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COVID Cases Rising; Interview With State Sen. Elijah Reichlin- Melnick (D-NY); Cuomo Denies Sexual Harassment Allegations. Aired 2- 2:30p ET

Aired August 3, 2021 - 14:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN HOST: Hello, everyone. Welcome to NEWSROOM. I'm Alisyn Camerota.


We are following fast-breaking news out of New York. A defiant Governor Andrew Cuomo spoke a short time ago in a recorded message. He is pushing back against an investigation by New York's attorney general that found that he sexually harassed multiple women.


GOV. ANDREW CUOMO (D-NY): I want you to know directly from me that I never touched anyone inappropriately or made inappropriate sexual advances.

I am 63 years old. I have lived my entire adult life in public view. That is just not who I am, and that's not who I have ever been.


CAMEROTA: Well, that is in stark contrast to the findings by New York's attorney general, Letitia James, who says Cuomo sexually harassed current and former employees, creating a toxic workplace, and violated state and federal law.


LETITIA JAMES, NEW YORK ATTORNEY GENERAL: The independent investigation found that Governor Cuomo sexually harassed multiple women, many of whom were young women, by engaging in unwanted groping, kisses, hugging, and by making inappropriate comments.


CAMEROTA: Investigators went on to detail the governor's alleged conduct.


JOON KIM, UNITED STATES ATTORNEY FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK: Some suffered through unwanted touching and grabbing of their most intimate body parts. Others suffered through repeated offensive sexually suggestive or gender-based comments. A number of them endured both.

None of them welcomed it, and all of them found it disturbing, humiliating, uncomfortable, and inappropriate.


BLACKWELL: New York Senators Schumer and Gillibrand just released a joint statement reiterating their calls for Cuomo to resign.

Let's get now to CNN's crime and justice correspondent, Shimon Prokupecz.

Shimon, the governor not resigning, but did offer a single apology to one of his accusers.


And he basically -- in this recorded statement, he said that the way things were inferred, the type of activity that is alleged here just did not happen.

Despite all that, the attorney general who released her findings after a months-long investigation, interviewing 11 women who came forward to claim and to say that they had inappropriate contact with the governor, that they had -- inappropriate things were said, that there was groping, the attorney general's office say that they found these women credible, including one, a state trooper who was on the governor's security detail.

She came forward and raised allegations of inappropriate behavior, the attorney general saying they found all of the women who came forward credible. The governor obviously saying he has a different view of this, defiant, and at this point has no intention of resigning.

The thing that's very clear is that this was a very extensive investigation, the attorney general office saying that they interviewed 179 individuals.They have 74,000 pieces of evidence, things from text messages, conversations, notes that some of the women took, some text messages between one of the women and other women raising what was going on, raising the issues of what was going on.

The other thing that the governor's office, here from the attorney general says what was going on here was that this was a toxic workplace, that the executive chamber was filled with retaliation, that women had raised some of these concerns in their interviews, that they were terrified that they feared -- in some cases, these women said that they would not -they were afraid to come forward. So, in essence, the governor's office here, the attorney general says,

violated state and federal laws. Now the big question becomes, well, what's next?

The attorney general says that they're done with this part of the investigation. Ultimately, it's going to be up to voters and assembly members, the state Assembly, which is itself conducting investigation, and deciding on whether or not they want to move towards an impeachment proceeding.

That is the big question here. Who will call for the governor to resign? And the other question is will the state Assembly we decide to move in a direction where they would have to be forced to impeach the governor? That's also very much unclear.


The politics of this now is going to take center stage. The other thing that's important to note is that the attorney general said, in terms of criminal charges, that it was not for them to investigate this in a criminal way, that if there are to be any kind of criminal charges, it would be ultimately up to perhaps one of the DAs, the Albany County DA where a police report was filed.

CAMEROTA: OK, we will be speaking to one of those assembly members about what their plan is in a few moments.

Shimon, thank you very much.

Let's bring in CNN senior legal correspondent Paula Reid.

So, tell us more about what the women involved in this investigation alleged.

PAULA REID, CNN SENIOR LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Alisyn, what's so significant about this investigation is, this isn't a he said/she said. This is a he said/she said/she said/she said times 11.

And the attorney general said she believes these women. She says they have been found to be credible. Often, their stories have been corroborated by other evidence. And in this press conference, they detailed what was revealed in the course of this investigation. Pretty shocking. Let's take a listen.


