Speaking publicly for the first time in more than a week, Cuomo pleaded with New Yorkers to wait for the attorney general to issue a report on the matter before forming an opinion and insisted that he was unaware that his behavior had upset anyone. The pending inquiry, though, could take months to complete and Cuomo seized the news conference spotlight in an effort to push back against calls for him to immediately step down.
“I never touched anyone inappropriately. I never touched anyone inappropriately. I never knew at the time that I was making anyone feel uncomfortable. I never knew at the time I was making anyone feel uncomfortable,” he said.
Cuomo started his briefing speaking about Covid-19 numbers in the state and did not address the allegations until the end of the briefing.
“I want New Yorkers to hear from me directly on this. First, I fully support a woman’s right to come forward. And I think it should be encouraged in every way,” he said. “I now understand that I acted in a way that made people feel uncomfortable. It was unintentional and I truly and deeply apologize for it. I feel awful about it, and frankly, I am embarrassed by it, and that’s not easy to say but that’s the truth.”
He continued, “I never ever meant to offend anyone or hurt anyone or cause anyone any pain. That is the last thing I would ever want to do.”
A ‘customary way of greeting’
Cuomo is facing two allegations of sexual harassment by former aides and one allegation that he made an unwanted advance toward a woman, Anna Ruch, at a 2019 wedding.
Ruch told The New York Times, in an account that was corroborated to CNN by a friend, that Cuomo approached her during a crowded wedding reception in New York in 2019. Ruch told the newspaper she thanked Cuomo for his toast to the newlyweds, and in response, she says he put his hand on her bare lower back, which the Times said was exposed in an open-back dress. The Times published a single photo of Ruch and Cuomo at the event, in which Cuomo appears to be placing his hands around Ruch’s face, but it is unclear what happened in that moment.
Ruch has not responded to requests for comment from CNN.
“You can find hundreds of pictures of me making the same gesture with hundreds of people — women, men, children, etc.,” Cuomo said.
He then referenced his father, the late three-term New York Gov. Mario Cuomo.
“By the way, it was my father’s way of greeting people,” Cuomo said. “You’re the governor of the state, you want people to feel comfortable, you want to reach out to them.”
But the governor also acknowledged that his “intent” was a secondary question to how the behavior made those around him feel.
“What I also understand is: it doesn’t matter,” Cuomo said. “It doesn’t matter, my intent. What matters is if anybody was offended by it. And I could intend no offense, but if they were offended by it, then it was wrong. And if they were offended by it, I apologize.”
Later on in the question-and-answer session, Cuomo attempted again to draw a line between the behavior for which he asked forgiveness and his standing as an elected official.
“I do not believe that I have ever done anything in my public career that I am ashamed of. I didn’t know that I was making her uncomfortable at the time, I feel badly that I did,” he said, before again stating, “I understand that sensitivities have changed and behavior has changed.”
She told the Times that she interpreted the exchange — which she said took place in June, while the state was in the throes of fighting the pandemic — as what the newspaper called “clear overtures to a sexual relationship.”
In his initial response to the story over the weekend, Cuomo said he believed he had been acting as a mentor and had “never made advances toward Ms. Bennett, nor did I ever intend to act in any way that was inappropriate.”
In a statement released after Cuomo’s remarks on Wednesday, Debra Katz, an attorney for Bennett, said the news conference was “full of falsehoods and inaccurate information” and rejected Cuomo’s claim that he didn’t know he was making anyone uncomfortable.
“My client, Charlotte Bennett, reported his sexually harassing behavior immediately to his Chief of Staff and Chief Counsel. We are confident that they made him aware of her complaint and we fully expect that the Attorney General’s investigation will demonstrate that Cuomo administration officials failed to act on Ms. Bennett’s serious allegations or to ensure that corrective measures were taken, in violation of their legal requirements,” Katz said.
Cuomo firmly denied the allegations in a news conference in December when Boylan first made them. CNN has not been able to corroborate the allegations, and when asked for further comment about the allegations, Boylan replied that she was letting her Medium post speak for itself.
Boylan did, however, respond to Cuomo’s remarks on Wednesday.
This story has been updated with additional developments and background.
CNN’s Karl de Vries contributed to this report.