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Andrew Cuomo Needed Donald Trump

Without the former president as a foil, Cuomo’s handling of Covid-19 is finally being scrutinized.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In a Friday news conference, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was asked about a report from the state’s attorney general that showed that nursing home deaths from Covid-19 had been severely undercounted—did he have any regrets? “Federal guidance said that people who were in hospitals but who were presumed not contagious could go back to a nursing home which could handle them; not all nursing homes can handle them,” Cuomo explained. “And the nursing home had to by law say that they could handle those people.”

“But do I wish this never happened? I wish none of it happened,” Cuomo continued. “I wish there was no Covid. I wish no old people died. I wish I didn’t have to call out the National Guard, who got sick, some of whom got sick and died. I wish I didn’t have to ask essential workers to leave their homes. Bus drivers, some of whom got sick and died, I wish I didn’t have to ask the nurses and the doctors to work around the clock, some of whom got sick and died. I wish none of it happened. That’s what I wish.”

It was a classic Cuomo answer. Though less succinct than Donald Trump’s infamous “I don’t take responsibility at all,” the sentiment is more or less the same. Cuomo cannot fail, he can only be failed—in this case by a ruthless virus and out-to-lunch feds. That the governor himself could have some degree of responsibility for this unfortunate outcome is not even considered.

That report and the fallout has marked a shift in coverage of Cuomo’s handling of the pandemic. His subsequent decision to announce the resumption of in-person dining and in-person weddings with “up to 150” guests next month were widely criticized. And on Monday, The New York Times published a damning report detailing Cuomo’s sidelining of the state’s infectious disease experts, nine of whom have resigned in the last several months. He took over New York’s vaccine distribution himself, throwing out two decades of work and creating a convoluted, private sector–driven program that quickly proved to be inefficient.

Even though New York was walloped by the virus last year, Cuomo was a breakout star. He was portrayed as a success, in large part because he was treated as Donald Trump’s foil in the media. Now, without Trump around, his handling of Covid-19 is being belatedly seen in a different light.

Despite New York’s high death count and the nursing home scandal, Cuomo’s handling of Covid-19 turned him into a liberal hero. He won an Emmy and published a book on leadership, earning a nearly $800,000 advance in the process. An August poll found Cuomo leading a hypothetical group of Democrats vying for the party’s 2024 presidential nomination. Some even found his gruff, no-nonsense approach to press briefings about the virus sexy. They regrettably dubbed themselves “Cuomosexuals.”

But the praise that was heaped on Cuomo had more to do with Trump’s failures than his own successes.

Last spring, the media had its Covid villain. Donald Trump insisted that the virus was a “hoax” cooked up by China and the fake news press to sink his reelection bid. In mid-March, when Covid-19 first appeared in the United States, Trump insisted it would be gone by Easter. He suggested that people drink bleach to cure the virus and touted an unproven anti-malarial drug that was later found to be ineffective in fighting Covid-19. His public statements about the virus were full of misinformation and evasions. The virus, as well as the economic fallout, were China’s fault, the media’s fault, the Democrats’ fault, even Andrew Cuomo’s fault. Everyone’s fault, in other words, but Donald Trump’s.

There was a leadership vacuum. The media needed a Covid hero, and Cuomo fit the bill. In contrast to Trump, his news conferences were clear, personal, and respectful of scientific opinion. He acknowledged the severity of the situation. He did not tell people to drink bleach. He was, most importantly, something Andrew Cuomo has almost never been throughout his political career: relatable. His daughters, at home during quarantine, became ancillary characters in his press briefings. They, and he, were just like us—dealing with an unprecedented situation, packed in together at home.

Cuomo’s actual performance was secondary to his persona. Criticism of his slow response to the threat posed by Covid-19—he downplayed the virus in early March—and his handling of the Covid outbreak in nursing homes led to spates of bad press. But Trump was always there to make him look better. As a result, Cuomo spent much of the late summer and fall on a kind of victory tour. He commissioned a poster and a model depicting Covid-19 as a mountain that New York had conquered. “We went up the mountain, we curved the mountain, we came down the other side,” Cuomo wrote in a release. His book American Crisis: Leadership Lessons From the Covid-19 Pandemic presented his response to the virus as an unquestioned success story—despite the fact that the virus in question was still a huge problem in both New York and the U.S. A nationwide spike in cases followed shortly after the book’s publication in October.

While criticism of Cuomo ticked up throughout the summer and fall, Trump was always there to grab the spotlight. Compared to the forty-fifth president, New York’s governor was a skilled administrator and communicator. Without him, he’s the thin-skinned, controlling leader he was before. He’s even starting to sound a little like Trump. “When I say ‘experts’ in air quotes, it sounds like I’m saying I don’t really trust the experts,” Cuomo said on Friday. “Because I don’t. Because I don’t.”