The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Cuomo’s flexing of political power became his undoing

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) prepares to board a helicopter on Aug. 10 after announcing his resignation. (Seth Wenig/AP)

Hours after the state attorney general released a scorching report last week that found New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had sexually harassed 11 women and his staff had unlawfully retaliated against an alleged victim, the Rev. Al Sharpton said he received a call from the governor.

“Al, I’m telling you this is all a setup. You know setups when you hear them,” Cuomo said, according to the civil rights leader.

“He was in a fighting mood,” recalled Sharpton, who said he told the governor that while he was willing to hear his case, he thought the report appeared thorough. Most members of his National Action Network in New York wanted Cuomo to resign, and Sharpton — a longtime supporter — did not plan to publicly defend him, he told Cuomo.

“He didn’t sound angry,” Sharpton said. “He didn’t even seem surprised.”

Cuomo’s decision Tuesday to step down from office was not driven by a sense of penance or contrition, aides said, but rather by a recognition that his fate was set.

After governing New York with an iron fist for more than than a decade — and amassing an enviable list of achievements along the way — he had few allies willing to stand by him. Politically isolated, he faced the prospect of being expelled from the governor’s mansion by the state legislature and banned from running for state office again.

“He didn’t want to be the second governor in the history of New York state to be impeached. And he knew he’d be impeached,” said Kathryn Wylde, the president and chief executive of the Partnership for New York City, an influential business group, who had talked to some of the governor’s staffers.

Cuomo announces resignation in effort to head off likely impeachment after devastating report on his conduct

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced his resignation on Aug. 10 after a state investigation found he sexually harassed 11 women. (Video: Reuters)

Cuomo didn’t even try to call to plead his case with Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, with some people close to him saying it would be a futile effort. Over the past week, his advisers determined that he had fewer than a dozen supporters left in the Assembly. Several thought he would certainly be convicted in the Senate and urged him to consider resigning. “We had no chance there,” said one adviser, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.

In the calls he did make, Cuomo found few people willing to say anything publicly on his behalf, and, on Tuesday, state and local leaders expressed relief at the downfall of a figure they had long feared — and never loved.

“He had a style of government that I did not particularly care for, which was intimidation, bullying, ridiculing people who disagreed with him,” Assemblyman Phil Steck (D) said Tuesday, adding: “The governor was always one to aggrandize his own power, and that was ultimately what caused him to resign — abuse of power.”

Crystal Peoples-Stokes, the Democratic majority leader in the Assembly, put it bluntly: “A lot of people just don’t like him.”

For years, Cuomo and his team embraced criticisms of his tactics by simply saying they were brutally effective: He got results for New Yorkers, his aides argued, securing a $15 minimum wage and making New York one of the first states to pass same-sex marriage.

His governing style was summed up succinctly by Steve Cohen, one of his top aides, in a 2011 phone call. “We operate on two speeds here: Get along, and kill,” he told a Connecticut state official on a call, as the Connecticut Post first reported.

After a decade of Cuomo’s not getting along with many in New York politics, many people were ready to kill.

“If you are going to come at the king, you best not miss. If you are going to bully everyone, you best not slip,” said Preet Bharara, a former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York who investigated Cuomo and then became an object of the governor’s angry fixation.

Cuomo’s tough-guy confidence, long seen as his political super power, ultimately proved to be his downfall. The same bold instinct that allowed him to steamroll and terrify opponents made it possible for him to sustain what investigators found was a years-long pattern of intimidating and harassing younger women he encountered, many of whom later said they were terrified to speak out about their experiences with him.

The episodes detailed in the report commissioned by Attorney General Letitia James — Cuomo running his hands down the spine of a state trooper standing before him in an elevator, tracing his fingers over the logo printed across the shirt of a woman shaking his hand on a rope line — provoked outrage and denunciations.

In public, Cuomo cast himself as an advocate of women. In private, women say, he was harassing them at the same time.

Cuomo’s political celebrity and ambitious governing accomplishments — including strengthening the state’s rape and gun laws and legalizing recreational cannabis — did not serve to slow his fall. Even his closest allies and advisers bolted for cover. Democrats, from President Biden on down, called for him to step aside.

Advisers said Cuomo tried to push for days against the tide, working furiously with his lawyer Rita Glavin and other staff members to prepare a defense against impeachment. He privately vowed to cross-examine witnesses at a trial and urged his attorney to question the credibility of his accusers, advisers said. His staff continued to berate journalists who were writing about him and insisted that he would weather the scandal.

The governor suffered a gut punch Sunday when his top aide, Melissa DeRosa, abruptly quit, telling another adviser that she was “getting slaughtered” — privately citing to allies a column in the New York Times by Maureen Dowd, who compared DeRosa to women who played the role of “vile procuress,” enabling a man to behave badly. The departure of DeRosa, a fierce loyalist, underscored how little support he had left.