JAMES: Governor Cuomo sexually harassed multiple women, many of whom were young women, by engaging in unwanted groping, kisses, hugging.

KIM: Some suffered through unwanted touching and grabbing of their most intimate body parts.

ANNE CLARK, SPECIAL INVESTIGATOR: The governor hugged executive assistant number one, and reached under her blouse to grab her breast.

The governor held her so closely that her breasts were pressed against his body, and he sometimes ran his hands up and down his -- her back while he did so. There were also several occasions on which the governor grabbed her butt.

The governor pressed and ran his fingers across the chest of a woman while reading the name of her company whose logo was on her chest.


REID: They also detailed how a state trooper also made allegations. This is a woman who was assigned to protect the governor. She alleges that he touched her inappropriately on several occasions, including opening his hand and running it from her belly button to where she held her gun.

Now, in his apology statement, he opted to address some of these specific allegations. And, again, this is not in a criminal court right now. This is in the court of public opinion. And it's not clear, going through these line by line, especially after these women have been found credible, their stories been corroborated, if that is the best defense.

BLACKWELL: All right, Paula Reid, thank you so much.

CAMEROTA: Thank you, Paula.

BLACKWELL: So, joining us now, let's bring in Jennifer Rodgers, who is CNN legal analyst and former federal prosecutor. Also with CNN, chief political correspondent Dana Bash and CNN senior political analyst John Avlon.

Dana, let me start with you and pick up where Paula just left off. It's not he said/she said. It's she said times 11, 179 witnesses, including a trooper. The governor has tried to dismiss this as all politically motivated. It's hard to maintain that defense when you see the breadth and the specificity of this report.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Not just that it's politically motivated. He went on with an elaborate slideshow as part of his very carefully crafted response to say, yes, I act in ways that people might think is inappropriate, but that's just the way I am. That's the way my family is. That's the way I was brought up.

And so it's even more detailed and even deeper a defense than it's politically motivated. And that is going to be what people who are going to be likely, even though there weren't any criminal or even civil charges brought today, but it almost certainly will happen at some level in the state of New York -- that will be what will go on in that court of law.

But, as Paula said, in the court of opinion right now, it seems to be that the fellow Democrats who he serves with, never mind the people who look like they're going to head towards impeachment proceedings in Albany in the state capitol, but, here in Washington, the entire delegation, fellow Democrats and the delegation in the House, the two senators, two Democrats, including the Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, they all renewed calls that they made earlier this year for him to resign.

So he is up against that. And that is the reality. The one person we are still waiting to hear from is the actual head of the Democratic Party, the president of the United States, Joe Biden, who said earlier this year that, if the allegations are true, he should resign.

CAMEROTA: Jennifer, I want to recap that slideshow that Governor Cuomo used, because I'm interested, as a prosecutor, your impressions in a court of law and in the court of public opinion.

He seemed to be saying this behavior that these women perceived as inappropriate, this is something I have been doing my whole life. I grab people, men and women, by the face. I kiss their foreheads. I kiss them on the top of the head. That's what I do. I never meant any harm.


So watch this for a moment.


CUOMO: I have been making the same gesture in public all my life. I actually learned it from my mother and from my father. It is meant to convey warmth, nothing more.


CAMEROTA: He went on to show about a dozen, I think, at least photos of him doing that to men and women. Is that effective?

JENNIFER RODGERS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it's funny, Alisyn. You have really keyed in on the key distinction here between doing things for the court of public opinion and doing things for a real court of law.

You wouldn't even be allowed to show a slideshow like that in a court of law, because, in a legal court, you're only concerned about the facts around the allegation that's being tried in that court.

So you can't come in as a defendant and say, hey, listen, I didn't assault this one woman by putting my hand up her blouse because I kiss a lot of people on the forehead. That wouldn't even be allowed as a matter of evidence.

So that slideshow is purely for the political side of things, trying to say, hey, it's just me, in the way that you might hear, by the way, back in the 1970s or so, don't worry about it. I just like to pat a woman on the behind and it doesn't mean anything.

But it has no bearing at all on the legal cases that will follow from this.

BLACKWELL: John, let me come to you on not just the accusations of sexual harassment, but the culture there in the governor's office. There's a message -- and I think it's on page 64 here of this report -- that Charlotte Bennett, one of the accusers, sends to another, Lindsey Boylan, after she goes public for the first time.


