Reeling From COVID Scandal, NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo Accused Of Sexual Misconduct : The NPR Politics Podcast Early in the pandemic, New York governor Andrew Cuomo rose to national prominence for his frank daily briefings. Now, Cuomo is accused of covering up the scale of nursing home fatalities and faces multiple allegations of sexual misconduct. And former president Donald Trump is trying to siphon donations away from the Republican National Committee toward his own political action committee.

This episode: congressional correspondent Susan Davis, senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro, White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe, and New York State Public Radio Capitol Bureau Chief Karen DeWitt.

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Reeling From COVID Scandal, NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo Accused Of Sexual Misconduct

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LUCILLE: Hey. This is Lucille (ph) shelving books and listening to NPR at my local library. Since we went to curbside pickup only, on the weekends, I have the library all to myself. This podcast was recorded at

SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:

2:05 pm on - this time, I promise - Wednesday, March 10.

LUCILLE: Things may have changed by the time you hear this. For one, all of these books will be shelved. OK, here's the show. Shh (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

DAVIS: You know, Domenico, I don't like to brag, but I formerly worked in a library in college and it is quite peaceful.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Are you a Dewey Decimal person?

DAVIS: I worked in the periodicals, which was a...

MONTANARO: OK. Magazines.

DAVIS: ...Very exciting - magazines. We called them periodicals back in the day. And a special shout-out to our listeners who noticed that I got the day totally wrong in yesterday's podcast. I just for no reason said it was March 19, and no one caught it. I think we're all just really eager for spring.

Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

MONTANARO: I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

DAVIS: And New York Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo is facing a number of political and personal scandals. It began with questions about COVID deaths in the state's nursing homes. And in recent weeks, there's been multiple allegations of sexual misconduct and a bullying and toxic work environment. Domenico, you are, of course, the podcast's resident former New Yorker, but I thought it might be good to bring in an expert on all things Cuomo. So Karen DeWitt is here, too. Hi, Karen. Welcome to the podcast.

DAVIS: Hey. Yup, I'm a full-time New Yorker all the time.

DAVIS: Well, I want to go back to the beginning of this pandemic. You know, Cuomo has already been a pretty high-profile governor in the country, but his visibility really rose during the pandemic. He had these daily news briefings. He got a ton of great press. You know, among Democrats, he was seen as this, like, great example of managing the crisis. And, Domenico, I mean, can you think of somebody who's had a more stark change of political fortunes in such a short period of time?

MONTANARO: I mean, he won an Emmy for those briefings, right? I wonder if he's got to give it back. You know, he sort of became this model for what to do in communicating the COVID pandemic. You know, that stood in juxtaposition with the chaos that we were seeing on a daily basis from then-President Trump and what he was presenting at his news conferences. And I think that a lot of Democrats across the country nationally wound up putting him bit on a pedestal that maybe now they're regretting.

DAVIS: And then there's been these reports about the misrepresentation of deaths in the state's nursing home and how Cuomo managed that crisis. Karen, I know it's very complicated, but could you sort of broadly explain what happened there and what Cuomo's role in it was?

KAREN DEWITT, BYLINE: Well, while he was giving these briefings and saying, you know, everything's under control, I mean, as much as everything could be under control last spring when all hell was breaking loose and New York was the epicenter of the pandemic, at the same time, they made what's come to be - become a very controversial decision. It was on March 25, 2020. They required that nursing homes had to take back from hospitals residents who had COVID. That means nursing home residents who got sick went to the hospital, got a little better. They went back to the nursing home where they could have spread the disease to other residents in the nursing home. And it did turn out that the nursing homes really weren't doing a good job of infection control.

But everybody was banned from the nursing home. There was no visitors. So there was a lot going on that nobody knew about. Cuomo and his health department have said no, it was asymptomatic staff that spread the disease. It couldn't have been the residents. But also, for months, they wouldn't release the numbers of the nursing home residents who died of COVID in the hospitals. They were finally forced to at the end of January when the attorney general issued a report that said they had undercounted nursing home deaths by 50%. They had to release those numbers. And guess what? It turned out that they actually had undercounted - to the public, anyway - by 50%. Fifteen thousand nursing home residents died of the disease.