Still, as late as Monday, Cuomo continued to poll others around him to ask if he could survive, according to people familiar with the discussions. None of them thought he could, but the governor wanted to test the waters for a few days, two advisers said.

“The people will want to hear my story,” Cuomo told aides, citing how much support he had among Democrats, an adviser said.

But the governor eventually relented after struggling to find anyone not on the payroll who would support him. Late on Monday, Cuomo began to tell some people he was going to resign; among those helping him in the mansion was Rich Azzopardi, a longtime spokesman.

“There is no question this was personally a difficult decision for him,” said Charlie King, a longtime adviser who ran unsuccessfully with Cuomo in 2002 for the post of lieutenant governor and spoke to him repeatedly in recent days. “There were issues he wanted to keep discussing with the people and the legislature. He genuinely believed he had an argument to make, and if he argued it enough, he thought he could persuade some people. It was an open question to whether or not he could, and it could melt down the very institution of government, and he may not be successful in the end. What good comes of that?”

King added: “I thought he had no chance or that it was very remote. But that’s where he was at.”

Cuomo could not resist a final punch at his enemies. Advisers said he drafted detailed takedowns of the attorney general’s report that his lawyer delivered in a pugilistic 45-minute public address, minutes before he announced he was leaving office.

“My instinct is to fight,” he said, before grudgingly announcing his resignation.

Even as he apologized to the women who came forward and accused him — and praised them for their bravery — Cuomo did not admit fault, saying they had misinterpreted his style of affection. He thought he could win on the facts, he said, but the process was stacked against him.

It was a staggering drop for a politician who had managed to hold onto power by squelching dissent and amassing strong support from the real estate and business communities, along with moderate Democrats and Black voters in New York City. He pitted lawmakers against one another and controlled the state’s programs, leading many to fear criticizing him and losing resources they wanted in their districts. His staff mimicked his style, often berating and misleading journalists, sometimes blocking damaging information from being published.

In 2020, Cuomo had seemed unstoppable: His daily coronavirus briefings, in which he took on then-President Donald Trump, made him a national star and helped him score a $5 million book deal.

It all began to crumble in late December, when a former adviser, Lindsey Boylan, went public on Twitter with accusations of sexual harassment.

Cuomo aides released her personnel file to reporters in an effort to discredit her. But Boylan continued to talk, and other women came forward, even as Cuomo and his team maneuvered behind the scenes to limit the revelations and the fallout.

“It didn’t go well,” DeRosa told investigators about a surreptitious effort to record one aide seen as an ally of Boylan’s.

Little by little, there were signs of chips in Cuomo’s seemingly unassailable power.

When James provided the governor’s staff with a draft copy of a critical report this spring about his administration’s handling of nursing homes in the pandemic, DeRosa sought to block its release, former aides said. James issued the report anyway.

Cuomo’s tactic of berating lawmakers lost some of its potency when Assemblyman Ron T. Kim went public with a description of a call in which Cuomo harangued him. Then the New York Times released a recording of another call, in which Cuomo threatened to compare liberal activist Bill Lipton to a “child rapist.” Another lawmaker shared profane text messages sent by DeRosa, and other lawmakers leaked damaging comments DeRosa made on a conference call about how the state handled nursing home data during the pandemic.

“The entire Cuomo apparatus was focused on controlling the narrative,” Lipton said. “He saw it as the key to maintaining power. That meant attacking and discrediting anyone who didn’t toe his line. It worked 99 percent of the time.”

But once liberals and younger members of the party gained more power, “he lost control of Albany, and that shifted. The truth started to come out,” he added.

In March, The Washington Post and the Albany Times Union revealed the existence of a preferential coronavirus testing system that benefited Cuomo’s relatives.

Other stories emerged about the governor’s staff being asked to help work on Cuomo’s book. And former aides who had kept quiet for years about the abusive nature of his office finally went public with their stories.

Cuomo’s behavior created ‘hostile, toxic’ workplace culture for decades, former aides say

During a long interview last month with James’s investigators, Cuomo grew angry at times and sharply questioned the professionalism of the team and the accounts of the women. But the investigators said they found many of his defenses lacked credibility.

Wylde said that Cuomo was “a great governor for eight years” but that she believes he became too isolated.

“I blame it all on being so powerful for so long that you become insulated and believe everything you think,” she said. “You’re not getting feedback from anyone but sycophants. That’s the point at which people in power lose perspective and make mistakes.”

When he climbed into a helicopter Tuesday at a Manhattan heliport to fly back to Albany, he was trailed by DeRosa, who aides said had agreed to stay on for his final two weeks, and one of his daughters.

Allies said they were glad he would be leaving the governor’s mansion, where he had been holed up for the past week. But now, they said, he needs to find a place to live.

Ted Gup in Albany contributed to this report.