Alone and Out of Options: How Cuomo Finally Gave Up the Fight
Behind the scenes, the governor vacillated between defiant and defeated, eventually accepting that his formidable political army had fallen away.,
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo was wearing everyone down.
He was being wronged, he railed to advisers over the weekend, and with few allies left to defend him publicly after a damning state attorney general’s report into allegations of sexual harassment, he feared voters were getting an unshakable impression, according to people with direct knowledge of his conversations. Everyone was talking about 11 women, he complained privately, but only a handful of accusations were truly damaging in a vacuum, he felt. And those he saw fit to fight.
Never mind the toll that the report was having on some of those closest to Mr. Cuomo, including his brother, Chris Cuomo, the CNN host whose familial counsel on the allegations caused an outcry, and his top aide, Melissa DeRosa, who had already been considering stepping down for weeks. Never mind that a new revelation from the investigation — that Mr. Cuomo had harassed a female trooper on his security detail — had astonished even those who knew him best.
The governor’s circle had always been small to the point of claustrophobic. But increasingly, on the question of resign or fight, Mr. Cuomo was becoming a coalition of one. At times, he spent the last days effectively forum shopping among advisers — telling them he wanted to stay and that he believed he should be allowed to, then waiting for them to tell him he was right. Most had given up on trying to talk him out of it, even if they were not encouraging him to press on.
It took another day and another series of devastating setbacks for the message to get through: the airing early Monday morning of an interview with Brittany Commisso, an aide in the governor’s office who has made among the most serious allegations of groping; a statement from Carl Heastie, the Assembly speaker, that he would not be striking any compromise with Mr. Cuomo to stave off impeachment proceedings; a growing chorus from once-close confidantes like Jim Malatras, Mr. Cuomo’s handpicked state university system chancellor, claiming outrage at “the repugnant acts detailed in the report.”
In private, at last, Mr. Cuomo came to see what he had been unwilling to: For the consummate deal-cutter, the inveterate angle-seeker, there was no play left. He told a handful of close advisers what he had to do.
“He had to see there were no straws,” said Jay Jacobs, the state Democratic chair, describing what it took to dislodge Mr. Cuomo and recalling his own initially fruitless attempt to convince him to resign last week, their most recent conversation until Tuesday afternoon. “There was nothing to hold on to.”
The spectacle on Tuesday morning — a governor ceding the power he had worked most of four decades to accumulate; a relentless man, relenting — was at once stunning and unsurprising to those closest to him. It was the culmination of a frenetic, often contradictory few days during which Mr. Cuomo seemed to vacillate between defiant and defeated, predisposed to fight but eventually resigned to the fact that his formidable political army had fallen away. This account is based on interviews with more than a dozen aides, advisers and others with direct knowledge of his scattershot final efforts to stay in office and ultimate decision to leave, nearly all of whom insisted on anonymity to discuss sensitive conversations.
For months, Mr. Cuomo had found himself politically isolated, his informal cabinet shrinking as most New York lawmakers inside and outside of Albany called on him to step aside. While no one suggested that Mr. Cuomo relished this crisis, particularly after being lionized during the early months of Covid last year, some who know him said he did seem to evince a certain daredevil’s thrill in sizing up the long political odds — and fancying himself the rare breed capable of surmounting them.
The strategy after the report’s release last week was an exercise in fits and starts for Mr. Cuomo. The governor’s lawyers considered suing the attorney general’s office to obtain the full transcripts of the interviews conducted by investigators, several people with knowledge of the matter said, which would have likely slowed down the impeachment process.
But Mr. Cuomo was also plainly aware of his precarious position. When the report was released on Aug. 3, he and his advisers had been blindsided, not having expected it to arrive for another two weeks or so, according to four people with knowledge of Mr. Cuomo’s discussions. By late Wednesday, the governor had concluded that he would have to resign, one person said. On Thursday morning, he began the day intending to make that announcement on Friday. But before lunchtime, the person said, the governor apparently changed his mind.
While the precise reason for the shift was unclear, there was talk among some advisers on Thursday about preparing and running a series of person-on-the-street television advertisements featuring New Yorkers who thought he was doing a great job, according to two people with knowledge of the discussions. The goal: Move the needle on the polls in the hopes of influencing Assembly members to vote against impeachment. The advertisement idea was eventually dismissed.
As of Sunday, before Ms. DeRosa’s resignation, Mr. Cuomo was insisting to confidants that he was not going anywhere. The claims by Lindsey Boylan, the first aide to publicly accuse the governor of harassment, particularly infuriated Mr. Cuomo and his advisers. He had been expecting the report to reflect what he believed were consensual flirtations, people who spoke to him said, or to conclude at minimum that some events were “he-said, she-said.”
The Path to Governor Cuomo’s Resignation
Many advisers disagreed with any rosy assessment. Chris Cuomo was among those who concluded that his brother should resign — and told him as much, according to people with direct knowledge of the matter.
“I heard from him the day or two after the report, and he was in a fighting mood then,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who has known Mr. Cuomo for decades. He said Mr. Cuomo told him that one of the investigators, who had previously been the acting United States attorney in Manhattan, was “out to get him.” When Mr. Sharpton told Mr. Cuomo that chapter leaders of his National Action Network wanted the governor to resign, Mr. Cuomo said, “You’ve got to give me a chance, things will come out” that would vindicate him.
“I didn’t hear from him since then,” Mr. Sharpton said.
But advisers say that the reputational blast radius — affecting not only the governor but, increasingly, those most likely to assist or defend him, like his brother, Ms. DeRosa and other former aides — seemed to be part of what made him determine there was no way forward. “When the only friend you have is the one looking you back in the mirror,” a recent adviser said, “you’re screwed.”
As Monday wore on, and lawmakers discussed impeachment at the Capitol complex, Mr. Cuomo was drafting resignation remarks in the executive residence. He was joined by Ms. DeRosa, who set her official departure to align with Mr. Cuomo’s in two weeks, and another adviser, Stephanie Benton. But most of the writing was his, according to a person with direct knowledge of the matter, reflecting his equivocal feelings about it all: He would tell New Yorkers that he loved them, that he would be leaving them and that the claims against him, despite his decision on Tuesday, were not to be wholly believed.
Several people who know Mr. Cuomo likened his choice to his first bruising political failure: the 2002 Democratic primary for governor, when Mr. Cuomo vowed to fight on in a race he was poised to lose, before concluding days before the vote that leaving the contest would save some face and position him for a political comeback. (A small contingent of people around Mr. Cuomo believe he could run again in the future, if the legislature does not bar him from doing so through impeachment proceedings.)
By Tuesday morning, even as few knew exactly what was coming within hours, something seemed to be stirring at Mr. Cuomo’s Midtown office. The 38th floor briefing area — the space where, for more than a decade, he had held swaggering news conferences about his executive feats — was set up for public remarks. At least one staff member was advised around 8 a.m. to wear a suit to work, often the surest signal of a looming Cuomo visit.
Before noon, Mr. Cuomo took a seat at the briefing table, flanked by an American flag and the state flag. A senior official had encouraged staff members to join the governor, lest he find himself addressing an empty room. A few were in tears as they took their seats in chairs typically reserved for the press.
Mr. Cuomo took a breath to collect himself. He found the camera and looked straight ahead.
“Let’s go,” he said. He was ready.
Reporting was contributed by Luis Ferre-Sadurni, Grace Ashford, J. David Goodman, Shane Goldmacher and Michael Gold.