What to Know
- New York's Gov. Andrew Cuomo held his first live coronavirus briefing Wednesday (with Q&A) in nearly two weeks; he has been buried in two separate but compounding controversies as of late
- In that briefing, the governor pledged not to resign and asked New Yorkers to await the attorney general's report on the allegations against him before rendering judgment on him
- State Sen. James Skoufis on Wednesday joined the chorus of Democrats calling for Cuomo's resignation, as did Maya Wiley, who is running to replace Bill de Blasio as NYC mayor in November
Gov. Andrew Cuomo pledged not to resign Wednesday and asked New Yorkers to wait for the state attorney general's report on the sexual harassment allegations against him before casting judgment. He once again vowed to cooperate with that inquiry and said he "fully supports a woman's right to come forward."
The governor, visibly deflated and emotional, also apologized publicly for the second time in three days, this time on camera before a live audience. It was his first such briefing in 10 days, a rare gap for a Democrat whose daily pandemic updates were must-see TV last spring.
"I now understand that I acted in a way that made people feel uncomfortable. It was unintentional and I truly and deeply apologize for it," a contrite Cuomo, wearing a blue tie, said. "I feel awful about it, and frankly, I am embarrassed by it."
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Twice, he said, "I never touched anyone inappropriately." Twice, he said, "I never knew at the time I was making anyone feel uncomfortable."
"I certainly never ever meant to offend anyone or hurt anyone or cause anyone any pain. That is the last thing I would ever want to do. I've learned an important lesson. I'm sorry, I'm sorry for whatever pain I caused anyone, I never intended it, and I will be the better for this experience," Cuomo said, then opened up Q&A.
He was first asked to comment on a photo associated with allegations from his third accuser, in which that accuser, Anna Ruch, who spoke to The New York Times in a report published Monday, appears to look uncomfortable as the governor holds her face in his hands. Ruch told the Times Cuomo moved his hands to her cheeks when she removed one of his hands from her back.
She alleged he then asked if he could kiss her -- and says he planted a kiss on her cheek as she turned away. To that, Cuomo said he understood the "opinion and feelings of Ms. Ruch -- and you are right, you can find hundreds of pictures of me making the same gesture with hundreds of people -- women, men, children."
"You can go find hundreds of pictures of me kissing people. It is my usual and customary way of greeting. It was my father's way of greeting people -- you're the governor of the state, you want people to feel comfortable, you reach out to them," Cuomo said, referring to his late father and former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. "I also understand it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter my intent. What matters is if anybody was offended by it. If they were offended by it, it was wrong."
Cuomo later repeated a variation of his latest apology, reiterating his lack of intent in causing any harm, when asked "what assurances" he could provide there were no other accusers who would lodge similar complaints. He didn't answer the question directly, but vowed to apologize "today, tomorrow and the day after."
Cuomo didn’t answer directly when asked by a reporter if he could assure the public that there were no other former aides who would come forward. However, the governor did vow that he would change his actions.
"I understand that sensitivities have changed, and behavior has changed, and I get it. And I'm going to learn from it," he said.
The briefing comes a day after state legislators reached a deal to strip Cuomo of his pandemic emergency powers. That repeal could take effect as early as Friday. Cuomo acknowledged the deal almost as a matter of course -- with one of his famed slides -- 20 minutes into the briefing, but didn't discuss it further.
Cuomo has avoided such appearances for days as some members of his own party call for him to resign over sexual harassment allegations. Before Wednesday, his last on-camera COVID briefing with questions came Feb. 19. A conference call was held the following Monday, and he was seen on camera he introducing President Joe Biden at a virtual meeting of the National Governor’s Association, which he chairs, on Feb. 25. He also participated Tuesday in the group's conference call, which was off-limits to reporters.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has had a contentious relationship with Cuomo for years, says the governor should resign if the allegations prove true. In the meantime, if Cuomo won't answer to the public, his ability to govern is gravely impaired, the mayor said when asked about the matter once again Wednesday.