DAVIS: And was that undercounting purposeful?

DEWITT: That's the question. I mean, they had a number of excuses saying they didn't have the data right. They said that they were afraid because President Donald Trump, a political enemy of Andrew Cuomo's, had asked his then his Justice Department to start an inquiry and so that they couldn't give out the numbers. But it just seems the big question is, did they actively cover up the numbers? Did they have them for months? There's been reports in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal recently saying that, yes, they had those numbers. They just didn't want to release them. Now it's the subject of a federal investigation by the U.S. attorney of eastern New York, and they're looking at possible obstruction of justice. So it's become a very serious issue.

DAVIS: So this alone is a problem for any elected official. But then we throw into the mix starting, I think, you know, several weeks ago, women have started to come forward accusing Cuomo of varying degrees of either bullying behavior or sexually inappropriate behavior. I believe the latest tally is six women have come forward with accusations against the governor.

DEWITT: As of this taping, right?

DAVIS: Right. And most of these women, I understand it, are people that worked in some capacity in the government?

DEWITT: Yeah. Some of them were former aides. One of them met the governor at a wedding where he was there and she was a guest. Yeah. It's a number of women who had associations with him. At least three were aides.

DAVIS: Do you see a link between the nursing home scandal and what's happening now? In other words, Cuomo has been weakened in power because of the nursing home scandal. And sometimes that will give people more courage to kind of come forward if they don't feel like they will be ignored.

DEWITT: Yeah, exactly. I think that if the governor had not been politically weakened, a lot of these women - and they've admitted they were afraid to come forward. If they were working for him, he could really ruin their careers. He has a lot of power in state government, which is another thing people are questioning. Just how much power should a governor have over his staff and over the state government? And I think that they were afraid. And I think that this nursing home scandal has opened the floodgates on this. And once a couple of women come forward - and we're just saying if this does happen - if this is all proved to be true, then the other women also feel emboldened because there's safety in numbers and they're not the only one who has to go public and talk about this.

DAVIS: Karen, how has the governor responded to these allegations of his behavior?

DEWITT: Well, you know, at first, I think he was very rattled. There were several days of silence. And this is from a governor who, even though they're not nationally broadcast, he still pretty much does a daily COVID briefing. There was about six or seven days where we heard nothing from him. Then he issued a statement saying that, well, he likes to joke around a lot at the office and he was just being playful. Maybe people misunderstood. Then he tried to control any investigation of the charges. At one point, he wanted to pick his own investigator and a lot of other political - politicians saying, no, no, no, you can't do that. But he eventually agreed that the attorney general, Letitia James, the same attorney general who came out with the nursing report could investigate these accusations. She has subpoena powers. And so that is something that that is ongoing. March 3, he did offer a public apology of sorts. He said he never meant to intentionally make anyone feel bad. He never inappropriately touched anyone. So it was kind of apology, kind of a denial, non-denial, saying it's all in the interpretation. And, you know, I think that that's what he's trying to stick with every time a new charge comes forward now. He's essentially just sticking to that story line.

DAVIS: So he's up for reelection in 2022. He had previously indicated he would probably run for another term. Do you think he can withstand the pressure to resign, the calls to resign? And do you think it's possible in this sort of environment, especially in a post-#MeToo era for him to hang on?

DEWITT: Well, you know, anyone else that I've covered with this kind of bad behavior - and believe me, I've covered a lot of politicians here who have behaved badly...

DAVIS: Same.

DEWITT: ...Back to Eliot Spitzer, former Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, all of them were gone by now. So it's pretty extraordinary to me that this is lasting for so long. But he - Governor Cuomo has said that he wanted to seek a fourth term in office in 2022. He was asked about that in a conference call with reporters yesterday. And for the first time, he didn't answer that. He said, well, today is not a day for politics. I'm doing my job. So I think that he is seeing that that may not be a possible scenario for him next year.

