WASHINGTON — He’s been trashing the Trump administration’s COVID-19 vaccine plan but New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo stopped taking part back in June — skipping more than a dozen White House meetings and snubbing a one-on-one with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, The Post has learned.
Cuomo skipped out on 17 consecutive governor calls with the White House designed to brief state leaders on the vaccine development and rollout process, while calling them “circuses” and “a joke” in his frequent press briefings, a White House source confirmed.
Cuomo on Monday blasted President Trump’s vaccine plan as “flawed” amid news of a Pfizer vaccine breakthrough, going so far as to threaten to block its distribution in New York, saying, “We can’t let this vaccination plan go forward the way that Trump and his administration is designing it.”
But while Cuomo griped publicly about the Trump administration, his team spurned an offer to meet with Azar late last month, who wanted to hear Cuomo’s concerns, two sources said.
Cuomo has claimed a vaccine would need to undergo a second round of checks in New York because efforts to fast-track it had been “politicized” and suggested it was “bad news” that the treatment wasn’t being distributed under an administration led Joe Biden, who Cuomo has described as a friend and who is currently the president-elect.
In a call with The Post on Monday, Cuomo’s staff said the governor was frustrated because there were “many unknowns” after the governor sent an Oct. 15 letter to President Trump asking how the vaccine would be effectively distributed to the whole state, particularly poor communities of color.
Trump directed Azar’s team to immediately reach out to Cuomo when they received the letter, offering a one-on-one meeting with Azar and the heads of Operation Warp Speed — which Cuomo or his team declined.
According to two sources, Alexander Cochran, Cuomo’s special counsel, rejected the Oct. 21 invitation to meet the following day, saying they would not entertain a meeting with the federal government until all of their questions were answered in writing.
Republican Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who leads the National Governors Association with Cuomo, did accept the offer and spoke to Azar that day, the sources said.
In a lengthy Oct. 30 letter to Cuomo and Hutchinson, Azar responded to 32 questions from the pair on everything from funding to supplies and storage.
In an interview on Fox News on Monday, Azar called Cuomo’s comments about not accepting a Trump-led vaccine, “unconscionable.”
Cuomo was also absent in 17 consecutive governor calls over the five months spanning from June 1 to Oct. 30, the White House source said — around the same time he published his self-congratulatory book “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic.”
In an interview with Alan Chartock on WAMC’s “The Roundtable” last week, Cuomo was asked to address why he repeatedly skipped the governors’ briefings.
“I’ve also missed circuses. I don’t go to a lot of circuses. Between the White House conference call and a circus, I think a circus would teach me more about COVID. I was on the last call. It’s a joke,” Cuomo told Chartock.
But a senior staff member in one GOP governor’s office said the calls had included “really useful discussions” on how to roll out the vaccine, often going into “tremendous detail.”
“Many of the calls have been really, really substantive discussions often led by the vice president or Secretary Azar,” he said. “We’ve found them to be extremely helpful,” the staffer said.
“It’s really remarkable for him to say they’re useless and to have made the criticisms he did about distribution when he has not bothered to be on these calls,” he said of Cuomo’s remarks.
“Obviously we’ve been able to have a lot more information than he has just because we’ve participated so I think that’s a big part of it,” he went on.
Cuomo spokesman Peter Ajemian responded Wednesday with an attack on the HHS secretary.“Azar has proven himself to be equal parts political and incompetent, which is why when Trump refused to meet with the NGA leaders they made a simple request to answer their questions in writing — a reasonable ask after Trump reneged on his commitment to cover 25 percent of New York’s FEMA reimbursement for COVID.
“We received a letter back but the response left unanswered questions and the fact remains there are many unknowns and flaws with the federal government’s plan, and the administration of a safe and effective vaccine is too important to let Trump-style politics get in the way.”
White House spokesman Michael Bars, meanwhile, unloaded on Cuomo Wednesday, saying his attacks were putting lives at risk.
“It’s disgraceful, but not without surprise, that Gov. Cuomo would continue to engage in politically-motivated attacks that obstruct the federal planning process than meaningful collaboration to save lives,” Bars said.
“The administration is harnessing the full power of the federal government, private sector, military, and scientific community in an unprecedented private-public partnership to deliver a safe and effective vaccine as soon as possible. Gov. Cuomo is trying to stop it.”
Of course, Cuomo and Trump have been at each other’s throats all during the pandemic — trading blows during their individual daily press conferences early on and attacking each other’s leadership during the now nine-month crisis.
In an interview with SiriusXM host Howard Stern this week, Cuomo said he would have “decked” Trump if he wasn’t governor. In September, Cuomo said the commander-in-chief would need “an army” to protect him if he wanted to walk on the streets of the Big Apple.