BLACKWELL: And what she says in that message is: "The verbal abuse" -- let's put it up on the screen.

"The verbal abuse, intimidation, and living in constant fear were all horribly toxic, dehumanizing and traumatizing. And then he came on to me. I was scared to imagine what would happen if I rejected him. So I disappeared instead. My time in public service ended because he was bored and lonely. It still breaks my heart."

It's the combination of the two that they point out in this report, not just those accusations.

AVLON: That's right.

And I think that's one of the things that's making this a difficult hill for him to climb politically, because he can say, no, we don't have a toxic environment, it's a tough environment. But when you talk to ex-employees, people who exist, who've worked with him for years in the state legislature, they will give him points as being an effective governor.

But he is tough, he is brusque, he is -- can be difficult to deal with. And that's one of the reasons there's not a lot of political capital for him to draw on at this difficult time, because it's one thing for him to say, look, I'm a touchy-feely politician, I come out of a different generation and culture, and these things are being misunderstood.

But you don't have misunderstandings with 11 different women in your office. And so as he heads into the next political crucible -- let's put aside the legal -- he's going to be going from denial to bargaining pretty soon as they decide whether to impeach him. We have only had one other governor impeached in New York history. That was more than a century ago.

Is he going to say, look, I won't run again? Is he going to try to fight it and draw it out? You saw him give the Bill Clinton defense. I want to go back to work for the people of New York. But that's not going to be enough because there's not a lot of goodwill, and this -- the atmosphere around his office, for all its effectiveness in some respects, that reads credibly to a lot of people in Albany, unfortunately.

CAMEROTA: All right, friends, stay with us, if you would, please, because we want to get some answers to that.

So let's bring in New York State Senator Elijah Reichlin-Melnick, who tweeted this: "Tish James and her team have found that Governor Cuomo sexually harassed multiple women, in violation of state and federal law. It is long past time for him to resign and face consequences for his actions. If he refuses, the Assembly should impeach."

And State Senator Reichlin-Melnick is here with me now.

Senator, thank you very much for being here.

So what were your thoughts when you heard what the attorney general -- the findings of this five month investigation?


I was furious when I heard this, because you have now the highest law enforcement officer in New York state, after an exhaustive, months- long investigation by dedicated investigators, as your panel reported, interviewing dozens of people, countless people, they have found that the governor of the state of New York is a serial sexual harasser, that he broke state and federal sexual harassment laws.

And we should not be comfortable as elected officials and as New Yorkers having somebody like this continue to lead the state.

CAMEROTA: He's not resigning. So now what?

REICHLIN-MELNICK: That's what he says.

So, I think -- as I said in my statement, I think the Assembly now seriously needs to move forward with the prospect of impeachment. Under the state constitution, it's got to start there, and then will come to the Senate, where we would have to take a final vote on that.

But I have certainly seen enough. From what had been reported publicly, I called for him to resign back in March. And the governor, in response to all these concerns, said, well, let's wait for the investigation, see what it says.


We waited. We have seen. And I think the facts are very clear.

CAMEROTA: Well, it sounds like the speaker of the Assembly has not seen enough. The statement that he put out says: "We will now undertake an in-depth legal examination of the A.G.'s report with the help of a legal firm."

Why is that necessary?

REICHLIN-MELNICK: I think you probably have to ask the speaker.

I -- as I said, I think I have seen enough. I know the Assembly Judiciary Committee. I have colleagues who are on there who have been working hard at this. But I think the time is now to speed this process up, and to make sure that we have a resolution, and so New Yorkers don't have to go four months further with a governor who is so profoundly damaged, and has -- really, I think his denial of these allegations is an insult to any woman out there.

And it's an insult to our intelligence and, frankly, an insult to the attorney general and her investigators, who looked into this and corroborated all of these allegations.

CAMEROTA: How long do you think the state Assembly investigation will take?

REICHLIN-MELNICK: I don't know. But I hope that they will continue what they're doing and wrap it up as soon as possible.

And if the governor has still not resigned, I would think that impeachment is an appropriate remedy at this point.

CAMEROTA: Beyond impeachment, what do you think? What consequences do you think that he should face?