DAVIS: All right, Karen, we're so grateful to have you on the pad today. You are awesome. I really appreciate your reporting.

DEWITT: Well, thank you so much for having me.

DAVIS: That's Karen DeWitt, Capitol bureau chief for New York State Public Radio. We're going to take a quick break. And when we get back, we're going to talk about former President Donald Trump and his fight with Republicans.

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DAVIS: And we're back. And White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe is with us. Hey, Ayesha.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Hey.

DAVIS: So former President Donald Trump is taking on a new but very familiar enemy, the Republican National Committee. He wants the RNC to stop using his likeness to raise money. And he's asking donors to give their money to him and his new Save America PAC. So this seems like the obvious question, but I'll ask it, Ayesha. Why is he doing this?

RASCOE: It seems like he's doing this to help himself. No, I mean, I think...

(LAUGHTER)

RASCOE: It seems like he's doing this because he wants to stay in control. He wants to stay relevant. And the way to do that is if you control the purse strings, if you can say give me the money, then he can have a say in who gets that money. If you're someone who is loyal to him - and that can be the deciding factor because everything with Trump is always very transactional. And everything that he did as president, he expected some type of return on anything that he did. You don't get anything for free from former President Trump.

DAVIS: But, Domenico, can Trump even do this? Is it even possible to ask a party committee as a former president, say, you know, stop using my name and my likeness?

MONTANARO: I mean, he certainly can ask, but it doesn't necessarily mean legally that they..

DAVIS: Right.

MONTANARO: ...Have to stop using it, right? They sent a cease-and-desist letter, which a lot of times, you know, come from lawyers to sort of scare you a little bit. And it scared them enough for Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the party, to have a conversation with President Trump over the weekend. I mean, I was talking to a former RNC official who was in the RNC when President Obama was there. And he said, look, you know, we raised a lot of money off of President Obama's likeness, and we never asked his permission. So...

DAVIS: Very true.

MONTANARO: So, you know, this happens all the time. But, you know, Ronna McDaniel had to have this conversation with President Trump over the weekend. And, you know, the RNC sent a letter back saying we have every right to use it but that they're going to seek prior approval from the president going forward and that he "reaffirmed," quote-unquote, that they're allowed to use his likeness in their current materials.

DAVIS: Now, this seems like something that could be a problem for the Republican Party if donors take up that call and just stop giving money and give it to Trump because there's just things that Donald Trump can't do that the RNC does and needs money to do, right?

MONTANARO: It's a huge problem for the party because, you know, you can do both. I mean, what Republican parties - what the Republican Party in the Democratic Party have done previously is they'll say, you know, give the maximum amount that you can legally to the RNC. But if you're a huge donor, then go ahead and give, you know, the unlimited amount of money that you want to give to that super PAC.

This is different because now we're talking about small donors for the most part. You know, over the last decade, small donors have become much more important because of the ease of online donations. And President Trump has such a grip on the rank and file of the Republican Party that him directing them away from some of these Republican committees and more toward him certainly threatens the Republican committees tasked with trying to elect Republicans to the House and Senate and, you know, to the White House. It really threatens their ability to raise money.

RASCOE: And I would think that's why they rushed to make sure that - to say that they're going to get President Trump's OK with this, right? Because they don't want people thinking that Trump is not on board with them.

MONTANARO: That's right. And it seems like they threw him a little bit more of an olive branch because they have their spring donor retreat next month in Palm Beach at a hotel they usually host it at. And The Washington Post reported that now they're actually going to divert some of the conference to Mar-a-Lago, President Trump's residence and club, and that Mar-a-Lago is going to be paid for it. So, you know, he's got his hand in the cookie jar no matter how you look at it.

DAVIS: All right. Well, that's it for today. But while we were taping this podcast, Congress passed the $1.9 trillion COVID relief package that's been a top priority for President Biden. We have a great podcast, if I don't say so myself, in your feeds from yesterday with Kelsey Snell and Mara Liasson where we talk about the bigger politics behind that bill. Please check it out.

I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

RASCOE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

DAVIS: And thanks for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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