Cuomo in Exile

He is out of power but not out of grudges.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photos: Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photos: Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photos: Getty Images

Andrew Cuomo has gone fishing. The exiled governor plies the waters off Montauk with those still loyal to him: his brother, Chris; brothers-in-law Brian O’Donoghue and Kenneth Cole; and Captain, the malamute mix that was rumored to have been given up after nipping state police and staffers. Since leaving power, he splits his time between undisclosed locations in Manhattan and the Hamptons, where the spotty cell reception last week couldn’t mask his familiar voice.

“I never took summer vacations. I didn’t do that. I never took vacations — period,” Cuomo said. “So I’m just enjoying time with family and friends. That’s all I’m doing.”

That’s not all he’s been doing, though. He is also manning an offensive against those he blames for driving him out of office over allegations that he sexually harassed nearly a dozen women, including an executive assistant who pressed charges after saying she was groped. According to a person familiar with his thinking, Cuomo sees himself as the victim of a conspiracy that has been “cooked” up by the “Twittersphere” and turned into a “media stampede” by a press corps sympathetic to the left. He feels victimized by the cultural shifts of the Me Too era, which he characterizes as “a warp in time” in which facts don’t matter. He believes State Attorney General Letitia James’s run for governor is proof that her investigation that brought him down was a political hit job to begin with. Worst of all are progressives in the Legislature, or, as he puts it, the “socialists,” particularly State Senators Jessica Ramos and Alessandra Biaggi, who were among his most vocal critics in calling for his resignation.

“I’m not a socialist,” Ramos, who is a Democrat, told Intelligencer. “Crazy he still can’t take ownership of his own actions. It’s no one’s fault he touched women inappropriately but his.”

The idea of Andrew Cuomo giving up power was so contrary to his character that some in Albany feared he might somehow reverse himself after announcing his resignation and dare Albany to actually impeach him. Many more in New York politics worry he will use the $18 million sitting in his campaign’s war chest to run again or retaliate against his enemies. One Albany lawmaker, who requested anonymity owing to their fear of reprisal, said they are concerned Cuomo could bankroll an opponent in their district. Those who know him say they doubt he’ll mount an imminent comeback but said he is keeping his options open.

“I don’t know what the future holds,” Cuomo said. “I’m at peace. Look, it’s simple: I trust the people and the truth will [win] out.”

Cuomo’s routine hasn’t changed much since he left office: consuming television news and phoning both allies and journalists. While there have been a few strategic tweets and Instagram posts, the 63-year-old is “not on social media. He doesn’t know how to work an iPhone,” one former adviser said.

The entire Democratic Establishment turned against Cuomo after James released her office’s report detailing shocking allegations of sexual misconduct against him, leaving his inner circle reduced to family and former aides: spokesperson Rich Azzopardi; attorney Rita Glavin; former secretaries to the governor Melissa DeRosa, Bill Mulrow, and Steven Cohen; his campaign adviser Charlie King; strategist Jefrey Pollock; and Stephanie Benton, who was the governor’s office director. (Pollock said he has not spoken to Cuomo since the report was released in August.)

Some have been involved in Cuomo’s scorched-earth campaign to destroy James’s credibility. To attack her report, Glavin issued her own 153-page rebuttal, dismissing it as “one-sided” and “flawed” for ignoring what Glavin terms exculpatory evidence, such as information about accusers’ pasts and potential future ambitions. She also latched on to supposed inconsistencies in some of the women’s accounts, saying executive assistant Brittany Commisso supposedly offered different dates for when she was allegedly groped in Cuomo’s office.

“Fundamentally, Cuomo’s team’s efforts — primarily through his paid attorney — to gaslight and attack the brave women who came forward fall flat,” Mariann Wang, an attorney who has represented two of Cuomo’s other accusers, said in an email. “They pick at and try to contest random, isolated facts and ignore the larger picture: that nearly a dozen women, including women who were currently working for him, understood and felt his plainly harassing and inappropriate misogynistic behavior.”

