ALBANY — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo was facing a political and personal maelstrom last Sunday, torn between his desire to fight sexual harassment accusations and escalating calls for his resignation.
Then the weeks of closed-door strategy sessions in the Executive Mansion with his top advisers were interrupted by a visit from his sister, film producer Maria Cuomo Cole, and the governor's youngest daughter, Michaela, 23, according to two staffers close to Cuomo who spoke to Newsday on condition of anonymity.
No one else was part of their private talk, but the two staffers said the meeting with his sister and daughter — both supporters of the #Me Too movement — appeared to be the turning point for Cuomo's choice between his desire to keep fighting and stepping down.
"With it, all the political calculations went out the window," one of the staffers said.
By the next morning, a public event was planned for Tuesday in New York City at which Cuomo would announce that he was resigning.
A total of seven top Cuomo staffers and advisers, who asked not to be identified, spoke to Newsday about the extraordinary seven days that toppled perhaps the most powerful governor in New York history. The fall was steep and swift.
The path to resignation started when state Attorney General Letitia James issued her long-awaited investigative report, which concluded Cuomo sexually harassed 11 women, most of whom worked in his executive chamber, by inappropriate comments or touching.
A staff member remembered Cuomo’s anger when the report came out. "Tish stabbed him in the back," the aide said.
The report followed allegations by women dating to last December. The women accused Cuomo of touching their face, kissing, hugging and touching their back as well as asking questions about their intimate relationships.
Cuomo denied the allegations, insisting to the end that he never intended to sexually harass anyone. He said it his "way" to try to express warmth and support through hugging, kisses on the cheek, pats on the back and friendly banter, interpersonal skills that he said learned from his father, the late Gov. Mario Cuomo, and his mother, 89-year-old Matilda Cuomo. He said his actions had been misinterpreted and were not intended to be sexual.
During his more than 10 years in office, Cuomo had used a hard-charging, take-no-prisoners style to amass a record of major building projects and legislation in part driven by competition with his father over their legacies. His style, however, earned him enemies instead of friends, which left him alone in his greatest hour of need.
"They just want us dead," a staffer put it.
Cuomo tried to control the narrative, first as attorney general for a term and for almost three terms as governor. But his ability to do so amid the sexual harassment allegations was failing him.
For months he fought calls from outside his Executive Chamber to resign. But now even his inner circle, which has gone through political wars with him before against the odds, tried to make him come to terms with what Cuomo apparently was unwilling to see clearly until that visit on Sunday by his sister and daughter, staffers said.
Hours after the James report was released publicly, Cuomo made a video appeal to New Yorkers from the Capitol’s ceremonial Red Room. He called the report flawed and said the allegations against him were based on misinterpretation of his words and actions. There were no reporters to question him.
The strategy didn’t work. One longtime adviser described it as "that crazy video."
Then, Cuomo and his advisers talked about whether they could make a deal short of resignation. Perhaps the governor could trade ending his reelection bid to serve the rest of his term next year, with a provision to drop all investigations against him on sexual harassment, nursing home deaths and the possible use of staff to edit his book on leadership during the pandemic.
"'This is a sex scandal without the sex,'" the staffers recalled Cuomo saying.
Another staff member said that the punishment wouldn’t fit the accusations: "No one was charged with a crime here, no one was convicted of a crime. They are now creating a new standard."
Then came another key moment, insiders said.
Hours after James released her report, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, one of the last Democratic leaders to call for Cuomo to resign, issued a significant statement: "It is abundantly clear to me that the governor has lost the confidence of the Assembly’s Democratic majority and that he can no longer remain in office."
The next day, on Aug. 4, an 11 a.m. news conference for Cuomo to provide a more detailed response to the report was canceled before it was publicly announced. Minutes before, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. announced he would look at the attorney general’s report for possible criminal action against Cuomo.
"That was a big concern," another longtime staffer said.
Vance's announcement prompted the governor the make rounds of calls to try to drum up support, the staffer said. But "no one wants to fall on the sword for him."
Aides close to Cuomo who wanted him to resign emphasized that a long impeachment process would hurt his family, particularly his mother and his younger brother, CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, who had been criticized for violating journalism ethics by privately advising his brother during the crisis.
"I think the family connection is probably the only thing that will convince him to go," a staffer said at the time. "The shame on the family … is the only thing that will convince him to go."
"He’s feeling a lot of pressure," another close aide said of Cuomo on Aug. 5. However, "He wants to fight … maybe run into the buzz saw and let history sort it out."
The strategy sessions continued as Cuomo directed staff to find a way for him to avoid resignation.
"'This is not sexual assault,'" one staffer said Cuomo insisted. "'This is a shift in society and 11 years of pent-up rage.'"
