Special: Cuomo’s Political Scandal & Biden’s Cabinet Challenges

Mar. 05, 2021 AT 9:24 p.m. EST

NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo is facing backlash after being accused of sexual misconduct. The panel also discussed challenges for President Biden’s nominees to key positions. Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report guest moderates.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

AMY WALTER: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Amy Walter.

This week New York Governor Andrew Cuomo under fire. On Monday a third woman came forward with accusations that the government – governor made unwanted sexual advances toward her. Then on Thursday The New York Times reported that aides to the governor altered a report on nursing home deaths due to COVID in order to make the numbers appear smaller. Cuomo’s administration is already being investigated by federal officials on their handling of the pandemic in nursing homes. In the wake of the sexual harassment allegations some New York Democrats have called for Cuomo’s resignation, but Democrats on the Hill have said they will wait to hear the results of the inquiry launched by the New York attorney general before deciding the governor’s fate.

Joining me tonight are two reporters covering all things Washington: Jonathan Martin, national political correspondent for The New York Times; and Amna Nawaz, senior national correspondent for the PBS NewsHour. Welcome to you both.

Amna, I’m going to start with you. The #MeToo movement, we’ve been in it now for four years and I’m wondering how differently you think that these allegations of sexual harassment against a very powerful man are being dealt with today versus how they may have been dealt with years ago.

AMNA NAWAZ: Yeah, so I think one of the things to remember about sort of where the #MeToo movement has brought us all is that two things happen now, right? One is that women who come forward with credible claims are believed – that is just step one – and then those accusations and allegations are investigated and there’s accountability on the backend if they’re proven to be true. We’re in step one of that right now when it comes to Governor Cuomo. The women have come forward, they are being believed, their claims are being looked into, and we know this investigation could take weeks or even months. I think where the questions are being raised right now is what happens with the accountability on the backend. And if you just look at this in terms of pure politics, where Democrats are today is different from where they were when you look back to, say, how they handled Senator Al Franken and the allegations that he was facing. Democrats sort of drew a zero-tolerance line and said this is where we are, this is how we distinguish ourselves from the Republicans on this issue; it’s a little different now in terms of how they are responding directly to the allegations against Governor Cuomo, and he’s kind of taking attacks on all sides now. You mentioned the nursing home deaths issue, as well. It’s been a long journey for Governor Cuomo. He’s a far cry from where he was early in the pandemic.

MS. WALTER: Well, Jonathan, let’s talk about that, seeing his political fortunes drop as Amna pointed out. I mean, his approval ratings – there was a poll that came out this week; his approval ratings have dropped almost 30 points since last year. So politically, can he survive these scandals? And I also want you to address this: Can Republicans actually have a – do they actually have a shot at winning the governor’s mansion? They haven’t won there since 2002.

JONATHAN MARTIN: Yeah, I think he could certainly survive in terms of keeping his job. I mean, there’s two recent governors who have just hunkered down, defied calls to resign, and served out their terms. One was Mark Sanford in South Carolina, who was then the governor when he took a little stroll on the Appalachian Trail – which your viewers will recall – and then the other is Ralph Northam, who of course two years ago in the great Commonwealth of Virginia, Amy, you know, almost quit and then decided not to over his apparent photograph in a – a racist photograph in a medical school yearbook. I think Cuomo’s looked to those examples and realizes if I just stand my ground, you know, they can’t get me out. What I’m interested in is this: Can he run for another term? Sanford and Northam, the two examples that I cited, were term limited. Now, Cuomo is not, and this is so Shakespearian because his father, Mario Cuomo, ran for a fourth term and lost to George Pataki in 1994. Well, Andrew Cuomo, it’s basically an open secret, really wanted to get a fourth term in part to serve for longer than his father, who he always had kind of a rivalry with, and I think now, Amy, that’s really in jeopardy.

As to your broader question about can a Republican win the state of New York, I think it’s almost impossible in a federal race, a little more realistic in a governor’s race under the right circumstances. I think it’s still really tough. Politics has gotten so polarized, so much of that vote is in New York City, I’m just not sure a Trump-supporting, you know, Upstate or Long Island candidate could win statewide there, Amy. I think it would take Cuomo insisting on staying in, somehow being the nominee, and a liberal third-party candidate draining votes from him is probably the plausible scenario there.

MS. WALTER: Right. Amna, talk about this point that Jonathan made there, this idea that when you are in a scandal you just sort of hunker down. I mean, in the not so long ago days there was a scandal, you either made an apology or you left office, you know, sort of with your head not necessarily held very high – (laughs) – and now it seems like really it’s not just those ones that Jonathan mentioned, but obviously, the president – the former president, Donald Trump, very effectively just sort of plowed through controversy after controversy, so is this the new normal now?

MS. NAWAZ: You know, it’s really hard to mark sort of the point in time where we have the before times and the after times because, certainly, there were – there were politicians well before former President Trump who did survive political storms and scandals to differing degrees, right? I think what happened with President Trump was that a new bar was kind of set. I mean, think back to the days when the Access Hollywood tape came out and everyone thought that that was – that was it, and it was certainly not it. And so, yes, I think the rules have changed to some degree. I think the lines are malleable depending on which party you belong to, what point in time you’re operating. I think the confirmation hearings have been a perfect example of that. You saw in the confirmation hearings of Neera Tanden, for example, the most relentless line of questioning coming from Republican senators had nothing to do with qualifications or policies or how she would do her job; it was about her tweets – it was about the tone and the content of her tweets, more specifically the tweets that were insulting them. And these were some of the same Republicans – I’m old enough to remember the days when reporters were chasing them down in the halls trying to show them Donald Trump’s tweets to say what do you think of this, and they would either feign ignorance or say they weren’t really following them, and so that bar has certainly moved as well given the political climate and the times and where you are in power. But yes, we are in a different time right now. I think the bar has moved. The bar continues to move. It’s our job to keep up with it and hold people accountable.

