During New York’s darkest pandemic days, Gov. Andrew Cuomo emerged as one of the country’s brightest political stars.
His data-heavy daily news briefings became appointment television for millions of Americans searching for a steady hand and dose of empathy to counteract then-President Donald Trump’s mixture of erratic, dangerous denialism. But Cuomo’s image – of a competent, hands-on executive – has suffered a fierce blow over the past few weeks, following new revelations that his administration underreported the number of Covid deaths among New York nursing home patients, according to a state attorney general report, and then delayed sharing potentially damaging information with state lawmakers.
Cuomo has denied any suggestion of wrongdoing and forcefully defended his top aides. He has also scrambled to contain the fallout through backchannels, leaning on some Democratic legislators in search of public support – and, according to a few of them, issuing threats when his requests were rebuffed. The US attorney’s office in Brooklyn and the FBI are also now scrutinizing the state’s handling of data surrounding Covid deaths in its long-term care facilities, according to a law enforcement official.
The upheaval follows months of simmering anger among Cuomo critics, who – while acknowledging the real public benefits of his early, hyper-engaged communication tactics – believe the governor sought to parlay his new popularity into a shield against legitimate questions over his actions.
A poll released this week suggested that Cuomo’s standing with a majority of New Yorkers remains strong. But the survey, conducted in the midst of the current maelstrom, showed some potential cracks and emboldened state Democrats are now pushing to strip the governor of his emergency powers in what they believe is a new political climate – one in which the public might be more willing to hear their criticism.
“It’s hard to battle that (earlier) narrative when you have a governor on television providing a cool, calm and collected persona,” Democratic State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, a progressive, told CNN earlier this week. “But for some of us, we knew it was a persona.”
A storm of outrage
Cuomo’s recent troubles began in late January, when New York state Attorney General Tish James released a report that found the administration had undercounted Covid-related nursing home deaths by as much as 50%. Two weeks later, the governor’s top aide in a call with Democratic state lawmakers admitted that Cuomo’s team put off an August request for data from long-term care facilities over fears the information would be “used against us” as part of an inquiry launched by then-President Donald Trump’s Justice Department.
The administration has defended that decision, arguing that with both the Justice Department and New York lawmakers asking questions, the federal inquiry became their priority.
“The federal DOJ takes precedence over the state legislature,” Cuomo said on Friday. “That’s true. They find it offensive. I’m sorry, but that is true.”
In a now public transcript of the virtual meeting that set off the firestorm, which was first reported on by the New York Post, Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa accused Trump of turning the nursing home issue into “political football” and then directing “a political hack” at the Justice Department to begin an inquiry into New York and other Democratic-led states.
“And basically, we froze,” DeRosa told Democrats on the call, “because then we were in a position where we weren’t sure if what we were going to give to the Department of Justice or what we give to you guys, what we start saying was going to be used against us while we weren’t sure if there was going to be an investigation.”
DeRosa apologized for creating political headaches for the lawmakers, but a number came away either unsatisfied or furious, some of them taking their complaints to the press. Democratic Assemblyman Ron Kim, a Queens progressive who has emerged as an outspoken critic of the governor, was quoted in the original Post story.
Cuomo subsequently called Kim to take issue with his comments and suggest that the lawmaker put out a statement clarifying his remarks. (Kim told CNN that the Post story did not misquote or misinterpret him, so there was no reason for him to do so.)
“Gov. Cuomo called me directly on Thursday (of last week) to threaten my career if I did not cover up for Melissa (DeRosa) and what she said,” Kim told CNN. “He tried to pressure me to issue a statement, and it was a very traumatizing experience.”
At a press briefing Wednesday, knowing that Kim’s account was about to become public, Cuomo opened with familiar talk about virus positivity rates and vaccine distribution news, before taking a sharp, unprompted turn into a scathing attack on the assemblyman. He said Kim was pursuing a vendetta against his office, then – calling back on a story from 2015 – suggested Kim had taken part in “unethical if not illegal” behavior.
Rich Azzopardi, senior advisor to the governor, later put out a statement accusing Kim of “lying” about his conversation with Cuomo.
Cuomo’s tirade sent shockwaves across the New York political world, which, though accustomed to his sharp-elbowed style, was taken aback by its ferocity. But the headlines over infighting would soon be upstaged by news, first reported by The Albany Times Union, of the federal inquiry.
Past criticisms uncorked
The fight that has consumed much of the week has been brewing for months, as concerns surrounding the state’s handling of Covid and nursing homes mostly flew below the national radar.
On Monday, Cuomo insisted that his Health Department had always “fully” reported all Covid-19 deaths in nursing homes and hospitals. There is, he added, “nothing to investigate.” He offered an apology, of sorts, and conceded the unreleased data – which now shows that the number of nursing home deaths was nearly double the previously reported figure, at more than 15,000 – created a “void” of information.
Cuomo nodded to the pain the mess inflicted on the families of those who perished, but stopped short of a mea culpa for the decisions that set it off.
“The void allowed misinformation and conspiracy, and now people are left with the thought of, ‘Did my loved one have to die?’ And that is a brutal, brutal question to pose to a person,” he said. “And I want everyone to know everything was done. Everything was done by the best minds in the best interest.”
Cuomo has kept up that line of defense and said on Friday that, pending legal approval, he “would have no problem” with releasing details of the state’s exchanges with the Justice Department. The governor also, by the end of the week, expressed a new kind of regret – saying he hadn’t been “aggressive enough” in combating political opponents.
