CNN anchor Chris Cuomo advised his brother, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D, and senior members of the governor’s staff on how to respond to sexual harassment allegations made earlier this year by women who had worked with the governor, according to four people familiar with the discussions.
Cuomo, one of the network’s top stars, joined a series of conference calls that included the governor, his top aide, his communications team, lawyers and a number of outside advisers, according to the people familiar with the conversations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private sessions.
The calls occurred earlier this year, when a growing number of claims that Andrew Cuomo made inappropriate comments or touched women without their permission had escalated into a political crisis for the three-term governor.
The cable news anchor encouraged his brother to take a defiant position and not to resign from the governor’s office, the people said. At one point, he used the phrase “cancel culture” as a reason to hold firm in the face of the allegations, two people present on one call said.
The behind-the-scenes strategy offered by Chris Cuomo, who anchors CNN’s 9 p.m. nightly newscast, cuts against the widely accepted norm in journalism that those reporting the news should not be involved in politics.
“If you are actively advising a politician in trouble while being an on-air host on a news network, that’s not OK,” said Nicholas Lemann, a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a New Yorker staff writer.
In a statement, CNN acknowledged that Chris Cuomo took part in the strategy sessions, saying his involvement was a mistake.
“Chris has not been involved in CNN’s extensive coverage of the allegations against Governor Cuomo – on air or behind the scenes,” the network said in a statement. “In part because, as he has said on his show, he could never be objective. But also because he often serves as a sounding board for his brother.”
“However, it was inappropriate to engage in conversations that included members of the Governor’s staff, which Chris acknowledges,” the statement added. “He will not participate in such conversations going forward.”
The network said Cuomo will not be disciplined.
Chris Cuomo offered an on-air apology Thursday night, saying he recognized that he has “a unique responsibility” to balance his obligations as a journalist and a brother and that his conversations with the governor’s staff created a problem for CNN.
“It will not happen again,” he said. “It was a mistake because I put my colleagues here, who I believe are the best in the business, in a bad spot.”
The anchor said he was walled off from coverage of the governor, without mentioning the special dispensation he received from CNN to feature him on his show during the pandemic. But Cuomo also emphasized that he was “family first; job second,” saying he knows “where the line is” and can “still be there for my family, which I must.”
The episodes further illuminate how the Cuomo brothers, who are 13 years apart in age, have benefited from their respective high perches in politics and the media. Early in the coronavirus pandemic, a top state Department of Health doctor was dispatched to the Hamptons to test Chris Cuomo and his family, The Washington Post previously reported.
Aides to the governor said his brother was simply part of an informal effort to provide support in the face of the harassment allegations.
“There were a few phone conversations, with friends and advisers giving the governor advice,” said Rich Azzopardi, a spokesman for Andrew Cuomo.
Chris Cuomo has long been a key confidant of his brother, regularly advising him about politics, according to people who know both men.
Former and current administration officials said the anchor played an active role early in the governor’s coronavirus strategy, suggesting providers for the state to secure protective equipment.
The brothers sometimes fish together in the waters off Long Island, according to those who know them.
“The governor only trusts about five people,” one adviser with knowledge of the strategy sessions said. “So that’s why Chris is on these calls.”
Inside CNN on Thursday, several employees described a sense of unease about the role Cuomo played in advising his brother, with one calling his decision to do so “really upsetting.” Another person said that in a political climate in which CNN journalists come under intense scrutiny – particularly on the right – having one of their own offering advice to a major Democratic figure felt like a self-inflicted wound. “There’s a general sense of frustration,” said one on-air reporter, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal conversations. “I don’t think anyone was surprised they spoke about this, given they are family, but calls with lawyers and staff . . . wow.”
Andrew Cuomo’s conduct is under investigation by the state attorney general and the state Assembly. At least seven women have come forward to allege the governor has either made inappropriate comments to them or inappropriately touched them. Cuomo has denied the allegations but apologized if he unintentionally made some women feel uncomfortable.
When the claims against Andrew Cuomo first surfaced, Chris Cuomo was notably silent about the topic, and days later he said he could not cover the story on his show.
“Obviously, I am aware of what is going on with my brother,” he told viewers on March 1, as a third accuser came forward. “And obviously I cannot cover it because he is my brother. Now, of course CNN has to cover it. They have covered it extensively and they will continue to do so. I have always cared very deeply about these issues, and profoundly so. I just want to tell you that.”
His stance came as a sharp contrast to his position a year earlier, when the CNN anchor regularly interviewed his brother on his show during the height of the pandemic, with sometimes jovial, sometimes heartfelt interviews that allowed the New York governor to boast about his administration’s handling of the crisis to a sympathetic interviewer.
People familiar with the strategy calls set up by the governor’s office earlier this year said while Chris Cuomo regularly joined the discussions, he did not lead the calls, and he mainly gave political advice, rather than addressing the individual accounts of the women or their credibility.
The governor listened to a range of opinions on the calls, which were usually precipitated by looming news stories that demanded a response from the office, people with knowledge of the calls said.
Andrew Cuomo has taken the advice of his brother and is already gearing up to fight when investigative reports come out, according to multiple people who have spoken to him.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Cuomo said in a recent phone call, according to one ally.
A Cuomo adviser said he has never considered resigning.
The revelation of Chris Cuomo’s involvement in the governor’s strategy sessions creates an awkward situation for CNN, which has struggled at times to explain what he is permitted to cover.
When Cuomo joined CNN in 2013, he was walled off from reporting on stories related to his brother.
But in spring of 2020, when New York was at the epicenter of the pandemic, Chris Cuomo interviewed his brother six times about the pandemic – at one point brandishing a giant nasal swab as the two discussed the virus’s spread through the state and the governor’s response.
Cuomo did not hide his appreciation for his brother on air.
“I hope you are able to appreciate what you did in your state and what it means for the rest of the country now and what it will always mean to those who love and care about you the most,” the CNN anchor told the governor in June 2020. “I’m wowed by what you did, and more importantly, I’m wowed by how you did it. This was very hard. I know it’s not over. But obviously I love you as a brother, obviously I’ll never be objective, obviously I think you’re the best politician in the country.”
CNN explained the exception by saying that the early months of the pandemic were an extraordinary time, and that allowing the brothers to speak about a pandemic ravaging millions of American families was of significant human interest.
When former aide Lindsey Boylan posted her account in February of alleged harassment by Andrew Cuomo, other CNN anchors covered the story.
The following day, CNN’s John King reported her accusations, leading with the governor’s denial. Jake Tapper covered the allegations as well, noting that “problems are piling up for Democratic governor of New York Andrew Cuomo.”
Chris Cuomo was among the governor’s relatives who gained special access to state-administered coronavirus tests last year when the administration dispatched state health officials to their homes and expedited their test results, as The Post previously reported.
Administration officials have declined to comment on Cuomo family members receiving testing priority, citing laws protecting health privacy. Officials said that home tests were provided to members of the public in communities that were hard-hit.
The state doctor who administered tests to Chris Cuomo and his family, Eleanor Adams, recently resigned from her government position, the health department confirmed.