On Tuesday, New York Attorney General Letitia James released a damning report detailing the results of a four-month investigation into allegations of sexual harassment against the state’s three-term governor, Andrew Cuomo. The explosive review, which the AG requested after two state employees came forward in February with allegations against the governor, found that he had “sexually harassed a number of current and former New York State employees by, among other things, engaging in unwelcome and nonconsensual touching, as well as making numerous offensive comments of a suggestive and sexual nature that created a hostile work environment for women.” The governor had also attempted to retaliate against one of his accusers by smearing her as a Donald Trump supporter who was determined to make him look bad.
Immediately facing calls to resign, Cuomo responded in a recorded video. He was perplexed! How could he be accused of such behavior? After all, a family member of his was a victim of sexual assault like one of his accusers, Charlotte Bennett. “I thought I had learned a lot about the issue from my family’s experience,” Cuomo said, explaining why he made sexually inappropriate comments to Bennett. “I thought I could help her work through a difficult time. I did ask her questions I don’t normally ask people.” His prepared response was a masterpiece of denial, defiance, injured self-righteousness, all wrapped up in layers of absurdity.
One year ago, there weren’t too many people comparing Andrew Cuomo to then-President Donald Trump. Trump was botching the COVID response while Cuomo was earning praise as a real leader who was handling the massive crisis in New York by marshaling facts and deploying impressive political skill. Plus, he was the apparently fully engaged father of two teenage daughters. But as complaints about how his administration handled the pandemic and allegations about his bullying and sexually predatory behavior surfaced, I realized maybe the governor and the then-president had a few things in common, aside from being powerful men from New York.
Let’s start with the allegations of sexual harassment. During the Trump era, whenever allegations about a Democratic politician surfaced like the ones against Al Franken, a group of people—usually pundits and people dedicated to the Democratic Party—came out of the woodwork to play a few rounds of “whataboutism.” You’re complaining about fill-in-the-blank creating a culture of fear, or assaulting women, or engaging in duplicitous behavior, or fill-in-the-blank, but what about Donald Trump? Of course, hardly any politician comes close to Donald Trump in terms of being credibly accused of sexual assault by a long list of women.
After the incendiary 2005 tape was released just weeks before the 2016 election, where Trump can be heard bragging about sexually assaulting women, he dismissed his actions as mere “locker room” talk and went on to win the election. The dozens of women who have stepped forward to describe flagrant misbehavior by the former president have been repeatedly demeaned and dismissed. In 2019, Trump said one of his most prominent accusers, E. Jean Carroll, was “totally lying,” and added, just for that special dash of credibility, that she was “not my type.”
In addressing the allegations leveled at him, Cuomo took a similar, albeit more eloquent, approach, focusing on his own misunderstood behavior rather than slandering those who stepped forward. “The facts are much different than what has been portrayed,” Cuomo mewled during his response, claiming that his accusers were “misinterpreting” his behavior and demeanor toward them. He had done nothing wrong, he insisted, and was going nowhere. “I do it with everyone!” he said of the allegations that he inappropriately touched state staffers. “Black and white, young and old, straight and LGBTQ, powerful people, friends, strangers, people who I meet on the street.”
Ever eager to provide evidence, Cuomo also released his own report. It contained dozens of photos of Cuomo hugging an assortment of people like his own mother and Joe Biden. He also included a photo of former President Barack Obama hugging Hillary Clinton and, just to be bipartisan, former president George W. Bush hugging a white-haired lady.
Gov. Cuomo has released an 85-page written response to the independent investigation, but it's only 26 pages of text. Most of the rest is dozens of photos of him hugging people and other politicians hugging people: https://t.co/qjNW1idpOY pic.twitter.com/AmyfNpKzXG
— Brian M. Rosenthal (@brianmrosenthal) August 3, 2021
The fact that Cuomo believes that hugging one’s own mother or embracing a longtime friend is the same as grabbing women who work for him kind of summarizes the entire problem, not to mention his obliviousness to the fact that he created an environment that was described in the report as “filled with fear and intimidation.”
Being an unrepentant sex pest is not the only quality the two men share. In March and April 2020, when COVID-19 began to substantially spread in the US, New York was one of the first states to be devastated. Trump was busy spewing misinformation at very painful press conferences. A parade of CEOs once appeared to tout a testing program that never went anywhere. Then there were his many medical tips, such as his suggestion we could kill the virus by injecting bleach or that an unproven malaria drug was the magic bullet for COVID patients. In contrast, Cuomo’s press conferences provided practical and scientific information such as current infection rates and how to get tested. And when he appeared as a guest on his brother Chris Cuomo’s (who tested positive for COVID-19) CNN television show, they engaged in witty banter to the delight of viewers. Cuomo’s celebrity led to a cringey amount of thirst on social media, with young people, referring to themselves as “Cuomosexuals,” idolizing the brothers after being fed up with the disastrous response from the Trump administration.
Andrew Cuomo was riding high. He penned a book about his COVID response, and there was even talk of a presidential bid. As far as the pandemic response was concerned, the NY governor could do no wrong.
Then again, maybe he could.
In January, a different report appeared from the state attorney general, this one about how New York’s health department undercounted nursing home deaths by 50 percent; Cuomo even acknowledged that 15,000 people had died in long-term care facilities as opposed to the 8,500 the state had reported. Melissa DeRosa, a top aide and enabler for Cuomo, said that the administration hid the numbers because they didn’t want Trump to use the information against them, which was another way of saying that the optics were more important than the truth. Then, in February, the FBI revealed that the agency was investigating the Cuomo administration for allegedly covering up nursing home deaths, but late last month the Department of Justice announced that it reviewed all the information, would not be going further in its inquiry, and declined to comment further.
Do you know who else wanted pandemic numbers to appear better than they were?
Throughout 2020, Trump would rail against increasing testing because he knew that if the US conducted widespread testing, the true scope of both the disease’s devastation and his administration’s failures would be revealed. “When you do testing to that extent, you’re going to find more people,” Trump said during a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma (which may have been a superspreader event and could have possibly led to the death from COVID of one of his supporters, pizza mogul Herman Cain). “You’re going to find more cases. So, I said to my people, ‘Slow the testing down, please.’” When members of his administration tried to clean up his comments by saying he was joking, Trump doubled down, telling reporters, “I don’t kid.”
The convergence of the nursing home deaths allegations and multiple women accusing the governor of sexual misconduct led to Cuomo’s speedy crash from his pinnacle of national fame. And here’s an important distinction between the fates of these two men: Unlike Trump, despite all his extravagant efforts to rewrite the record, Cuomo may not be able to ride it out. Multiple high-profile elected officials—such as Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.)—have called on Cuomo to step down, as has President Joe Biden. Cuomo’s once-loyal allies in Albany are distancing themselves, and the halls of the state Capitol are ringing with calls for his resignation and threats of impeachment. (A process Trump is intimately familiar with—twice!)
In terms of the consequences of their actions, Trump is a far more dangerous and destructive presence in the body politic than Cuomo. The election meddling, the encouragement of the insurrection, the utter destruction of the Republican Party, and the relentless undermining of democracy are all still his to own. Democrats are more likely to demand that their transgressors step down; Republicans ignore any problems and keep pandering to the abuser in chief. Still, I would not be surprised if someday we discover that on a golf course at Mar-a-Lago, the 45th president is regretting that he too did not release dozens of photos of himself hugging various people to refute the claims of sexual assault against him. On the other hand, he didn’t really have to, did he? And, in the end, that’s the biggest difference of all.