Can Biden stay on the sidelines of the Andrew Cuomo saga?

The New York Times
New YorkWritten By: Maggie Haberman and Shane Goldmacher © 2021 The New York Times CompanyUpdated: Mar 16, 2021, 03:16 PM IST


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Cuomo is confronting a spiraling set of allegations and investigations involving sexual harassment, a toxic workplace, the manipulation of the number of deaths at New York nursing homes and perceived loyalty tests from the governor’s vaccine czar

So far, President Joe Biden has made only a passing comment on the crises that have engulfed Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and he seems to be hoping to avoid getting pulled in any further.

But as a longtime friend of the New York governor, Biden is one of the very few people in the nation with the potential to prevent a protracted standoff between an increasingly isolated Cuomo and the rest of the Democratic Party. That has strained Biden’s efforts to stay firmly on the sidelines as the governor faces a fusillade of calls to resign.

Cuomo is confronting a spiraling set of allegations and investigations involving sexual harassment, a toxic workplace, the manipulation of the number of deaths at New York nursing homes and perceived loyalty tests from the governor’s vaccine czar.

Biden and Cuomo have not spoken, people close to both men said. Asked on Sunday night whether Cuomo should resign, Biden said only, “I think the investigation is underway, and we should see what it brings us.”

The governor and his allies have urged people to wait for the results of the investigations to buy time, in the hope of stabilizing Cuomo’s support. And Biden appears inclined to give him that time — at least for now.

But a prolonged period of intraparty sparring over Cuomo’s future could be problematic for Biden. It threatens to distract from his early initiatives, including mass vaccination efforts and his party’s imperative to sell the public on the nearly $2 trillion stimulus package Biden signed into law last week.

The New York Times and Washington Post reported over the weekend that Larry Schwartz, the governor’s vaccine czar and a longtime lieutenant, had tried to assess the loyalty of county executives to Cuomo during phone calls about vaccine distribution — drawing particular attention at the White House on Monday.

Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said that the reports were “concerning” and that Schwartz’s calls were “inappropriate reported behavior.”

The calls prompted one executive to file a preliminary complaint with the state attorney general office’s public integrity bureau. Schwartz denied that he discussed vaccines in a political context.

Psaki insisted there were “checks” in the system to prevent the vaccine from being distributed based on favoritism.

On Tuesday, the White House will hold its weekly call on the coronavirus with the National Governors Association, which Cuomo typically leads as chair of the group. Psaki said she expected Cuomo would join the call, adding, “We’ll leave that up to him.”

Both of New York’s senators, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, called on Cuomo to resign Friday, along with most of the state’s Democratic congressional delegation. One factor in the timing for members of Congress who made their announcements in quick succession was the desire not to overshadow Biden’s signing of the pandemic relief package, according to people involved in the discussions.

Cuomo was surprised by the statement from Gillibrand and Schumer; he had believed earlier that day that they would not join the calls against him, according to someone familiar with his thinking.

Still, the governor has flatly refused to contemplate resignation while questioning the motives of the women who have accused him of sexual harassment, invoking “cancel culture,” a favorite Republican talking point, as he dug in Friday.

“There’s a job to do, and New Yorkers elected the governor to do it,” Richard Azzopardi, a senior adviser to Cuomo, said Monday. “He remains focused on vaccine distribution and a state budget that’s due in two weeks, and we’re thankful for the help that the White House has provided on both those fronts.”

A senior administration official said Biden’s desire to stay away is driven partly by his personal relationship with Cuomo and partly by pragmatism.

Should he eventually become drawn into the issue, Biden’s options range from encouraging Cuomo to resign to asking him not to run for office again in 2022, as the governor has indicated he still plans to do.

“Biden has a long friendship with Cuomo, and I think he and [Nancy] Pelosi and others are clearly hoping the situation will resolve itself through this investigative process, and they’re giving him that much leash, but how tenable that will be over time is very questionable,” said David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama.

Already, a majority of state legislators — and more than 40% of Democratic lawmakers in Albany — have called for Cuomo’s resignation. The state Assembly has launched an impeachment inquiry, and beyond Biden, the politician with the most control over Cuomo’s fate is the Assembly speaker, Carl E. Heastie, who will determine if and when to proceed.

Impeaching and removing a governor is a serious undertaking, and Cuomo can hope that it is too big a leap even for those who signed a letter urging his resignation.

“Calling the Legislature’s bluff on an impeachment vote, he recognizes casting a vote for impeachment is a heavy vote for many to make,” said Bakari Sellers, a former member of the South Carolina House of Representatives, who voted to impeach then-Gov. Mark Sanford in 2009. (Sanford was eventually censured.)

“The state is about to be flush with COVID cash,” Sellers said. “Better days ahead for constituents. Hang on until you become everyone’s favorite bank.”

Biden and Cuomo have been relatively close politically in recent years. In 2015, when Biden was considering a belated run for president, they met in New York; though Cuomo was formally backing Hillary Clinton at the time, he did not discourage Biden from a White House run.

In 2018, when Cuomo faced a primary challenge of his own from Cynthia Nixon, the actress and activist, Biden offered a full-throated endorsement of Cuomo at the New York Democratic Party convention.

Biden’s fondness for Cuomo does not necessarily extend to the staff level. The governor’s sharp-elbowed political operation has jabbed at many people in his path over the years.

Biden tapped Cuomo for a prime-time speech on the first night of the Democratic convention last year at the height of the governor’s popularity. The prerecorded address, which did not mention Biden by name until near the end, was thrust on convention organizers with little opportunity for revision, according to people involved in the process; they said the Cuomo team was among the most difficult to work with in planning the entire four-day event.

Cuomo’s political operation also submitted a production bill that far exceeded other similar convention videos; convention officials declined to pay the full amount.