anyone could commit, and I mean this literally, was the abuse of power, whether it was government abusing power or the abuse of economic power or physical power.”
Biden also joked about their shared love of Corvettes and listed Cuomo’s progressive achievements, such as raising the minimum wage, legalizing same-sex marriage and instituting paid family leave.
The bond deepened in 2015 as Biden agonized over whether to run for president. He describes in his memoir how Cuomo urged him to make a decision he could live with, drawing on the experiences of his own father, Mario Cuomo, who never made peace with his decision not to seek the presidency. “Whatever decision you make, make sure you won’t regret it,” Cuomo said, according to Biden.
In some ways, Cuomo’s strategy for navigating the current accusations echoes Biden’s own approach as a candidate for president in 2019 and 2020. Lucy Flores, a former Nevada state assemblywoman, was one of serval women who accused Biden of inappropriate conduct just before he launched his campaign.
Biden defended his behavior at the time, but said he understood his “gestures of support” made people “uncomfortable.”
Flores said Monday that Cuomo should resign and Biden should use the moment to address a culture of inappropriate behavior by male politicians. “Obviously there’s a reason Joe Biden has not addressed this,” she said in an interview. “Why would he want to open up his own can of worms again? He could step up and use this as a leadership opportunity and reiterate that that kind of behavior was never acceptable.”
Biden later faced accusations from Tara Reade, a former staffer in his Senate office, who alleged that he had sexually assaulted her in 1993. Biden and his campaign said the allegations were untrue, while stressing that women have a right to be heard and their stories scrutinized by the press.
Women’s groups on Friday made recommendations for how the investigation of Cuomo’s behavior should proceed. “It is essential that these allegations be investigated through a nonpartisan, fair, and independent process,” said a letter backed by UltraViolet, the National Women’s Law Center, Time’s Up and the Women’s March, among others.
Representatives from several of the groups that signed the letter said on Monday they still supporting that approach, and the new accusations that surfaced over the weekend of questionable behavior by Cuomo have not changed their views.
Laura Meckler and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.