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Media Meltdowns

Let’s All Laugh At Andrew Cuomo’s Pathetic Crisis Team

Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg's spokesperson Lis Smith speaks to the press in the Spin Room after participating in the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida, June 27, 2019. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)
Jim Watson/Getty Images

This week, the New York Attorney General's office released a tranche of transcripts and exhibits they produced during the course of their investigation into the many sexual harassment and groping allegations against former Governor Andrew Cuomo. The state AG's investigation is not to be confused with a parallel investigation carried out and recently concluded by the New York State Assembly, nor the criminal case Cuomo is facing in Albany County, though the state AG released all their documents because of said case. The interview transcripts and thousands of pages of corresponding documents paint a damning picture of Cuomo as a tyrannical figure who serially harassed and inappropriately touched women, then used the power of his office and its climate of "fear and intimidation" to retaliate against, discredit, and attempt to silence accusers.

While the AG's findings have been public since early August, the newly released documents show the inner workings of Cuomo's crisis response team, a group of powerful advisors characterized by an omnidirectional hostility towards Cuomo's accusers, each other, and the media covering the case. The group included several longtime inner-circle advisers, as well as an intriguing pair of public figures: CNN host and Andrew's brother, Chris Cuomo, and Lis Smith, a political consultant who served as Pete Buttigieg's top presidential campaign advisor. Their cantankerous and ultimately futile attempts to keep the governor's doomed career afloat provide a useful window into how power is wielded.

As for Chris Cuomo: He apologized for his presence on the damage control council this past May, but the transcripts reveal that he was much more intimately involved than he let on. Chris helped craft statements, dig up dirt on accusers, and use his media contacts to alert the Cuomo camp about stories in the works at various outlets. CNN said they will "evaluate new information" and conduct a "thorough review" of the documents.

But Chris wasn't the only media figure breaking a sweat trying to manage fallout for Andrew. At Smith's behest, MSNBC's Katy Tur evidently carried her fair share of water for the governor in a televised report on March 3, the day Cuomo first addressed the growing number of allegations against him in a public statement that went something like, I am sorry women didn't like my innocent hugs and friendly banter. Per the documents released by the AG, Smith and her fellow savvy political operatives monitored the response to Cuomo's public statement, including a segment on Katy Tur's MSNBC program.

"Does anyone know Anne Thompson," Smith wrote to her colleagues.

"Who is that," responded Cuomo's secretary, Melissa DeRosa.

"She’s on msnbc and they keep coming to her for her advice on what this all means and I don’t know her," wrote Cuomo's pollster, Jefrey Pollock.

"I'm texting w Katy Tur," Smith wrote. "Katy is saying my spin live. Like verbatim on [MSNBC]."

On her March 3 broadcast, Tur said: "I've just been talking with somebody who is close to the family and I asked them, given the moment we have been living in for the past two years, given how everyone has had a reckoning with this Me Too moment, why would someone like Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is a savvy politician, not have buttoned things up, not have gotten the message to be careful about what he says around his staffers around others. And the person said, it's not that he didn't think the rules didn't apply to him, it's just that in the Cuomo DNA, they are extraordinarily friendly, I guess, by nature."

Tur's sigh at the end, as she throws it back to a befuddled-looking Thompson, is the only potential indication that she's aware of how stupid she sounds. Defector reached out to Tur, Tur's producer Kerrie Wudyka, and MSNBC for comment about a star anchor uncritically parroting a political operative's spin to viewers while not attributing it as such. None of them responded.

Smith tried to get other media figures to regurgitate her talking points as well. On March 5, she emailed her colleagues to say that he had texted with Bill Maher's producer.

"Ok I texted Bill mahers producer," she wrote. "To see if i could connect w him before show- want him to tee off on this." She asked for her colleagues to get a packet of information together to send to Bill Maher's team, saying, "Please please please help me help you," and, "We need some big names weighing in on our side," and, "He's the only main voice that will do this- 4m viewers." But not even Bill Maher, who simply loves to get red and nude over supposed instances of cancel culture, would defend this particular sex-pestery. On his show that night, Maher roasted Cuomo, relative to Maher roasting someone, calling him "fucking stupid" for, among other things, asking his 25-year-old staffer how she felt about having sex with older men.

