Global Affairs

Why the Trump playbook didn’t work for Cuomo

Illustration by Khadijah Ali 

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has resigned after an independent investigation found he had sexually harassed 11 women, including state employees. The investigation found that Cuomo had violated federal and state law and, at the time of writing, the former Governor is facing criminal charges. It marks a huge swing in public opinion for the three-term governor, who had come to prominence for his handling of the pandemic and had even been tipped to run for president. Yet, despite the exhaustive investigations and political pressure, many thought Cuomo could survive. Trump had.

The Trump playbook is simple: deny, discredit, and demand loyalty. Whether it’s a sexual assault allegation, a scam masquerading as an online university, or refusing to pay workers or contractors, the Trump playbook has ensured that he has on the whole avoided financial or legal consequences. It hadn’t just worked for Trump. Recently, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam had survived calls for his resignation after pictures emerged of him in blackface while in medical school. Cuomo had even attracted some of Trump’s supporters to his defence. With Trump and Cuomo even being fellow New Yorkers, it was not unreasonable to expect Cuomo to survive.

Cuomo’s failure to follow the first two tenets of the Trump playbook successfully can be seen as far back as December 2019. In a poll by CBS News, 89% of Democrats said that sexual harassment and misconduct was a serious problem, as opposed to 64% of Republicans. This higher standard of behaviour would not work for Cuomo if he denied and discredited the women. Cuomo had prided himself on his stances against sexual harassment in recent years. His 2018 re-election campaign ran ads stating New York had “the strongest sexual harassment policy in the nation”. In 2019, he signed legislation clearly stating that sexual harassment did not need to be “severe or pervasive” to be legally actionable. He had even called for the resignation of various New York Assemblymen, former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, and Trump, after allegations of sexual harassment.

It wasn’t just Cuomo’s denials that failed him but the increasing forcefulness that turned the public against him. Whilst Cuomo tried to adapt this to Democratic sensibilities, with the initial allegations being met with calls for investigations, his tone quickly changed. When a second woman came forward, he said the comments were “playful” and that he made “jokes that I think are funny”. After the third accuser came forward, he changed tack. He has since said his comments and actions were “misinterpreted”, “misconstrued”, and that the women “heard things that I just didn’t say”. The increasing aggressiveness of Cuomo’s denials fell flat. It went against his carefully curated public image and everything he had campaigned on.

Cuomo’s final failure revolved around his ability to demand loyalty. Trump’s supporters vocally supported him. They championed him in social and traditional media. And Cuomo also had this support, at first. Throughout the investigation, Cuomo began reconnecting with the public, meeting key constituency groups including religious leaders and lawmakers. He believed the public would save him and worked to focus attention on his response to the pandemic. But this backfired when he asked his brother, CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, to turn confidant and advise him on how to respond. CNN later stated that Chris Cuomo should never have given such advice and he was taken off any broadcasts surrounding his brother, though he was never publicly reprimanded by CNN. This blatant attempt to manipulate the mainstream media lost the governor the court of public opinion and put Cuomo closer towards his father’s legacy, which was marred by unproven claims he was linked to the mafia. But Cuomo’s fall would come closer to home.

Cuomo had a long history of getting on the wrong side of fellow lawmakers. Cuomo has long been accused of bullying and vindictive behaviour and of taking credit for successful bills and legislation. When lawmakers met after Cuomo denounced the investigation, not a single lawmaker voiced support for him. Unlike his father, he had failed to connect with lawmakers. As soon as they moved to impeach him, Cuomo’s days were numbered. 

Trump has never publicly apologised to any of his accusers, but if he did, it would probably look like Cuomo’s resignation speech. It marks Cuomo’s full transformation from anti-Trump to Trump-ite, even taking a step further and taking a page out of Harvey Weinstein’s playbook by victim-blaming. In his resignation speech, Cuomo blames the women, the media, and the political elite. His apology to the women is eclipsed by that to his family and the voters. Cuomo’s final nod to Trump in his speech is his attempt to distract the public by focusing on his accomplishments. Like Trump, we have not seen the last of Cuomo. Whether either will return to public office remains to be seen.

Carol Jones writes 'The Good Grief Notes' column for the Oxford Blue, where she also writes about culture and women's rights. She studies DPhil Music Composition at St Catherine's and works as a freelance composer.