MR. MARTIN: Yeah, and I think, Amy, especially in New York and today’s Democratic Party in New York, I think it’s very tough for Andrew Cuomo to run for a fourth term given – speaking of moving bars – given the standards in that state. He was already sort of hated on the left in his state and I think had a sort of broader base in the political center-left. I’m just – I’m not sure how solid that’s going to remain, especially if there – if more women come out. I think he could defy calls to quit; I just – I’m not sure he can get the nomination again next year, we’ll see.

MS. WALTER: Yeah, we’ll see – although, as with everything now these days, I saw in that poll that he still has about 75 percent support from Democrats, and of course among Republicans it’s – (laughs) – 75 –

MR. MARTIN: For now.

MS. WALTER: – yeah, right, let’s see how long – 75 percent against.

MR. MARTIN: And there’s no soft landing, Amy. There’s no soft landing that Biden could give him to sort of give him an exit strategy next year out of Albany, because Biden’s not going to take that political fire, for obvious reasons – (laughs) – you know?

MS. WALTER: Right, no doubt. I want to address one more thing. And that is the Biden nominations to the Cabinet that continue to make their way through the Senate. This week, the Senate confirmed Biden’s picks for secretary of education and commerce. But as Amna pointed out earlier, the administration did withdraw the nomination of Neera Tanden to lead the Office of Management and Budget amid strong criticism from Republicans about the tweets Tanden wrote criticizing their colleagues. Now, lots of Democrats have cried hypocrisy. After all, Republican senators famously dodged questions about Donald Trump’s tweets for years. But Tanden also lost support from at least one Democratic senator, Joe Manchin. So Amna, you did raise this a little bit in the last topic, but what does this tell us about the sort of norms and expectations in Washington post-Trump, again, that tweets mattered here but they don’t matter in other circumstances? And the fact that so many of the president’s Cabinet picks have gotten through with big bipartisan margins?

MS. NAWAZ: Yeah, look, well I think that the Neera Tanden confirmation hearings in particular opened Republicans up to criticism of a double standard, right? But at the same time, those same Republicans will say, you know, we’re not treating women of color differently. They’ll point to Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who was confirmed with strong bipartisan support to be the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. This is not about a double standard, they’ll say, because look at Ale Mayorkas who’s now been confirmed as homeland security secretary, the first Latino to serve in that role; Lloyd Austin, the first Black man to serve as the defense secretary.

I think where a lot of the focus has now coalesced is there are many women, specifically women of color, who have yet to be confirmed – Marcia Fudge among them who’s been nominated to run HUD; Katherine Tai, who’s nominated to be the U.S. trade representative; Deb Haaland as well, who could be the first Native Cabinet member but it looks like her nomination – or, her confirmation will move through now. I mean, let’s see Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins saying they will be supporting her.

And so I think because Biden’s nominations have been so diverse and so sort of history breaking in so many ways, the senators are forced to contend with something they haven’t had to before, which is looking with rigor at the records of women of color in a way, and to a scale and degree they haven’t before. That just opens up the conversation more broadly. But even right now, more – you know, if you kind of back out from that point, you see only about half of Biden’s Cabinet has been confirmed. So it’s moving forward at, I believe – and J-Mar probably knows better than I do – the slowest pace in modern history, which in and of itself is a problem for the administration.

MR. MARTIN: Yeah.

MS. WALTER: Well, Jonathan, is this a problem? And what do the picks so far tell us about Biden? I mean, it seems as if one of the challenges that Tanden had was that she sort of made enemies not just of Republicans but also Bernie Sanders and those who supported him.

MR. MARTIN: Right. (Laughs.) She unified the far right and the far left, Amy, which is no small – no small step in today’s Washington. I think that there’s something that has not been said a lot about the Neera Tanden challenge, that I think this is very unique to Capitol Hill. She was a staffer criticizing principals. And what do I mean by that? That, you know, a lot of those Trump tweets were not attacking senators themselves.

And this is a sort of unique part of Capitol Hill culture that, you know, the senators themselves don’t like being personally criticized, and especially by somebody that they view as staff. And I think a lot of people on the outside would say, well, who cares? But that’s part of the culture up there. And I think it was hard for them to get past those tweets. And the fact that she had a problem on the left, that Bernie Sanders never came out and said that she was for her I think was very damaging as well.

Look, I think it’s been slower in part because the Senate didn’t organize, because of Georgia and then the sort of Schumer-McConnell protracted negotiations in organizing the committees. So that has, I think, played a part in how slowly the government’s been put together. I don’t think it’s necessarily slowed down Biden’s agenda. I mean, it’s totally plausible, Amy, that you could have a $2 trillion bill signed into law next week. So I don’t think it’s been a problem so far.

MS. WALTER: Well, we got to leave it there for tonight, but many thanks to Jonathan and Amna for your insights. Thank you for joining us. Make sure to sign up for our Washington Week newsletter on our website. We give you a behind-the-scenes look into all things Washington. I’m Amy Walter. Good night from Washington.

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