“I didn’t come back to you,” Cuomo told a reporter, “every time you retweeted some congressperson, who is my political opponent, some county executive who ran against me – I never went back to you guys and said, ‘Hey, you know, it’s all political backdrop here. I should’ve.”
Once the source of so much celebration, recent Cuomo press conferences have been conducted in an atmosphere of high dudgeon. The foam “mountain,” a physical symbol unveiled in June to give life to a metaphor Cuomo employed during the worst of the pandemic, now seems a long way off.
“It was a contorted way for someone to admit they’re wrong is what I took away from it,” state Sen. Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat, said on Monday in response to the governor’s initial public response. “We all know the transparency around the nursing home deaths was lacking.”
Cuomo had previously faced criticism in New York over a directive in late March that barred nursing homes that met certain standards from refusing to take back Covid patients returning from hospitals. Over the coming weeks and months, Cuomo sparred with reporters over the controversial guidance and accusations that the official death toll at the facilities didn’t add up. (The overall totals did; the dispute was over how they were assigned.)
By mid-May, Cuomo rescinded the directive, which he has repeatedly defended, saying it followed federal guidelines. Moving forward, residents would require a negative Covid test before reentering a facility.
National acclaim sparks backlash
But the back-and-forth over that policy and others, including a since scaled-back legal immunity provision for nursing homes that was folded into a massive budget package, hardly put a dent in Cuomo’s national ascent.
In November, he was given an International Emmy Founders Award for his performance in the springtime press conferences.
“The Governor’s 111 daily briefings worked so well because he effectively created television shows, with characters, plot lines, and stories of success and failure,” International Academy President and CEO Bruce L. Paisner said in a statement at the time. A group of New York Democratic lawmakers this week wrote an open letter asking the academy to rescind the award.
The month before the Emmy announcement, Cuomo released a book, “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic,” which quickly appeared on the New York Times bestseller list. But efforts to promote the book coincided with a rise in new coronavirus cases around the country and in the state, roiling his critics and prompting a rebuke from Trump, who had previously latched on to the nursing home controversy.
“Governor Cuomo has shown tremendously poor leadership skills in running N.Y.,” Trump tweeted on October 19. “Bad time for him to be writing and promoting a book, especially since he has done such a poor job with Covid and Crime. So many unnecessary deaths.”
Trump’s spitballs, though, were a kind of blessing for Cuomo. They upstaged good faith criticism from lower profile figures, including many New York Democrats, and allowed the governor to largely dismiss questions over his decision-making as politically driven while avoiding more sustained scrutiny on the substance.
“You don’t do a victory lap at halftime. But more importantly, the pandemic was still a problem and one would think there’d be more important things to focus on,” Gianaris said earlier this week. “So if he could write a book, he could give us the information we were asking over the course of six months.”
A brewing power struggle
Cuomo’s rivals in the increasingly progressive state legislature, which is now home to Democratic supermajorities in both chambers, have been emboldened by the growing sense of scandal.
The next step, some state Democratic lawmakers have said, is a push to strip Cuomo of his emergency powers, which have allowed him to act decisively on a variety of issues, like business openings and closures.
The debate has spread beyond the state capitol, with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who slammed Cuomo earlier in the week over reports of the governor’s intimidating phone calls, and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez coming out in support of their efforts.
Ocasio-Cortez, in a statement, also backed “a full investigation of the Cuomo administration’s handling of nursing homes during COVID-19,” echoing State Sen. Jessica Ramos.
“His emergency powers must be rescinded,” Ramos said last week, “he and his administration must be subpoenaed for all of the pertinent information, and a full investigation must result in justice for our grieving families.”
But Democrats, including Cuomo’s rivals, have so far rejected the prospect of seeking the governor’s resignation or beginning an impeachment process called for by New York Republicans.
A suddenly uncertain future
Nearly a year after his press conferences made him into a national star, with some Democrats floating him as a presidential contender – never mind that then-candidate Joe Biden had already locked up the party’s nomination – Cuomo is now in what many New York politicos view as the most fraught position of his long political life.
A poll released Tuesday by the Siena College Research Institute gave conflicting indications over Cuomo’s standing.
The survey, which was conducted more than a week after the unveiling of the state attorney general report but before the details of DeRosa’s call were made public, found that Cuomo’s overall position was largely unchanged from a month ago.
More than six in 10 New Yorkers approved of his handling of the Covid crisis and 67% said he was doing an “excellent or good job at communicating with the people of New York about the ongoing pandemic,” according to the Siena pollsters. A majority – 53% – said he should keep his emergency powers.
On the flip side, Cuomo was well below water on the issue of transparency surrounding the state’s nursing home situation. Fifty-five percent of respondents said he done a fair or poor job on that front, with just 39% giving positive reviews.
The latter figures were absent from a statement released on Tuesday morning by New York State Democratic Party Chairman Jay Jacobs, a Cuomo ally, who touted the friendlier findings.
“Despite the best efforts of the far fringe, Governor Cuomo’s popularity remains unchanged; 11 months into global pandemic, 61% of voters approve of his response,” Jacobs said.
He also included a warning – directed at Cuomo’s critics, but also a sign that the governor’s allies are prepared for a longer fight over his staying power and, eventually, his legacy.
“Voters understand better than some of those looking to score political points that the Governor has done a great job staying focused on saving lives and ending this pandemic,” Jacobs said. “Those seeking to politicize the process should take heed.”
CNN’s MJ Lee, Mark Morales and Shimon Prokupecz contributed to this report