On 12 August, 2019 Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, held a glitzy bill ceremony in his executive mansion in Albany to mark the signing into law of new legislation designed to beef up sexual harassment protections for women in the workplace.
With a flourish of a pen, Cuomo sought to seal his reputation within the Democratic party as a champion of gender-based rights.
“Let’s honor all the women who have endured this humiliation,” he said. “Let’s honor the women who have had the courage to come forward to tell their stories – and let’s actually change things.”
The next day, 13 August, the governor was being driven to an event by a state police officer who he had handpicked to be part of his security detail even though she lacked the requisite experience. He struck up a conversation with the officer, who is anonymously identified in this week’s explosive report from the New York attorney general into Cuomo’s violations of anti-discrimination laws as “Trooper #1”.
“Why don’t you wear a dress?” he asked her.
Stunned, and hoping to change the subject, she replied that she would have nowhere to put her gun. Cuomo pressed on: “Why do you wear such dark colors?”
When they arrived at the destination, Trooper #1 was told by a senior officer that what she had just endured “stays in the truck”. She took that as an order to remain quiet.
The incident was one of the milder episodes of what Trooper #1 called Cuomo’s “flirtatious” and “creepy” behavior. On another occasion he ran the palm of his hand across her stomach, making her feel “completely violated”.
But coming a single day after he had signed the signature sexual harassment bill into law, the encounter in the car highlighted a question at the heart of the unfolding Cuomo affair. How could a leading Democratic politician who presented himself as the standard-bearer of workplace equality and dignity have created what the AG’s report found was a “hostile work environment for women” in which he sexually harassed several current and former employees over years?
And how could he now be waging a one-man battle to discredit the 11 women – Trooper #1 among them – who had the courage to come forward to tell their stories against him?
“It was perverse, it shocks the conscience,” said Alessandra Biaggi, referring to Trooper #1’s experiences in the car. Biaggi, a Democratic state senator, has a special stake in this narrative as she co-sponsored the anti-harassment bill that Cuomo signed into law (though he pointedly declined to invite her to the ceremony, which she believes was out of spite following her previous criticism of him).
“The day before he was touting himself as someone who cares about protections for women against gender-based discrimination,” Biaggi told the Guardian. “The next day he engaged in gender-based discrimination.”
Since the New York attorney general, Letitia James, released her 168-page report on Tuesday with its central finding that Cuomo violated federal and state sexual harassment laws, the governor has embarked on a “masterclass in gaslighting”, Biaggi said. “He has lost credibility, and so is trying to undermine the credibility of everybody else.”
Much of Cuomo’s self-defense falls squarely into the standard playbook of powerful men accused of sexual misconduct when their back is against the wall. He has responded to the accounts of his 11 accusers with a potpourri of outright denial, appeals to failing memory, suggestions that the women had “misunderstood” his actions, and darker insinuations that they and the investigators were motivated by political or other animosity towards him.
“I now understand there are generational or cultural perspectives that frankly I hadn’t fully appreciated,” Cuomo said in a filmed statement posted shortly after the attorney general’s report was released. The video includes a montage of photographs of him hugging people, holding their heads in his hands and kissing them on the cheek.
Cuomo denies sexual harassment claims in New York attorney general report – video
“I do it with everyone,” Cuomo says in the statement. The comment is a specific attempt to belittle the testimony of one of the 11 women, Anna Ruch, who testified that she felt “distraught and uncomfortable” at a 2019 wedding party when Cuomo, whom she had never met, cupped her face in his hands and said: “May I kiss you?”
As CNN’s Chris Cillizza observed, “‘I do it with everyone’ is an interesting defense of sexually inappropriate behavior.”
In his defiant stand against the seemingly overwhelming evidence compiled by the attorney general – the investigation interviewed 179 witnesses and reviewed 74,000 items including emails and texts – Cuomo is seeking to speak over the heads of other politicians and lawyers and directly to New Yorkers. In appealing to them, his eyes welling up from time to time in the video, he tries to turn the world upside down, portraying himself as the victim and his accusers as the witting or unwitting abusers.
“Governor Cuomo’s response is textbook abuser language,” said Tarana Burke, the campaigner and survivor who gave #MeToo its name. “We see this time and time again with abusers centering themselves when faced with the opportunity to truly acknowledge the harm that has been done.”
One of the most incendiary elements of Cuomo’s response has been his rebuttal of the evidence given by Charlotte Bennett, who worked as his executive assistant in 2019-20. She testified that while working for him he asked her a succession of increasingly intimate questions such as whether she had been with older men or whether she had body piercings.
He once told her he wanted to ride his motorbike into the mountains with a woman, she testified.
Under questioning by the attorney general’s team, Cuomo tried to explain away that behavior by saying he knew that Bennett had been a victim of sexual assault in her past. Because of those experiences as a survivor, he told the inquiry, Bennett “processed what she heard through her own filter”, and that it was “often not what was said and not what was meant”.
The comment poses a direct challenge to many of the gains made in recent years as a result of the #MeToo movement. Not only are women not to be believed when they come forward with allegations of abuse, but women who have suffered sexual abuse are especially not to be believed given the “filter” through which they consequently perceive things.
In other words, women who have endured sexual abuse and trauma are not capable of rationalizing the truth.
Bennett had strong words to say about Cuomo’s remark. She told ABC’s Good Morning America that he had insinuated that women like her “can’t tell the difference between mentorship and leadership and sexual harassment itself, which is not only insulting to me but to every survivor”.
Those insulted survivors include Biaggi. “I’m a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and what I know from my experience is that because of it I can identify patterns of harassment and abuse more clearly and quickly. Survivors are more credible, not less,” she said.
They also include Tanya Selvaratnam. In May 2018, she was one of four women who accused Eric Schneiderman of physical abuse. The then attorney general of New York state resigned hours after the New Yorker published the women’s stories.
Tanya Selvaratnam. Photograph: Tanya Selvaratnam
Selvaratnam, a producer and writer, told the Guardian that Cuomo’s aspersions about Bennett’s perceptions as a survivor were “singularly insidious. It’s so ridiculous. When you’ve experienced abuse you are more attuned to spot it and stop it”.
Cuomo’s strategy in attempting to save his political life is all too familiar to Selvaratnam, particularly with regard to the denials and claims that acts were consensual. “In my situation, I consented to a relationship I did not consent to the abuse. In Cuomo’s case, the women consented to the job, they did not consent to being groped and harassed.”
She also sees an echo in the gulf between Cuomo and Schneiderman’s public personas and their personal behavior. “Perpetrators are of all stripes. We delude ourselves by thinking that men on the left are advocates for women’s rights and safety because ultimately it’s about power and control. Powerful men on the left think that their public good deeds will mask their private-facing nefarious actions.”
Selvaratnam said that many people implored her not to come forward because Schneiderman, who like Cuomo positioned himself as a champion of women’s rights, was doing such good work. “But I felt it was important to do the right thing and help protect other women from having the memories that I now have.”
At the end of a frantic week of Albany politics, Selvaratnam thinks that what matters now is not Cuomo’s protestations so much as actual outcomes. “No politician is so indispensable that if they are abusive they can’t be replaced by somebody who could do a better job,” she said.
Burke agreed. “The investigation was a fair process. What should follow is true accountability, and we have yet to see that.”
• In the US, Rainn offers support on 800-656-4673. In the UK, Rape Crisis offers support for rape and sexual abuse on 0808 802 9999. In Australia, support is available at 1800Respect (1800 737 732). Other international helplines can be found at ibiblio.org/rcip/internl.html