The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Chris Cuomo sought ‘intel’ on media coverage about accusations against his brother, text messages show

“Please let me help with the prep,” Chris Cuomo texted a top aide to his brother, then-New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, as accusations of misconduct mounted. (Mike Coppola/Getty Images for CNN)
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CNN anchor Chris Cuomo was more extensively involved in helping to defend his brother, then-New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, against allegations of sexual misconduct than he has previously acknowledged, according to documents released Monday by New York Attorney General Letitia James.

Text messages between the CNN journalist and top Cuomo aide Melissa DeRosa show that Chris Cuomo offered to draft statements for his brother to use to deny misconduct, demanded more influence over the strategy, and even researched potential news coverage and accusers for the governor’s office.

“Please let me help with the prep,” Cuomo wrote at one point to DeRosa, as the claims against the governor surfaced earlier this year.

On another occasion, the younger Cuomo texted DeRosa that he needed “all the best facts” for “reporters. Who can do it?”

Chris Cuomo also appeared to use his journalistic connections to gather information for the governor’s team. He fielded requests from DeRosa for “intel” on a then-unpublished investigative story by New Yorker writer Ronan Farrow and information about a rumor that more accusers were about to come forward on March 7.

“On it,” Cuomo responded to the second request. About 40 minutes later, he wrote back, “No one has heard that yet.”

The messages deepen questions about whether Chris Cuomo, one of CNN’s star anchors, crossed lines in his advocacy for his brother and misused his position as a prominent cable television anchor.

Chris Cuomo did not immediately respond to requests for comment. He appeared as scheduled on his show Monday night and did not address the allegations. Cuomo told investigators that he was frequently in touch with other journalists to learn what they had heard about the claims but said he was not a “substantive player” in the strategy discussions and did not share information with other reporters on behalf of the governor.

“I didn’t have a role on the team. I’m not on his team,” the CNN anchor said, according to transcripts released by James’s office. “I’m his brother and I’m a Cuomo.”

In a statement, CNN said, “The thousands of pages of additional transcripts and exhibits that were released today by the NY Attorney General deserve a thorough review and consideration. We will be having conversations and seeking additional clarity about their significance as they relate to CNN over the next several days.”

CNN anchor Chris Cuomo apologized on his May 20 show for taking part in political strategy phone calls for his brother New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D). (Video: CNN)

The Washington Post reported earlier this year that the younger Cuomo had participated in strategy sessions with the governor and his aides as Andrew M. Cuomo (D) was fielding mounting complaints about inappropriate comments and physical contact.

The CNN anchor has also acknowledged at the time that he had assisted the governor’s office with advice about how to handle the pandemic.

Chris Cuomo has defended his behind-the-scenes work for his brother, saying he is about “family first, job second.”

“I can be objective about just about any topic, but not about my family,” Cuomo said on his CNN show on May 20. But he also said that the decision to be “looped into calls” with the governor’s friends, advisers and staff was a “mistake” because it put his colleagues at CNN in a “bad spot.”

At the time, CNN said that although the anchor had not been involved in the network’s Cuomo coverage, “it was inappropriate to engage in conversations that included members of the governor’s staff, which Chris acknowledges.” The network also said Chris Cuomo would not be disciplined.

People at CNN, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal dynamics, said Cuomo is close with the chief of the cable network, Jeff Zucker, and has one of the network’s highest-rated shows.

The communications between Chris Cuomo and the former governor’s office released Monday were among tens of thousands of pages of documents collected as part of the attorney general’s investigation into allegations of misconduct by Andrew M. Cuomo.

The longtime governor announced he would be stepping down from office Aug. 10, after James’s office released a report that found that he had sexually harassed 11 women and oversaw an unlawful effort to exact retribution against one of his accusers. Cuomo denied improperly touching women and said that those who felt uncomfortable had misinterpreted his affectionate leadership style.

How Cuomo’s flexing of political power became his undoing

The new documents included extensive interviews with more than a dozen Cuomo advisers, along with text messages and other documentary evidence about the governor’s office and its inner workings. The office also released videos of interviews that investigators had with the former governor and DeRosa, which at times turned combative.

In a statement, Rich Azzopardi, a spokesman for Andrew M. Cuomo, accused James of “abusing her government power” through what he called “manipulated release of hand picked witness testimony.”

The material shows a frantic effort by Cuomo’s team to fight back against his accusers, and a toxic work environment in which staffers frequently screamed and cursed at one another and some expressed deep frustrations with the governor.