But most advisers personally believed that argument was expected to meet with little success in the growing political and media feeding frenzy.
"There’s only one person to blame," one adviser said. "I’m angry. You think you know someone …"
Cuomo and his top aides continued to huddle in the stately Executive Mansion, which was built in 1856 atop a hill on Albany’s Eagle Street. They met daily in Cuomo’s small workday office, dotted only by some family pictures, in a room his father had built out of an anteroom off a bedroom during this tenure.
Few staffers had seen the inside this innermost sanctum. They met early in the morning through late at night living on sandwiches and large, homemade cookies made by the mansion staff. They formulated strategy while Cuomo made phone calls to longtime confidants now out of state government, desperately seeking a way to keep the job he loved. They took breaks lounging and working at the 40-by-13-foot pool first built in 1932 by Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt to aid his polio therapy then rebuilt by Cuomo in 2013.
"He’s not quitting," a staffer said Aug. 5.
Yet most staff members and advisers believed Cuomo had no way out but to resign. Cuomo himself shifted in bouts of despair, acknowledging that logic dictated that he would not be able to fend off impeachment. But then his emotions would shift and he was ready to fight to the end, several staffers said, even though they didn’t agree.
"I just don’t see any way," said one of them at the time. In trying to make the point, the staffer argued that months of criticism followed by an impeachment trial would only hurt Cuomo more. "What? You want these people to testify? …," the staffer said. "The result is horrendous. You know the result. Why do this?"
On Aug. 7, a day after Cuomo again presented his defense through his lawyers, Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple held a news conference. He said he received a complaint that a woman accused Cuomo of groping her breast while in the Executive Mansion. He said he would investigate and it could result in a misdemeanor charge against Cuomo if the complaint was substantiated.
Still, the view inside the Cuomo administration was that even if authorities substantiated the complaint — and Cuomo denies it was true — a misdemeanor has never been enough to force the removal of an elected official in the state.
But Sunday, Aug. 8, brought another shock. CBS News announced it would air an exclusive national interview with the woman who made the criminal complaint. It was heavily promoted for the next day.
Cuomo staffers scrambled to counterpunch.
"At that point he was ready to fight, fight to the end," said one aide.
In the CBS interview, former Cuomo staffer Brittany Commisso, 32, said the governor once rubbed her buttocks and in a separate incident hugged her in a "sexually aggressive manner."
"I was shocked," one long-loyal staff member said of Cuomo’s alleged behavior.
Staffers advised Cuomo that he needed to figure out "what he wants his legacy to be … do you want to be Al Franken [the Minnesota senator who resigned amid harassment allegations] or Harvey Weinstein [the media mogul convicted of felony sex crimes]?"
Ultimately, Cuomo resolved to fight: "He’s not going to let the [expletive] Assembly do this to him," one staffer recalled.
On Sunday, the mood at the Executive Mansion was bleak. "It was dark," one staffer recalled. "There was really nobody left. There were withering attacks by everyone, all around him … he realized nothing he could say would really matter."
Then came the visit by Cuomo’s sister and daughter, Michaela, both of whom have been outspoken advocates of the #Me Too movement.
That Sunday night, Cuomo took one more call from Heastie, staffers said. Heastie said there was no stopping the steady march toward impeachment, a staffer said. (Heastie spokesman Michael Whyland says the speaker didn’t talk with Cuomo that night.)
Around 10 p.m. that Sunday, word leaked that Cuomo’s top aide, Melissa DeRosa, leader of his inner circle, was quitting. She wanted it all to end and to avoid "an ugly trial," said a staff member close to DeRosa.
"I think it was Melissa and the family," the Cuomo staffer said, "I believe are the only ones he was listening to."
The next day, on Aug. 9, the Assembly Judiciary Committee held a closed-door meeting with its investigators. Chairman Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove) announced a schedule of additional meetings followed by a potential vote on articles of impeachment.
Lavine also announced a new wrinkle: The State Legislature could include an impeachment article that would bar Cuomo from running for statewide office again. For Cuomo, who at 63 is still in his late political prime, that was a major concern that only solidified the argument to resign, one staffer said.
Heastie added the kicker: "I am not negotiating any deals."
The next day, Tuesday, Aug. 10, Cuomo took the step he had fought for months.
"I think that given the circumstances, the best way I can help now is if I step aside," Cuomo said in a televised speech.
Then he addressed his daughters:
"Your Dad made mistakes, and he apologized, and he learned from it. And that's what life is all about."
Cuomo then left his Manhattan office, made his way to a heliport and mounted the steps to the state helicopter, likely for the last time, his daughter Michaela’s right hand gently at his back.