State prosecutors shed new light Tuesday on CNN anchor Chris Cuomo’s involvement in managing the response to the sexual harassment scandal surrounding his brother, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Chris Cuomo was in the governor’s inner circle as they developed talking points and strategies in late February as accusations threatened the three-term governor, according to emails and text messages made public by investigators for New York Attorney General Letitia James.
In May, Chris Cuomo admitted having had “inappropriate” strategy talks with his brother and vowed to steer clear of the network’s coverage of the governor. Tuesday’s report from the attorney general hinted at the depth of the strategy consultations.
According to the report:
- In a Feb. 27 chain of messages to other Cuomo allies, political consultant Lis Smith wrote, “I don’t love that part but Chris/Andrew wanted in” and “Chris wants to make sure we have enough contrition in here.” Smith did not definitively identify “Chris” as being Chris Cuomo, but the messages align with other suggestions he is reported to have made about messaging.
- Chris Cuomo was copied into a series of Feb. 27 emails from Gov. Cuomo’s communications director, Peter Ajemian, and his chief of staff, Josh Vlasto, to other top aides mapping how they should delicately handle allegations by Charlotte Bennett. They seemed to agree that the best strategy would be to praise Bennett as a “hardworking and valued member of our team” while denying her allegations.
- It also appeared that Chris Cuomo played a role in writing the overall response Gov. Cuomo issued on Feb. 28 as the sexual harassment allegations reached an apex.
In an email at 3:20 p.m. ET on Feb. 28, Vlasto replied to an email from Chris Cuomo that included language that would largely make up a statement issued later by the governor.
“Questions have been raised about some of my personal interactions with people in my office,” the statement attributed to Chris Cuomo’s email said. “I spend most of my life at work and colleagues are often also personal friends. I never intended to offend anyone or cause any harm.”
The email continued that “sometimes I am playful and make jokes,” adding: “You have seen me do it at briefings hundreds of times. My only desire is to add some levity and banter to what is very serious business.”
Later that day, Andrew Cuomo posted a statement addressing the allegations on the governor’s official website.
The statement, time-stamped 5:45 p.m. ET, mirrored, nearly word for word, the email attributed to Chris Cuomo.
The governor’s statement, which was picked up by several news outlets within minutes, said: “Questions have been raised about some of my past interactions with people in the office. I never intended to offend anyone or cause any harm. I spend most of my life at work and colleagues are often also personal friends.
“At work sometimes I think I am being playful and make jokes that I think are funny. I do, on occasion, tease people in what I think is a good natured way. I do it in public and in private,” the statement continued. “You have seen me do it at briefings hundreds of times. I have teased people about their personal lives, their relationships, about getting married or not getting married. I mean no offense and only attempt to add some levity and banter to what is a very serious business.”
Representatives for Chris Cuomo could not be immediately reached for comment Tuesday.
A CNN spokeswoman declined to comment on James’ report Tuesday and repeated earlier network statements saying Chris Cuomo did not affect coverage of his brother.
Kathleen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said she has some sympathy for Chris Cuomo and his desire to help his brother.
“As hard as it is to see your brother mired in controversy, your obligation as a journalist is to the public you serve,” she said. “If it’s true that Chris Cuomo drafted the statement later put out by the governor’s office or he encouraged an approach that emphasized contrition, his involvement was deeper than what he disclosed to viewers in May. That moves far beyond being ‘looped in to phone calls’ with staff members. It’s playing an active role in shaping the narrative of the controversy.”
And even if Chris Cuomo did not pressure anyone at his network to change coverage of his brother, the appearance of a conflict of interest can be damaging, Culver said.
“These sorts of cases have the power to directly affect the public’s trust in all news outlets, not just Chris Cuomo and CNN,” Culver said. “Once that bond is damaged or broken, it’s hard to rebuild.”
In May, Chris Cuomo apologized for “inappropriate” conversations he had with his brother’s staff during the harassment inquiry.
The Washington Post had reported at the time that Chris Cuomo participated in strategy phone calls with senior staff members for his brother and encouraged his brother to take a “defiant position” against growing calls for his resignation. Two people present on a call told the newspaper that Chris Cuomo brought up “cancel culture” as he encouraged his brother to stand his ground.
Chris Cuomo addressed the issue on his show at the time and apologized to colleagues, adding that he has not covered the allegations and has been “walled off” from CNN’s coverage.
“When my brother’s situation became turbulent, being looped in to calls with other friends of his and advisers that did include some of his staff — I understand why that was a problem for CNN,” he said.
“It will not happen again. It was a mistake, because I put my colleagues here, who I believe are the best in the business, in a bad spot,” he said. “I never intended for that, I would never intend for that, and I am sorry for that.”
Whitney Lee, Maya Brown and Dareh Gregorian contributed.
Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather
A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.
The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.
“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.
The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.
In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.
Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.
“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”
The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.
“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”
Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.
More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.
Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.
Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.
The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.
So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.
Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.
“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”
Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park
A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.
The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.
He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.
The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.
The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.
“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”
Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.
The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.
House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight
House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.
The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.
The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.
The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.
Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.
“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”
It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.
The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.
However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.
Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.
Haley Talbot contributed.
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