This time, Andrew Cuomo may be in some trouble.
I don’t write those words lightly: I’ve never written them before, and I’ve never even thought them.
But the man who’s picked fights with—and systematically disemboweled—every New York politician who’s stood in his way (or who he’s feared might stand in his way at some point) is up against a very different kind of obstacle this time.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has not only taken possession of the files from the corruption-fighting Moreland Commission that Cuomo recently closed down as part of a budget deal, but has also publicly floated the possibility of investigating the governor’s alleged meddling in its investigations.
What’s more, Bharara has publicly, humiliatingly suggested that Cuomo’s focus on cleaning up Albany was nothing more than a ploy to gain political leverage in budget negotiations.
This is a far more vexing and dangerous political threat than the governor faced in the likes of other rivals, like Comptroller Tom Dinapoli, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Mayor Bill de Blasio, each of whom he has bullied and belittled without much trouble.
The unique problem posed by Bharara is that few of the tools Cuomo typically uses to beat back problems (and opponents) will be at his disposal when it comes to dealing with the federal prosecutor.
And what were the tools Cuomo used against the Big Three?
Zeff points out how Cuomo "investigated" DiNapoli when Cuomo was attorney general, a la Chris Christie, never indicting him over any crime but publicly besmirching his reputation and making him look like a criminal in the process.
He notes how he refused to endorse Schneiderman until long after it didn't matter, then subsumed some of the attorney general's power into his own once Scheiderman took office.
And de Blasio - well, you know what he did to de Blasio.
But Zeff says Cuomo doesn't have these same opportunities to humiliate Bharara:
The point is that Cuomo will not be able to do to a federal prosecutor what he did to these three.
Sure, he can seek to discredit Bharara anonymously (he’d be a fool to openly antagonize someone potentially investigating his office). And he could obliquely signal some species of threat, transmitting via one of the administration's go-to journalists some revelation about what Cuomo might be planning next.
But in the case of Bharara, when it is “reported” that people familiar with the governor’s thinking hear that he is contemplating some kind of countermove, it will lack some its usual menacing force.
That’s because Cuomo is entering this conflict without his usual leverage, against someone he can’t control, embarrass or investigate. Someone who also has subpoena power, and a potential interest in Cuomo’s staff’s communications. (Recall, the governor is famously protective of his office’s communiques, and rumored to use instantly evaporating Blackberry PIN messages instead of emails, the better to avoid a trail.)
The fact that the prosecutor in question is Bharara will make things that much more difficult.
I knew Bharara a bit when we briefly overlapped in Chuck Schumer’s Senate office on Capitol Hill around a decade ago. You don’t survive a multi-year tenure in that office without absorbing lessons in political power and communications. A quick wit and serious legal mind, he isn’t just a remote, lawyerly figure who happens to be a good prosecutor. Bharara, like Cuomo, knows how to operate in a political context.
They battled over turf when Cuomo was attorney general and both sought to police crime in common jurisdictions. (By all accounts, it was not an overly friendly cohabitation, with competition erupting over matters involving press releases.) Neither man backed down.
Zeff says despite all of this, Cuomo may skate like nothing happened, that what Bharara is planning to investigate does not necessarily constitute legal trouble for Sheriff Andy, but says this could be the outcome:
There’s also this: What if Bharara does to Cuomo what Cuomo did to Dinapoli? Until the U.S. attorney explicitly says that the governor is not under investigation, Cuomo could have a cloud over him that his Republican opponent Rob Astorino will be sure to exploit.
The New York City tabloids, so often partners to Cuomo in his never-quite-explicit personal crusades against other New York officials, have taken Bharara’s side in the battle, joining the Times in cheering him on and swatting at the governor. It’s the last thing Cuomo needs, for reasons beyond the obvious. Yes, it’s deeply unflattering on its own, but also it threatens his veneer of unquestionable invincibility—the very thing that keeps the rest of the state’s political firmament from criticizing him.
And that's exactly right - Bharara's move to take over Moreland and publicly chastise Cuomo over shutting the commission down before it had completed its work and refusing to rule out investigating the governor himself pricks the vneer of invincibility around Sheriff Andy and that's a very dangerous thing for Cuomo.
Just as fellow political bully and pal Chris Christie is a wounded animal in the water with the sharks all around him in New Jersey now that the Bridgegate scandal pricked the veneer of invincibility around him, Cuomo could end up with lots of enemies coming out of the woodwork to feed if Bharara draws any blood on him in this matter.