REICHLIN-MELNICK: So, I'm not a lawyer, and I don't want to speculate on the legal consequences he should face. I know the attorney general was very careful in her statement to say that she has tried to find the facts and is not trying to make any prosecutions.

It certainly sounded like, reading between the lines there, that some of the women who harassed might have a case in civil court, which certainly they should file if this information is correct, which it seems like it is.

But I think, politically, what you have to look at is, he seems determined to cling to power no matter what. And he's using the Trump playbook of denying everything, claiming to be a victim of politics, refusing to take responsibility for his actions.

And so I think, politically, New Yorkers at large and certainly my colleagues in the state legislature have had enough. And it is time for him to move on. We have got a wonderful and well-qualified lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul, who could make history by being the first woman to be governor of the state of New York.

And that would be quite an outcome to all of this, and a very fitting one, I think.

CAMEROTA: Senator Elijah Reichlin-Melnick, thank you very much for your time. We will be watching closely what the state Assembly General does next.

REICHLIN-MELNICK: Thank you so much.

BLACKWELL: All right, back to the panel now.

Jennifer, you are an attorney. We heard from the state senator that he is not. Do you foresee criminal charges ahead for the governor at all? We know that there is that investigation in Albany.

RODGERS: I really don't, Victor.

The one investigation that you referenced in Albany is the one that seems like it might fit within the definition of New York state's forcible touching statute. But the other allegations don't seem to fit any definition that would be in criminal law. So the touching on the back, the kissing, the inappropriate comments,

the hostile work environment are not criminal matters in New York state. So I do think the one pending investigation is likely the only possibility for criminal charges here.

CAMEROTA: John, you heard that state senator just talking. I mean, he's ready, he feels, to move on to impeachment. But it doesn't sound like the speaker is.

AVLON: Well, this is not going to be a turnkey process. Andrew Cuomo is a fighter. He is not going to resign.

I do think there may be some off-ramp where he says he doesn't run for reelection. But that won't be enough for a lot of folks in the Assembly and the Senate. This is a very serious pattern. But we also need to acknowledge that within these 11 women who've made accusations, there's a wide spectrum of accusations.

Some are clearly inappropriate touching and worse. Can't spin your way out of that. Some are about an environment, a toxic environment, inappropriate comments, totally beneath the dignity of the office. But how those all get dealt with individually is going to be one of the many things.

I think it's one of the reasons the Assembly speaker is saying, look, we're not going to pump the brakes, but we need to do this the right way.

CAMEROTA: But how long is that going to take?

AVLON: It's not going to be overnight. This is weeks, if not months.

And I know that's not going to be emotionally satisfying for people. I don't mean to say this is going to drag into next year, because it's already an election year. It's further complicated by the fact that some folks -- traditionally, New York attorney general is seen as a stepping-stone to governor.

And there's inherent political tension in there, even though she -- this was really done by two expert independent prosecutors. There is that patina within the context of Albany politics too. And you got to acknowledge that.

BLACKWELL: All right, John Avlon, Dana Bash, Jennifer Rodgers, thank you all.

Another indication the Delta variant is wreaking havoc on far too many lives, the number of people hospitalized because of COVID is now above 50,000 for the first time since February, and most of those who are getting seriously ill are unvaccinated.

CAMEROTA: So, President Biden will give a live update on his administration's vaccination efforts.

He is also expected to take questions on the sexual harassment investigation into Governor Cuomo. So, stick around for all of that. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


CAMEROTA: New York City will now require proof of COVID vaccination for anyone heading to the gym, a restaurant or indoor entertainment venue, as the Delta variant continues to ravage the unvaccinated.

BLACKWELL: But parts of the country are seeing hospitalizations now and new cases at levels they have not seen since February. And that's when the vaccine robot was just ramping up.

Now, today, 90 percent of Americans are living in areas with substantial or high transmission, according to the CDC.

CNN's Lucy Kafanov has the latest details.


LUCY KAFANOV, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): With COVID-19 cases going up, the Big Apple is doubling down on vaccinations.


BILL DE BLASIO (D), MAYOR OF NEW YORK: If you're unvaccinated, unfortunately, you will not be able to participate in many things.

KAFANOV: New Yorkers who want to dine indoors, dance at a nightclub or workout at the gym will have to show proof of vaccination starting next month.

DE BLASIO: We're going to use every tool we have got to fight the Delta variant and to end the COVID era once and for all in this city. That means more and more vaccinations. And we know that strong, clear mandates help.