At one point, DeRosa texted Lis Smith, an outside adviser, that she does not even trust her assistant. “I trust no one,” she said. At another point, DeRosa writes the governor’s office should be going harder after at least one of the accusers.

“Going hard has gotten you guys to where you are now. Which is a bad place,” Smith responded.

In her interview with the attorney general’s team, DeRosa describes an interaction that she said she had with James at an event earlier this year, before the attorney general launched an investigation into the women.

DeRosa wrote that James approached her and told her that people were questioning the credibility of Lindsey Boylan, the governor’s first accuser.

“Melissa, you have to calm down. Everything is going to be fine,” DeRosa said James told her. Of Boylan, she said James said: “Nobody views her as credible.”

A spokesman for James said in a statement that DeRosa’s “claims have no merit,” adding that James has said numerous times that she believes “the multiple women who came forward with credible allegations of sexual harassment by Mr. Cuomo.”

The newly released messages show that Chris Cuomo was deeply immersed in an effort to track down information about his brother’s accusers.

“I have a lead on the wedding girl,” he writes to DeRosa on March 4, an apparent reference to Anna Ruch, who accused the governor of touching her improperly at a wedding in a story published by the New York Times on March 1.

At another point, the CNN anchor took credit when Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie used particular words in a statement about the accusations. “Heastie used our language at least,” Chris Cuomo wrote.

Chris Cuomo also railed against the governor’s top aide for not looping him and other outside advisers into more aspects of the response.

“You need to trust me Lis and Jeff more,” he writes in one message to DeRosa. “Not these other people. We are making mistakes we can’t afford.”

The messages indicate that Chris Cuomo edited drafts of statements his brother could issue in response to the allegations. In one text message to DeRosa, Cuomo suggested an alternative comment for his brother to have issued in response to allegations by Charlotte Bennett, a former aide who accused the governor of misconduct.

“Here’s what he should have said,” Cuomo wrote. Then he provided commentary in the form of annotations to what he said was “Andrew M. Cuomo’s poor statement” about Bennett.

On March 12, he sent DeRosa the draft of a never-released statement for his brother to use to explain why he “can not” and “will not” resign the governorship. Cuomo advised his older brother to say that he understands why the accusations were being made, referring to the charges as acts of “political warfare.” He wrote that the then-governor should say that he understands “the conformity that can be forced by cancel culture.”

“No resign no resign no resign,” Cuomo writes in one message to DeRosa.

DeRosa repeatedly asked the CNN anchor to find out information about a story that the New Yorker’s Farrow was working on about Boylan.

“Rumor about Ronan getting ready to move,” DeRosa wrote to Chris Cuomo on March 9. “Can you check your sources.”

Cuomo texted back five days later to say that “if ronan has nothing better than Boylan thats a great sign.”

DeRosa appears to respond by texting him a conference call number “to discuss rownan convo.”

On March 15, DeRosa followed up again to ask, “Did u get any more intel?” Cuomo responded, “Story not ready for tomorrow.”

The Farrow story was published on March 18. The New Yorker journalist did not respond to a request for comment.

At another point, Chris Cuomo emailed information about Bennett, one of his brother’s accusers, to another Cuomo adviser.

Cuomo acknowledged the requests from DeRosa when he was interviewed by investigators, according to transcripts released by James’s office.

“I remember Melissa asking me at some point that either they wanted to know if I knew or could find out if more were coming or that she had heard that one or maybe two more were coming and could I find out,” he said.

He denied to investigators, however, that he conducted “oppo research” on accusers and said he “would never do oppo research on anybody alleging anything like this.”

Cuomo told investigators that he contacted “another journalist” to find out when the Farrow story in the New Yorker was coming out. He said he did not tell CNN about the effort.

“If I had tried to influence any of the reporting at CNN or anywhere else, I guarantee you you people would know, and so would a lot of others,” Cuomo told investigators, according to the transcript. “So the idea of one reporter calling another to find out about what’s coming down the pipe is completely business-as-usual.”

Chris Cuomo told investigators that he did not adequately protect himself in the course of advising his brother. His only focus, he said, was: “How do I protect my family? How do I help protect him? Probably should have been thinking more about how I protect myself, which just never occurred to me.”

But the CNN anchor also said that he had a practice of deleting text messages and emails after reading them, to prevent being “hacked” and having the sensitive content of his messages released publicly. In a March 10 message to DeRosa, he urged her to “Delete thread now.”