The brothers Cuomo, Andrew and Chris, just keep stepping in it, breaking rules they don’t think should apply to them, deflecting tough questions about their conduct, and sidestepping the ethical messes their behaviors have spilled. Instead of being reprimanded for their blitheness, the Cuomos have written a new chapter on how to manage a scandal. Following in the footsteps of Bill Clinton, Donald Trump and lesser reprobates, they’re proving that in modern America a public figure can ride out almost any ignominy if he has a thick hide and is willing to take the beating.
Andrew, the governor of New York, was the first to stride into disrepute. A former aide accused him in December of having sexually harassed her. Almost a dozen other women followed with their claims of inappropriate comments, come-ons, touching and groping by Andrew. In an early attempt at pushback, he said his actions “may have been insensitive or too personal,” that he might have been “misinterpreted,” or that he was just being “playful” in his interactions. “To the extent anyone felt [mistreated], I am truly sorry about that,” he said, using the classic formula where you apologize not for what you did but for how you might have made people feel. Finally, he settled on a flat denial and brushed aside demands that he resign despite the insistence of New York’s two U.S. senators, New York City’s mayor, more than a dozen New York members of the House, and scores of state legislators who want him out. “I did not do what has been alleged,” Andrew responded to the condemnations.
Little brother Chris, who anchors an evening show on CNN, was next on the scandal tumbrel. In March, the Washington Post and the Albany Times-Union reported that Andrew’s administration had authorized special treatment from the state of New York’s priority Covid-testing program in the spring of 2020 for Cuomo family members, including Chris. This came when Covid-19 tests were in short supply, thereby possibly running afoul of a state law that bars officials from using their positions to “secure unwarranted privileges or exemptions” for themselves or others. Such accusations of favor-seeking and favor-granting would have earned an anchor the sack or at least a suspension in the old days and sunk the governor into a deep crisis. But CNN gave Chris Cuomo a bye for his line-cutting, saying “he turned to anyone he could for advice and assistance, as any human being would,” and Andrew suffered only slightly. Chris’ show, and his brother’s governorship, motored on.
On one level, you have to admire the Cuomos’ moxie: At around the same time they were taking heat in the press for their testing favoritism they were also hopping over yet another bright ethical line as if they were playing double dutch. As the Washington Post reported Thursday evening, on multiple occasions in early 2021, Chris gave Andrew advice on how to respond to the sexual harassment allegations. Chris deserves the obvious knock for attempting to serve two masters—his brother’s political career and his duty as an above-the-fray journalist—at the same time. But Andrew deserves one, too, for actively compromising little brother’s career by asking him for political advice. Chris’ guidance? Defy the calls to resign, he allegedly told Andrew. Even though CNN conceded that an anchor should never give a pol such confidential advice, the network gave Chris yet another bye! No reprimand was meted out. CNN did, however, brand his conduct as “inappropriate” and insisted, “He will not participate in such conversations going forward.”
At the top of his Thursday night broadcast, Chris was simultaneously contrite and defiant, a little bit like Richard Nixon in his Checkers speech. Cuomo apologized for having advised his brother, calling it a “mistake,” claimed it wouldn’t happen again, and admitted that it put his colleagues “in a bad spot.” But he also adamantly defended his behavior. “I’m family first. Job second,” he said. He sought the sympathy of his audience by asserting that he had “walled” himself off from covering his brother journalistically and had never attempted to influence CNN’s coverage of Andrew. The mea culpa rang weak because Chris had covered his brother in the most flattering light between March and June in 2020, as he interviewed his brother at least nine times on air about New York’s Covid-19 response. To a one, these Q&As, which CNN made great hay about, were flattering, gag-filled, towel-snapping affairs that served to burnish Andrew’s standing as a pandemic savior and humanize his gruff political image. The savior storyline was, of course, bogus. Cuomo aides, the New York Times reported in March of this year, rewrote a nursing home report to conceal the higher Covid death toll.
The Cuomos’ adeptness at braving their scandals makes you wonder if Al Franken might have been too quick to bow to pressure and resign his Senate seat in 2017 after being accused of making unwanted sexual advances a decade earlier. That thought had to occur to Franken after Ralph Northam, Virginia’s Democratic governor, hung in after blackface photos made news in 2019. Northam played down the criticisms, issued soft apologies—and kept his office. He’s never been politically stronger.
The master of riding out the storms of scandal, though, has got to be Donald Trump. Again and again, during his first presidential campaign, he said things about Mexicans, John McCain, Ted Cruz’s wife, Ted Cruz’s father, and—via archival videotape—the body part where he liked to grab women, that should have ejected him from politics and public life. But Trump’s secret has been to always operate without shame, to never let the catcalls and criticisms wound him. Oh, he denied having bedded an adult-film actress and a former Playboy pin-up, too, but with so little emphasis that it was easy to read his denials as confirmations. And so it continued through his presidency, with his comments about “shithole” countries and his pardoning of alleged war criminals and his disregard for the emoluments clause and his casual racism and all the rest. The filth of scandal and the grit of disgrace never jammed Trump’s gears enough to slow him down. Even today, the travesty of January 6, for which he bears huge and lasting blame, isn’t really denting his political fortunes. Feel like accusing him of attempting a coup? Go ahead. His orange hide can take it.
Could Trump have exercised his powers of shamelessness so brilliantly had Bill Clinton not endured the punishment of his own sex scandals? Clinton wanted it several ways—to say his life was his own business, that his marriage wasn’t perfect, and also the lie that he hadn’t had sexual relations “with that woman” before he ultimately folded. The biggest difference between Trump and Clinton, though, is how they take their pastings. Trump stands up and takes it like a masochist with a visage that says: Is that all you got? Clinton turns sheepish, sometimes angry, but finally draws his head and tender parts inside himself like a tortoise and lets his critics pound on his shell until they tire.
What makes the Cuomos and people like Trump feel so bulletproof? All three have their enablers. Andrew’s popularity soared in the early days of Covid as he played the role of a competent administrator on television. Even though recent polls show a measurable decline in his approval rating, he still has a lock on some of his most loyal constituents, labor unions and Black leaders. Meanwhile, Chris seems to put some sort of spell on CNN, which has retained him for indiscretions that would get him fired or at least suspended elsewhere. And Trump? He believes that the 74 million people who voted for him the 2020 presidential election can’t be wrong, so why should he change?
Judging from their responses this week, the Cuomos’ long-term strategy appears to be to hang tight and slow walk their way out of their troubles. Chris apologizes for what he did but defends it as service to his family—a defense that Chris the broadcaster would never let Trump get away with. Andrew, the blunter of the two, continues to dismiss his critics. Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that Andrew stands to make $5.1 million from his book about the pandemic, and at a Thursday press conference he shot down a question that accused him of profiteering off of dead New Yorkers. “That’s stupid. Next question,” Andrew said.
We are unassailable, Andrew and Chris seem to be saying, even when we do something transparently wrong. Come at us all you want because we have the will and the power to outlast you. If the brothers Cuomo pull off their ride-it-out strategy, which we can expect they will, prepare yourself for a fresh wave of moral layabouts who will imitate their moves.
I still think Andrew Cuomo looks like a film noir heavy. Isn’t he in Out of the Past? Send casting suggestions to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts remind me that Andrew wanted to run for president. My Twitter account thinks he could play a compromised president in a movie. My RSS feed is watching Detour tonight.