KAFANOV: Momentum for a vaccine mandate seems to be growing.

JEFF ZIENTS, WHITE HOUSE COVID-19 RESPONSE COORDINATOR: It's time to impose some requirements based on the realities of different risks unvaccinated individuals pose vs. those who have been vaccinated.

KAFANOV: Meanwhile, businesses are putting in their own rules, with masks now back at major retailers and restaurant chains. Across the nation, cases are surging. With less than half of the population fully vaccinated. the U.S. is now averaging more than 85,000 new COVID-19 cases per day, hospitalizations topping 50,000 for the first time since February.

KATHRYN IVEY, TENNESSEE ICU NURSE: The numbers started picking back up and the units opened back up and the respirators came back out. And it's like thinking you walked out of a war and being told you have to go back in.

KAFANOV: Louisiana's governor says he's expecting the state to reach a pandemic record for hospitalizations today. GOV. JOHN BEL EDWARDS (D-LA): The most we have had in hospital at any point in the pandemic. And, yes, this is largely, but not exclusively, a surge among the unvaccinated.

ZIENTS: One in three cases nationwide occurred in Florida and Texas this past week.

KAFANOV: The Sunshine State now the epicenter for the virus. But despite a surge in new cases and hospitalizations, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis is doubling down on his opposition to safety measures, including masks.

GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL): We're not shutting down. We're going to have schools open. We're protecting every Floridian's job in this state. We're protecting people's small businesses.


KAFANOV: And this just in. Louisiana just broke its pandemic record for COVID-19-related hospitalizations, a total of 2, 112 people currently hospitalized for COVID-19.

The previous hospitalization record was back in January, and that was before vaccines were widely available -- Victor, Alisyn, back to you.

BLACKWELL: Just going in the wrong direction in so many states.

Lucy Kafanov for us, thank you.

This afternoon, President Biden will address the nation on his efforts to increase vaccination rates. The White House is celebrating their long-sought-after milestones, 70 percent of adults getting one shot, at least one shot of a vaccine.

CAMEROTA: CNN chief White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins is here.

So, Kaitlan, what do we expect to hear from President Biden?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Alisyn and Victor, he's not only going to be talking about coronavirus.

We are now told by the White House that President Biden today will also be addressing the findings of this investigation into Governor Cuomo. And if you remember, back in March, during an interview with ABC News, the president was asked about this investigation. And he said he believed if the allegations made against Governor Cuomo were confirmed, then he should resign.

Of course, Governor Cuomo is a time ally of President Biden's. They go back decades, their families. And so this is certainly a sensitive moment for him, a delicate moment. And the question is, how is he going to handle it this afternoon, given what he said in March and now what we have seen with the results of this investigation today?

He did not answer questions from reporters when they were in the room with him a few moments ago with the vice president and some other community leaders. But he said he would talk about that later, when he is going to make these remarks on COVID-19.

And so we will wait. We're waiting to see exactly what that's going to be. I should note that the White House says they have not had any conversations with the New York governor's office at this time about what's been going on. But President Biden is aware of the findings of this report.

So, of course, this is also going to be a topic that comes up, news of day that confronts the president, but he is going to be talking about coronavirus and the efforts that his administration is making when it comes to these vaccinations, because, yes, the White House is pleased that they hit that goal of getting 70 percent of adult Americans with one shot, but it does come a month later than they hoped to hit it.

So they still have an uphill battle here. And not to mention, it's not just the state of vaccinations that is an issue that has been facing the White House for some time, but is facing them especially today. It's also this feud within the Democratic Party over the eviction moratorium and given that it expired on Saturday night, with essentially them pointing blame at both sides.

But the real question, of course, the concerning question for those families is what the strategy is going to be and what is the way out of this. So that is going to be another question likely facing President Biden this afternoon when he is expected to talk about not just coronavirus, but also the findings of that investigation into Governor Cuomo.

CAMEROTA: OK, he has a lot to tackle. We will bring that to our viewers live. Kaitlan Collins, thank you very much.

Now to this horrible development. Two more D.C. area police officers who responded to the January 6 riots have died by suicide, bringing the total number to four.

So we have new details on that tragedy and their lives of service.

BLACKWELL: And, as the Delta variant racist through unvaccinated communities, our next guest says that the data shows that kids should be in schools.