"If the governor is to remain in office, he has to govern. He has to answer questions every day and address the issues," he said. "There's so much going on with this pandemic, we have to continue to do this work to protect people's lives. Part of that is responding to the concerns of the public expressed through the media. If he can't do that, of course, step aside and let someone else do it."
State Sen. James Skoufis joined the chorus of Democrats calling for Cuomo's resignation Wednesday, saying "I don't care that he's a Democrat. I'm a Democrat. This is intolderable, so yes, I've called on him to resign." One of the first to call for Cuomo's ouster, State Senator Alessandra Biaggi, tweeted that "The Governor of New York is trying to normalize his unwanted kiss of a 33-year-old by saying this is how I greet hundreds of people."
Maya Wiley, who is running to replace de Blasio as New York City's Democratic mayor in November, also called for Cuomo's resignation.
New York State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said in a CNN interview Wednesday afternoon that while she thinks the governor's apology is "important" and wants to wait for the investigation before making any conclusions, she also believes Cuomo would have to resign if the investigation finds some wrongdoing.
""The reality is that I think if we come to the point where the investigation shows that there was inappropriate touching and so on and so forth I think it would be very clear that he would have to walk away," said Stewart-Cousins. "If the investigations show something inappropriate did happen I think he would have to resign."
The governor is also facing criticism for withholding, for months, a full accounting of the number of nursing home residents who died of COVID-19.
His recent public absence became more glaring after legislative leaders announced Tuesday they were limiting the governor’s broad powers to unilaterally set state policy during the pandemic.
Under the bill, Cuomo would still have the power to keep alive his existing COVID-19 rules or tweak them. But he’ll no longer be allowed to make decisions without any input from the Legislature. He’ll have to notify legislative committees and local governments and respond to their questions in certain circumstances.
Assemblymember Carrie Woerner tweeted the outlines of the widely reported deal Tuesday afternoon, saying it would:
- "repeal the extraordinary powers granted to the Governor last year"
- "provide for an orderly transition through the end of the disaster period"
- "Limit any further modifications to directives to that which is necessary to reduce the spread or increase vaccinations"
- "Restore the right of counties and municipalities to issue executive orders without seeking state approval"
- "Require the Governor to provide online reporting on all executive orders, providing transparency for all"
Neither Cuomo nor his spokespeople had commented on the latest allegation prior to the overarching briefing Wednesday. Just ahead of that news conference, sources with knowledge of the administration told News 4 close Cuomo adviser Gareth Rhodes would be moving from his position as COVID coordinator back to the state Department of Financial Services, where he worked before the pandemic.
Rhodes later confirmed that, releasing a statement that read, "Last week as I approached one year since moving to Albany to join the NYS COVID task force, I decided it was time, given the progress of the vaccination program and continued decline of COVID numbers, to return to my previous role at the Department of Financial Services and I informed the Governor’s senior staff at the time."
Rhodes has been a fixture at Cuomo's side throughout the pandemic; the governor officiated his wedding in late 2019. Sources held up Rhodes' statement, telling News 4 the move was planned before the recent crises, but the development comes a day after Rhodes' wife, Alexa Kissinger, took to Instagram to support Cuomo's latest accuser, Anna Ruch.
Ruch told the New York Times in a report published Monday night that Cuomo touched her lower back, then grabbed her cheeks and asked to kiss her at that same September 2019 wedding where Rhodes and Kissinger tied the knot.
In another staffing shakeup for the governor, Press Secretary Caitlin Girouard said her last day will be Friday. However, she said her move was long-planned, and spoke positively about the governor and his administration. Another top Cuomo aide, Melissa DeRosa, spoke for the first time Wednesday about the allegations, urging others to "refrain from judgement" until the investigation is done, and said she was "incredibly proud of what this administration has done for women's rights."
Most leading Democrats have signaled they want to wait for the results of an investigation by New York Attorney General Letitia James into claims that Cuomo sexually harassed at least two women in his administration.
State Democratic Party chair Jay Jacobs, a close Cuomo ally, said it’s “premature” to opine before the investigation concludes. Only three of nearly two dozen Democratic governors' offices across the country responded to CNBC's requests for comment on the matter. All three said only they support the investigation.
