WASHINGTON — Facing political heat on his left flank in his bid for a third term three years ago, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called in a favor from Joe Biden, asking him to deliver the keynote address at New York’s Democratic Convention. His longtime friend didn’t disappoint, with remarks that underscored their close political and personal bond.
“We were raised in homes — one Italian, one Irish — where we were taught that the greatest sin anyone could commit, and I mean this literally, was the abuse of power, whether it was the government abusing power, or the abuse of economic power, or physical power," Biden said at the time. "It was the ultimate sin. We were taught, you had an obligation to speak out and speak up wherever you saw that abuse.”
Now, it is the allegations of just such an abuse of power that has the president keeping his distance as Cuomo faces the biggest crisis of his career.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that the president had not spoken to the governor beyond publicly calling on him to resign a day before, after a scathing report from the state attorney general accused him of sexually harassing 11 women and violating state and federal laws.
“The president believes Governor Cuomo should do the right thing, resign and leave space for future leadership in New York,” she said.
What no White House official will address is whether Cuomo has attempted to reach the president or other senior members of his team. A spokesperson for Cuomo did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Within the West Wing, no formal edict has been issued about contacts with Cuomo, who has faced mounting bipartisan calls to step down, or his staff. One White House official said it would be unnecessary to remind anyone of potential fallout should even back-channel communication efforts be underway among the Biden and Cuomo camps.
In one case, a Biden official simply ignored multiple phone calls from a Cuomo ally Tuesday.
Biden’s own words a day before on the issue were carefully chosen, and seemed reluctantly spoken. It took two questions for him to answer with a simple, “Yes,” about whether Cuomo should resign — a testament to the difficulty of the moment and disappointment he feels privately at Cuomo’s downfall, as one source close to the president put it.
That posture most likely can't last long, as Cuomo remains governor of one of the largest states in the country amid an ongoing pandemic.
In a 165-page report released Tuesday, Attorney General Letitia James alleged that Cuomo had violated state and federal law by harassing almost a dozen women, touching some of them inappropriately and using the power of his office to retaliate against one. Cuomo has denied any wrongdoing and ignored bipartisan calls to resign, including one from President Joe Biden, a longtime ally.
Tuesday was also the day Biden’s Covid team held its biweekly call with the nation’s governors — a call Cuomo himself used to run as chairman of the National Governors Association until he was replaced by Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchison, a Republican, a month ago.
The call took place just as James held a news conference to release the findings of her months-long investigation into sexual harassment allegations against Cuomo, and multiple participants on the call said Cuomo did not participate. The White House says it will continue to engage as needed with state officials on relevant official business.
“We're going to continue to work with the administration in New York, with leaders in New York to continue to fight Covid,” Psaki told reporters Wednesday. “That will continue, and obviously if leadership changes in this state, we will work with a different leader.”
The Biden-Cuomo relationship had run deep, reflecting a bond both personal and political.
As vice president, Biden turned up in New York often to help advocate for shared policy priorities like a higher minimum wage, paid family leave, or infrastructure. Cuomo pushed for a complete overhaul of LaGuardia Airport in Queens after Biden’s admonishment of it as “third-world.”
“It is especially nice to have a friend in the federal government who you can call on from time to time who can be a little helpful in greasing the wheels of justice, let’s call it, and the vice president’s office was very, very helpful in expediting this project,” Cuomo said as Biden joined him for the groundbreaking of the updated airport in 2016.
A year before, even as Cuomo had publicly endorsed Hillary Clinton’s campaign, he privately counseled Biden to consider the race. And when Cuomo faced a progressive primary challenger in his bid for a third term in 2018, Biden agreed to deliver a keynote address at the state party convention, arguing that the incumbent “has never backed away from his progressive principles.”
But the relationship has gone beyond politics.
Cuomo, who had served as New York’s attorney general at the same time Beau Biden was Delaware’s, showed up unannounced as part of a receiving line of hundreds of mourners when Biden’s eldest son was lying in state at Delaware’s State Capitol. Biden embraced Cuomo, first with a hug and then a kiss, and later clasped Cuomo’s face during an extended chat.
When Biden spoke at Cuomo’s 2018 convention, he confided how much he idolized the governor’s late father Mario Cuomo, also a New York governor, describing him as “the only person I've ever been engaged with politically I thought was better than me.”
And he spoke of Andrew Cuomo bearing the same burden as his son of having to follow in a father’s footsteps, quoting George W. Bush as saying of his father: “I inherited all his enemies and only some of his friends.”
For now, as some of Cuomo’s political rivals at home take steps to remove him from office, the White House has taken a hands-off approach.
Jay Jacobs, the chairman of the New York Democratic Party, said Wednesday that no White House officials have contacted him to discuss Cuomo’s status, with his efforts to push his longtime ally to resign coming at the behest of Democratic officials across New York.
“I think that the circle around the governor is just getting smaller, and I just think that this is just a matter of time before reality sets in,” he said.
The Republican National Committee, meanwhile, is highlighting Biden’s refusal to go further.
“If Biden really wants Cuomo to resign, why won’t he call him?” asked spokesperson Tommy Pigott.