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Why Cuomo resigned and Trump didn’t

Democrats pushed Cuomo out.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo seen after announcing his resignation.
Seth Wenig/AP

Beset with allegations of sexual harassment and other scandals, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Tuesday that he would resign his office later this month.

“The best way I can help now is if I step aside and let government get back to governing,” Cuomo said in a press conference. “And therefore that’s what I’ll do.”

Up to this point, Cuomo had seemed defiant. He’d argued that the worst allegations against him were simply false, and that he had an old-fashioned habit of touching people without sexual intent that was being misconstrued. What changed?

Cuomo’s turnabout likely isn’t due to a sudden outbreak of conscience, but rather a decision born of self-interest. With only two options seemingly remaining — an ugly, months-long impeachment ending in his removal, or quick resignation — he picked the latter.

The key here was that looming impeachment. Cuomo seems to have initially held onto hope that he could beat back impeachment in New York’s state legislature somehow — and, indeed, he’d stalled action there for several months since these scandals surfaced earlier this year. But really, legislators were waiting for a report from the office of New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, on Cuomo’s conduct.

That report, released last week, detailed allegations from 11 women, covering conduct ranging from unwanted kissing and touching to inappropriate comments. One state employee claimed Cuomo groped her breast, while others described the governor telling sex jokes, commenting on how they looked, or touching them.

After the report’s release, leading Democrats said Cuomo had to go. New York’s entire Democratic congressional delegation called on him to resign, as did national Democratic leaders like President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Longtime allies in state politics abandoned him too, from unions to state legislature power brokers. A majority of legislators in the state assembly went on record supporting his impeachment. Voters rejected him too — a Quinnipiac poll found that 70 percent of New York voters wanted Cuomo to quit.

The writing on the wall became clear — he couldn’t win. Furthermore, a conviction in his impeachment trial could have banned him from holding state office in the future. So now, he hopes, he will avoid that trial altogether.

In this still image from video, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is seen announcing his resignation.
Office of the Governor of New York via AP

The broader point is that scandal-plagued politicians often don’t resign because of shame or docility, but because they’ve concluded that leaving office voluntarily is the least bad, most face-saving option for them personally.

While Cuomo was defying calls for his resignation, he was frequently compared to former President Donald Trump, who did the same. But the key difference is that, even at Trump’s lowest moments — the blizzard of sexual harassment and assault accusations against him in October 2016, the scandal over his firing of FBI director James Comey, or either of his impeachments — many Republicans still stood by him. So Trump calculated, rationally and correctly, that he could survive those scandals, and even impeachment (as he twice did).

Why did Republicans stick with Trump throughout all this? Part of the reason is that his unique personalized appeal to the GOP base made elites afraid to cross him. Despite Cuomo’s successful run in state politics, he had no comparable cult of personality among ordinary voters. Many feared to cross Cuomo for many years, but once he was badly wounded — by this and other scandals, like that over the handling of data on Covid-19 deaths at New York nursing homes — he could be tossed aside.

Beyond that, Democrats simply had more of a desire to show they take sexual harassment allegations seriously in the Me Too era. Now, it is not the case that every Democrat accused of harassment these days gets tossed aside — there’s a growing consensus in the party that such allegations need to be corroborated, even if that standard isn’t yet uniformly applied.

But last week’s report on Cuomo’s conduct from the state attorney general’s office served that purpose of corroboration — it was received as authoritative and damning. The party did not want an accused groper with a pattern of at-best demeaning and at-worst lecherous comments as its standard-bearer. And, eventually, that became clear enough to Cuomo that he felt he had no other alternative but to quit.