Several members of the National Governors Association said they support the investigation, but didn't say whether they think he should resign as chair. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, the association's vice chair, called the allegations against Cuomo “very serious” but said it’s up to Democratic governors to decide who will chair the NGA.
“I’m glad there’s an independent investigation that’s ongoing, and I think we should all wait until the results of that independent investigation and see where that conclusion leads everyone,” the Republican governor told reporters.
That inquiry — which Cuomo called a "review" — has yet to begin. James said her office is working to hire an outside law firm to conduct it. The state senate oversight committee said Wednesday that the investigation will likely take about two months.
U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries said New York's congressional delegation in Washington has not met on the issue but “everyone is monitoring the situation closely.”
“Well these are very serious allegations and they require a very serious investigation,” Jeffries told reporters Tuesday. “I’m confident that Attorney General Tish James will get to the bottom of everything, release a report that’s fully transparent and then we can decide the best way to proceed thereafter.”
At least one Democratic Congress member from Long Island — U.S. Rep. Kathleen Rice — four state senators, several left-leaning Assembly members and the leaders of the progressive Working Families Party said they have already heard enough and that Cuomo should resign. Some suggested he be impeached. (Here's what the impeachment process would look like.)
At least one Albany Democrat said he wasn't surprised Cuomo has shown no signs of being willing to resign: the same assembly member who accused Cuomo of bullying him over the nursing home issue.
“I don’t think it’s in his DNA to resign or back down,” said Democratic Queens Assembly member Ron Kim. “I think he will do whatever it takes to fight this.”
The leaders of the state Assembly and Senate, both controlled by Democrats, hope to vote as early as Friday on the deal to tweak Cuomo's executive powers, which lawmakers granted him last spring.
“I think everyone understands where we were back in March and where we are now," Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins said, describing the deal as creating “a system with increased input.”
Republicans who have long tried to remove Cuomo's powers called the proposed legislation a “bogus backroom deal” that lacks teeth. Senate Republican Leader Rob Ortt said the nursing home revelations call the governor's leadership into question.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie attempted to bat down any rumors that the governor had any say in the legislation's deal to remove emergency powers, saying in a list of "facts" about the bill that they "did not negotiate this bill with the Governor."
Both the legislature's top leaders, Stewart-Cousins and Heastie, have said they support the attorney general's investigation of Cuomo's workplace conduct.
One former aide, Charlotte Bennett, 25, said Cuomo quizzed her about her sex life and asked whether she would be open to a relationship with an older man. Bennett rejected Cuomo’s attempted apology, in which he said he'd been trying to be “playful” and that his jokes had been misinterpreted as flirting.
Another former aide, Lindsey Boylan, said Cuomo commented on her appearance inappropriately, kissed her without her consent at the end of a meeting, and once suggested they play strip poker while aboard his state-owned jet. Cuomo has denied Boylan's allegations.
Boylan responded to Cuomo's Wednesday press conference on Twitter shortly after it ended, saying, "How can New Yorkers trust you to lead our state if you 'don't know' when you've been inappropriate with your own staff?"
Bennett's attorney, Debra Katz, also released a statement after Cuomo's briefing Wednesday, calling it "full of falsehoods and inaccurate information."
"New Yorkers deserve better. The Governor repeatedly said he never touched anyone inappropriately. Ms. Ruch’s story makes clear that’s not accurate. The Governor repeatedly said he had no idea he made anyone uncomfortable," Katz said. "My client, Charlotte Bennett, reported his sexually harassing behavior immediately to his Chief of Staff and Chief Counsel. We are confident that they made him aware of her complaint and we fully expect that the Attorney General’s investigation will demonstrate that Cuomo administration officials failed to act on Ms. Bennett’s serious allegations or to ensure that corrective measures were taken, in violation of their legal requirements."
“Further, as reports are emerging of other staff resigning from the Governor’s office in the wake of his scandals, the people charged with helping him execute the duties of his office are once again bearing the consequences of his actions," Katz's statement continued. "If they know anything or have experienced this themselves, we call on them to come forward and report this misconduct."