Cuomo Tries the Trump Defense

New York’s governor is trying to fend off misconduct allegations with a familiar refrain.

Andrew Cuomo
Erin Schaff / Seth Wenig / Getty / The Atlantic

About the author: David A. Graham is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

Andrew Cuomo and Donald Trump spent much of 2020 feuding—the former president sent dozens of tweets about the New York governor after the start of the coronavirus pandemic—but their quarrel obscured how much the two men have in common. They’re both boys from Queens with a brusque manner of speaking, little patience for critics, and the benefit of famous fathers they’ve striven to eclipse.

In 2021, it’s becoming clear that they share more, including a dubious handling of the coronavirus, punctuated by premature declarations of victory; allegations of sexual harassment; and a tendency to create toxic workplaces. The fallout from the governor’s scandals has revealed another thing that links Trump and Cuomo: an insistence that accountability for their actions is somehow an affront to voters.

“There are some legislators who suggest that I resign because of accusations that are made against me,” Cuomo said on Sunday. “I was elected by the people of the state; I wasn’t elected by politicians. I’m not going to resign because of allegations. The premise of resigning because of allegations is actually antidemocratic.”

This argument directly echoes a defense Trump and his allies offered in his first and second impeachments, and one he has deployed again in the face of investigations into his finances.

“The Articles of Impeachment submitted by House Democrats are a dangerous attack on the right of the American people to freely choose their president,” Trump’s lawyers wrote in January 2020. “This is a brazen and unlawful attempt to overturn the results of the 2016 election and interfere with the 2020 election.”

A year later, during Trump’s second impeachment, a different lawyer complained, “History will record this shameful effort as a deliberate attempt by the Democrat Party to smear, censor, and cancel not just President Trump, but the 75 million Americans who voted for him.”

And just last month, Trump said of the investigation by the Manhattan district attorney, “These are attacks by Democrats willing to do anything to stop the almost 75 million people (the most votes, by far, ever gotten by a sitting president) who voted for me in the election.”

This is in some ways expected: For as long as elected politicians have been embattled, they have pointed to the support of voters to try to stay in office. But Cuomo and Trump both take this tactic and ratchet it up to a more dramatic claim that since they were elected by the voters, they can only be removed by them. While they frame this as the only truly democratic position, it’s closer to the logic of authoritarian populism.

There are notable differences between Cuomo’s and Trump’s situations. Cuomo appears to have made reasonable errors in his attempt to fight the coronavirus, then unreasonably hidden the evidence; Trump (along with many other governors) never made much of an effort at all to fight the virus, and never hid it. Cuomo faces serious allegations of sexual harassment from several women. Trump faces allegations of even more serious sexual misconduct, including rape, and was recorded on tape boasting about sexual assault.

Trump claimed a popular mandate despite losing the popular vote in both presidential elections. (His repeated invocations of his 2020 vote tally omit the fact that Joe Biden received more than 81 million votes, roughly 7 million more than Trump.) Cuomo has won at least 54 percent of the vote in each of his three gubernatorial general elections. And while a poll from Quinnipiac University released last week found that his approval rating has dropped a stunning 27 points since May 2020, 55 percent of respondents also said that he should not resign.

But government is not run by opinion polls, nor should it be. Pedantic political commentators like to point out that the United States is a republic, not a democracy, but this is one venue where their lecturing is well taken. Voters choose elected officials, but not just the governor. They also vote for the lieutenant governor, who replaces the governor if he resigns, as well as legislators who serve as a check on the governor, some of whom (including the New York Senate majority leader, a Democrat) have said Cuomo should resign.

These officials are chosen to handle matters that come up between elections on behalf of the people. That includes matters of official misconduct. There are formal processes, such as impeachment, by which a misbehaving official can be removed. (This is one reason the idea that impeachment was an attempt to overturn the 2016 election was bogus, as I wrote in January 2020.) Sometimes, though, the procedure is more informal, conducted through public pressure.

The alternative would be a system in which no politician could be held accountable for (alleged) misconduct except in quadrennial or biennial elections. (Some states allow for recall elections, but New York is one of the few that does not.) Such a system would be subject to abuse and encourage corruption, and would also allow a politician who is not running for reelection or who has lost a race to escape accountability altogether.

There’s no clearer example than Cuomo’s nemesis Trump. His postelection attempt to overturn the 2020 results was a direct consequence of the Senate’s failure to hold him accountable for his earlier interference in the election. Trump clearly believed that if he cheated and it got him reelected, he’d have impunity; if, however, it didn’t work, he’d have little to fear, since he wouldn’t face voters again. Several Republican senators, especially Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, concluded that Trump couldn’t be punished once he left office, extending Trump’s impunity.

Cuomo is, of course, welcome to dispute the allegations against him, and he can refuse to resign. But to claim that calls for accountability are antidemocratic because he won an election is preposterous. If patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, populism is the first.