Meanwhile, Azzopardi, a longtime spokesperson paid from Cuomo’s campaign account, has led the charge against James herself. Recently, he has been sending fiery statements blaming her and Albany County sheriff Craig Apple for the messy handling of Commisso’s criminal complaint. When Apple admitted his team did not coordinate with local prosecutors before filing charges against Cuomo, Azzopardi blasted the “Gubernatorial wannabe” and “Cowboy Sheriff.”

James and her office fired back by comparing Cuomo to Donald Trump.

“Instead of accepting responsibility for his inappropriate actions, he has concocted wild conspiracy theories, spread fake news, and become the laughingstock of the nation,” a spokesperson said to Intelligencer. “Cuomo’s version of the ‘Big Lie’ is a tired, albeit predictable response from a serial harasser. All New Yorkers have moved forward. It’s past time that Andrew Cuomo do the same.”

Azzopardi dismissed the comparison as a “lazy reflex,” then shot back with a comparison of his own. “If we’re going there, then the AG is Ken Starr, but only worse because she used this assignment for personal gain,” he said. “This isn’t about politics; this is about the truth.”

It was Cuomo who asked James to investigate the accusations as they poured in early this year. Yet he feels like he was unfairly pressured by the Legislature into letting James lead the probe after he was pummeled for trying to handpick his own investigator, according to a person familiar with Cuomo’s thinking. While James appointed two outside attorneys to dig in, the person said Cuomo believes she was pulling the strings all along, pointing to her discussion of the “independent” investigation in the first person while she floated a run for governor last month as “the ultimate smoking gun.”

Letitia James campaigns for Democrats on the Upper West Side in October. Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

It’s unclear if Cuomo’s attacks on James are meant to cut her down in the governor’s race, but he thinks she could beat his successor, Governor Kathy Hochul, in the Democratic primary. Cuomo, however, believes New York City public advocate Jumaane Williams is a formidable foe for James because he threatens to draw from her base of support among Black and progressive voters. Despite the venom, those who know Cuomo insist he is more interested in attacking the investigation than the attorney general herself. “I don’t think that he has any personal feelings toward Tish one way or the other,” a former adviser said. “This is politics. This is business.”

It seems a little more personal to at least one person close to him, though.

“I also think that what Tish is doing is so cheap and so disrespectful,” said one former adviser, “because any time anyone asks her a specific question about any one of these individual claims … she just pivots to ‘I believe all women.’ You do not try people or make determinations based on their gender. How dangerous is that? What if you said ‘I believe all white people,’ ‘I believe all Hispanics,’ ‘I believe all Black people’? Like, you have to look at things with a critical eye and scrutinize them and question motivations.”

The closer senior aides were to Cuomo, the more they tended to emulate him and his approach to politics. “You can’t talk a nail into going into a board. You can’t charm the nail into a board. It has to be hit with a hammer,” as Cuomo put it during a post-resignation interview with New York. James’s report described his senior aides acting similarly inside his office, ruling by intimidation. “To say he’s, like, an intense person doesn’t quite capture it,” said a former Cuomo administration official who requested anonymity because they still fear his wrath.

Further outside the inner circle, some former aides like this one struggle to reckon with what they did on Cuomo’s behalf. “You’re always at war. You’re battling COVID or you’re battling de Blasio,” the ex-official said. Often it was “war for the sake of war itself” with no definition of victory. “We’re losing our weekends, and we’re having this family strife, and we’re really giving up all this, engaging in this mental agony and stress because we believe this is somehow the magic that makes it work,” the ex-official continued.

Cuomo’s rise to national fame over his handling of COVID to his scandalous fall left many who worked for him traumatized. “After all these years, people are starting to question it and saying we didn’t have to go through that pain to accomplish what we accomplished,” the former official said. “It went from such a high — it was one of the best brands just a year and a half ago — and now it’s an embarrassment.”

While Cuomo and his die-hards are still fighting, other veterans of his war are trying to find peace. In group text-message chains and on emotional phone calls, Cuomo’s former soldiers have talked about going to therapy. Others headed to the bar. “I’ve been on a lot of these calls, whether it’s over the phone or many alcoholic beverages, trying to think about, What does this all mean? How should we think about the last ten years?” the former official said. “Is it an embarrassment for staff or just for the principal?”

This post has been updated.

Andrew Cuomo in Exile