On Feb. 24, Smith said in a group message to the rest of the crisis team, "Just talked to [Edward-]Isaac Dovere at the Atlantic - he is very hard on our side on this." When asked for clarification, Smith replied, "Total mind meld ... He says he could be convinced to write something on andrew Bc he thinks this whole thing is bullshit." Dovere, who now also works at CNN, did indeed write something for The Atlantic on Cuomo, which took the shape of the unfortunately titled story "Of Course Andrew Cuomo Isn’t Going to Resign." The piece sources quotes from Cuomo's inner circle as well as skeptical New York lawmakers, though its valence is certainly pro-Cuomo. Three days before its publication, Cuomo made an apology, and Smith relayed to the team that "Isaac said he nailed it."

Dovere's benefitted from a close association with Smith before. In January 2019, Dovere scored the first interview with Buttigieg after the then-South Bend mayor announced his candidacy for president, and he's been a consistent media booster of the entirely media-driven career of a man who ascended straight from the mayorship of the fourth-largest city in Indiana to the Biden cabinet. He also published a juicy tell-all best-seller about the 2020 Democratic primaries, the cover of which features a hilarious and telling omission. His role in the Cuomo affair, such that it's been revealed by the AG's investigation, was minor and inconsequential, though it is a revealing window into how influence is wielded in an attempt to shape narratives. Dovere did not reply to a request for comment.

Other media figures made cameos in the documents. On March 3, the day Cuomo tried to explain away his behavior by emphasizing that he's just a friendly guy, Lis Smith told the crisis team that she'd been in contact with New York Times media columnist Ben Smith, who said to her, "Yes. If there's no more, it feels like the turning point." When asked if he could provide clarity on what his exchange with Lis Smith was about, Ben Smith told Defector, "I don't remember the details, but do remember thinking he'd probably survive politically if there weren't more accusers, which there were."

While the nation's foremost media reporter was putting his head together with the person coordinating the governor's media strategy ("I was texting with a source, as you are now," Smith said to Defector) another reporter was trying to figure out who was advising Cuomo. Lis Smith opted to ignore the reporter's question about whether she was part of the team advising Cuomo, saying, "This would be be bad for my credibility."

If you're thinking that someone has to be a specific kind of asshole in order to make a career out of doing political hatchet work that they never want to be publicly attached to, you are quite correct. Lis Smith is very much that kind of asshole. The following exchange took place weeks after she talked with former Cuomo (and current Apple) PR guy Pete Ajemian about deleting all his tweets "about Kavanagh, Franken, #MeToo, Weinstain, people resigning, sexual harassment":

Perhaps the single most illustrative detail in the entire Smith file is an email in which she lets her colleagues know how she treats journalists who meaningfully push back on her narrative and don't play ball. Smith wrote about how she took "a fucking run at" New York Times reporter Matt Flegenheimer ahead of his report of another accusation against Cuomo. "I told him his story was pathetic and an embarrassment to the times and that I looked forward to reading it b/c it would further reduce their credibility on their issue and that i especially looked forward to mocking it and him on twitter," she wrote. That's not how things went. One of the last times we hear from Smith in the exhibit is on page 359 of the 366-page document, where she wearily responds to a damning March 19 Times report of another accusation:

This rare peek into the sausage-making factory is satisfying not only because the cretins at the helm lost (Lis Smith is nothing if not consistent), but because it's reassuring to get confirmation that everything you assumed about a collection of people is in fact exactly right. It does not take an outlandish amount of media savvy to read big, splashy news stories and see which parties are trying to steer coverage in which directions. This is how the influence game works and is understood to work, though so rarely does the reading public actually get to see the mechanics of the exchange.

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