Governor Andrew Cuomo holds daily press briefing at the foot of Mario Cuomo Bridge in Tarrytown, New York, June 15, 2020.
Lev Radin | Pacific Press | LightRocket via Getty Images
What a difference a few months have made for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo — and not in a good way.
Cuomo last year was lionized by many who saw him as a competent, science-respecting, straight-talking, dad-like counterpoint to then-President Donald Trump’s off-the-cuff, expert-disdaining and often-confusing approach to handling the coronavirus pandemic.
Cuomo’s daily press conferences detailing the grim Covid-19 statistics in New York and urging citizens to take precautions from becoming infected became must-see TV for weeks, as did his towel-snapping banter in interviews with CNN anchorman Chris Cuomo — his own brother.
As a result, there was renewed talk that Cuomo, whose father Mario’s agonizing over whether to run for president earned him the sobriquet of “Hamlet on the Hudson,” would be a contender for the Democratic nomination for the White House in 2024, or some position in the federal government before that.
Cuomo even scored a deal to write a book, “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the Covid-19 Pandemic,” published in October — even as the crisis continued to threaten his own state and elsewhere.
But it is Cuomo’s managerial approach to the health crisis that has led to a political crisis in his administration that threatens his electoral future.
The U.S. Department of Justice is now conducting a criminal probe into nursing home deaths in New York related to the coronavirus, it was revealed this week. Disclosure of that probe came weeks after New York’s own attorney general, Letitia James, said that deaths related to those settings were being underreported by the Cuomo administration by as much as 50%.
And Cuomo also faces an effort in the state legislature to strip him of his emergency powers, a push that has been fueled by resentment over the governor’s verbal strong-arming of lawmakers who get in his way.
There is even talk of trying to impeach Cuomo.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive Democrat whose district encompasses parts of Queens and the Bronx, New York, on Friday issued a statement joining other elected officials’ request for a “full investigation of the State’s handling of the nursing homes during the pandemic.”
Ocasio-Cortez also said she supported “our state’s return to co-equal governance,” a reference to what is seen as Cuomo’s dominance over the legislative branch for years.
“Thousands of vulnerable New Yorkers lost their lives in nursing homes during the pandemic,” she said. “Their loved ones and the public deserve answers and transparency from their elected leadership.”
The contrast between Cuomo’s situation now and what it was as of last fall was vividly illustrated last week when he left the White House without speaking to reporters after a White House meeting on pandemic relief and vaccination efforts with President Joe Biden and other governors and mayors.
If that meeting had occurred last summer, it is unlikely that Cuomo would have missed the opportunity to tell journalists his thoughts about the sitdown.
But this meeting came on the heels of a report in The New York Post that Cuomo’s top aide, Melissa DeRosa, had recently apologized to Democratic lawmakers for withholding the Covid death tally in state nursing homes last year — when Trump was still president — because of fear that the statistics would “be used against us” by federal prosecutors.
That apology apparently itself raised the antennae of prosecutors.
On Thursday night, The Wall Street Journal reported that prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York had sought data on Covid-related nursing home deaths.
The request is “part of a broader inquiry into the state’s handling of the pandemic in those care settings,” according to sources who spoke to the Journal.
One source for the article said the data request came after DeRosa’s apology was reported.
Families of Covid victims and Republican lawmakers in New York last year had criticized Cuomo for a state Health Department order that required nursing homes to accept their residents back even if they were discharged by a hospital with Covid.
Those critics blame that policy for super-charging the spread of the virus in nursing homes.
Cuomo, whose press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment by CNBC, this week said, “My health experts don’t believe it was wrong and we’ve gone through all the facts several times.”
The governor also said he had followed guidance from two top federal agencies, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
“If we did believe it was wrong, then we would say we believed it was wrong, and we made a mistake following CDC and CMS guidance, and then I would sue the federal government for malpractice on their CDC and CMS guidance,” Cuomo said.
But on Tuesday, nine Democratic members of the state Assembly sent their colleagues a letter that accused Cuomo of intentionally obstructing justice in violation of federal criminal law. That letter called for the Assembly to strip the government of emergency powers granted him last year as the pandemic began spreading.
“This is a necessary first step in beginning to right the criminal wrongs of this Governor and his administration,” said the letter, whose signatories included Assemblyman Ron Kim of Queens.
Kim this week said that after he was quoted criticizing the withholding of nursing home data in a New York Post article, he got a furious phone call from Cuomo on Feb. 11.
“You have not seen my wrath,” Cuomo warned Kim, according to the lawmaker. “You will be destroyed,” the governor allegedly said, according to Kim.
Kim also told The Post that the governor said, “I can tell the whole world what a bad person you are, and you will be finished.”
In an interview with NBC New York, Kim said, “He spent 10 minutes berating me, yelling at me, threatening me and my career, my livelihood.”
Kim’s wife, who purportedly heard Cuomo because he was so loudly berating the assemblyman, was so shook up by the governor’s threats that she “didn’t sleep that night,” Kim said.
Cuomo’s spokesman Rich Azzopardi told The Post that Kim was “lying about his conversation with Gov. Cuomo.”
“I know because I was one of three other people in the room when the phone call occurred,” Azzopardi said, according to The Post.
“At no time did anyone threaten to ‘destroy’ anyone with their ‘wrath’ nor engage in a ‘cover up.'”
Kim had not backed down with his claims.
During an appearance Friday on ABC’s “The View,” Kim said, “Cuomo is an abuser.”
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who often has been a whipping boy for Cuomo, told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” show that the call to Kim was “classic Andrew Cuomo.”
“A lot of people in New York state have received those phone calls, you know, the bullying is nothing new,” de Blasio said.
“I believe Ron Kim, and it’s very, very sad — no public servant, no person who’s telling the truth should be treated that way.”