It was not quite a mea culpa. Facing what has become arguably the most serious threat of his political career, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo could not bring himself to apologise on Monday for the sin his accusers were alleging: that his administration tried to cover up the true number of nursing home residents who died of Covid-19 in order to protect his reputation.
In a press briefing that was intended to draw a line under the escalating scandal, Cuomo contorted himself time and again. Nothing had been covered up, he insisted. The governor instead accepted responsibility for the lesser offence of not disclosing information more quickly. That delay, he said, had invited malicious reporting and conspiracy theories.
“Apologise?” he said, nearly an hour into the session. “Look, I have said repeatedly, we made a mistake in creating the void . . . When we didn’t provide the information it allowed press, people, cynics, politicians to fill the void.” The true culprit, Cuomo argued, was “a toxic political environment”.
The reaction was swift — and harsh. Even some fellow Democrats accused Cuomo of being less than forthright. Several are expected to support a push this week to strip him of the emergency powers he assumed to deal with the crisis. Others are calling for an investigation.
“Beyond despicable,” was how Ron Kim, a Democratic member of the state assembly from Queens, one of the areas hardest hit by the pandemic, characterised the governor’s performance.
Bill Hammond, a health policy researcher at the Empire Center think-tank, called it “an exercise in self-justification and deflection”.
At a minimum, the nursing home saga has tarnished what was Cuomo’s finest hour. When then-president Donald Trump was dismissing the pandemic early last year, the New York governor stepped forward to soothe an anxious nation. He did so with plain-spoken daily briefings in which he promised to deliver “just the facts”.
The governor won an Emmy award for that performance, was lauded by celebrities and published a book about leadership that became a bestseller. Some star-struck Democrats even mused about the possibility of him replacing Joseph Biden as the party’s presidential nominee.
But in New York, political strategists are now debating what damage the nursing home saga has done to the governor’s chances of winning a fourth term in 2022 — an achievement that would eclipse his father, Mario Cuomo. Even admirers agree that it has revealed some less-appealing Cuomo traits: a tendency for secrecy, a controlling nature bordering on paranoia, and an instinct to fight when an apology might serve better.
“They’re fight-first people,” one strategist explained, arguing that — as with so many political scandals — the attempted cover-up had been worse than the crime.
“It’s very bad in reality, very bad politically and terrible optically,” said Ken Frydman, a former communications director for ex-mayor Rudolph Giuliani and veteran New York media adviser. “The governor’s notoriety has boomeranged on him and his sheen has worn off.”
Others believe the scandal has been overblown by rivals in both parties seeking leverage over a governor who has grown to immense stature. Mitchell Moss, a professor at New York University, was convinced that Cuomo — in spite of any mistakes — would still be remembered for demonstrating decisive leadership at a crucial moment. “Now, was the book a little premature?” Moss asked. “Yes.”
Underlying the scandal is an order Cuomo issued on March 25 2020 requiring New York nursing homes to readmit thousands of Covid-19 patients discharged by hospitals. As the virus tore through nursing homes, the governor later rescinded the order.
At the time, New York was the centre of the pandemic and the fear was that the hospital system would soon be overrun by Covid-19 patients. The governor has since argued that the coronavirus entered nursing homes not through discharged patients but via staff. Other states have suffered higher nursing home death rates.
The issue looked like a small but persistent irritant for the governor until Letitia James, the New York attorney-general, last month issued a report concluding that his administration had undercounted deaths of nursing home residents by as much as 50 per cent. James was not querying the state’s overall Covid-19 death toll, but rather how those fatalities were attributed.
Then last week a recording emerged of Cuomo’s top aide, Melissa DeRosa, telling Democratic legislators that the administration “froze” in response to their repeated requests for information about the nursing homes because it feared that the Trump administration might use the material against them.
New York now acknowledges that more than 15,000 of its care home residents have died of Covid-19, up from previous reports of about 8,500.
“We have been unable to look at that honestly in part because leaders of the state and leaders of the department of health are stonewalling,” said Hammond from the Empire Center, who also credited Cuomo for dealing with “probably the most difficult situation any New York governor has ever faced”.
The scandal has rattled an already fatigued Cuomo team. It is impossible to separate it from jockeying over the state budget and a power struggle within the local Democratic party. Cuomo, an avowed centrist now in his third term, has had plenty of time to accumulate enemies and rivals, while his natural core of allies has shrunk as the party has shifted to the left.
“People in his party are tired of the heavy-handedness,” one lobbyist said — and then warned that any potential Democratic challengers for the governorship should be prepared for retribution.
Another observer noted that Cuomo might also be suffering from the departure of the former president. “Trump’s not there any more to act as the bogeyman,” they said. Still, they noted, the enormous challenge of distributing the Covid-19 vaccine and restarting New York’s economy provided ample opportunity to remind residents of his talents. “I do think he’s got time to turn it around.”