A confrontation between right-wing provocateurs and a CNN star (who also happens to be the brother of the governor of New York). An insult that may or may not be an ethnic slur. Lots of profanity, a near-brawl — and all of it caught on tape.
Candid camera footage of CNN host Chris Cuomo getting into a heated confrontation in a public setting with a group of men on Sunday has all of that and then some. So it’s no surprise that it quickly went viral on Monday evening, and became a major topic of discussion the next day.
Cuomo is known for his combative interviews on Cuomo Prime Time — especially with guests that rarely appear on non-Fox News television like Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani and White House adviser Kellyanne Conway — but the viral video clip shows a different and more profane side of him than his viewers see.
In the two-minute clip, which was shot with a phone seemingly below Cuomo’s line of sight, the CNN host can be heard admonishing a man and a group of other accompanying him that “Fredo” — a reference to a character in The Godfather novel and film trilogy — is used “as an Italian aspersion.” Though the apparent insult Cuomo that began the confrontation isn’t shown in the clip, Cuomo can be heard characterizing it as “like the n-word for us.”
A man in NY yesterday approached CNN’s Chris Cuomo and called him “Fredo”
Cuomo: “You’re going to have a problem”
Man: “What are you going to do about it?”
Cuomo: “I’ll fuckin ruin your shit. I’ll fucking throw you down these stairs”
Credit: “THAT’S THE POINT with Brandon” pic.twitter.com/4iWwzaSQpF
— Ryan Saavedra (@RealSaavedra) August 13, 2019
Things escalate from there. After one of the men sarcastically tells Cuomo that “you’re a much more reasonable guy in person than you seem to be on television,” Cuomo threatens him by saying, “you’re going to have a big fucking problem … don’t insult me like that … you know my name’s not Fredo. … I’ll fucking throw you down these stairs like a fucking punk.”
The video was posted on Twitter by Ryan Saavedra of the Daily Wire, who credited the footage to right-wing personality/YouTube host Brandon Recor.
The clip ends with Cuomo and the men being separated. As they’re pulled apart, one of the men involved in the confrontation can be heard telling Cuomo, “Hey, look at all these cameras. You’re in for it. You’re in for it.”
The Associated Press, citing Recor, reports that “the exchange happened Sunday at a bar in Shelter Island, New York, after a man approached Cuomo for a picture. The man made the video.” Recor tweeted that his “source” in the video “sent this in says he was just asking for a photo and thought [Cuomo’s] name was Fredo from being an avid listener of” Rush Limbaugh.
CNN stood by its primetime host, but the viral video had stirred up a wave of controversy, highlighting the risks that come with being a politically divisive figure in the public sphere in the era of Trump.
Most of Trump-world mocked Cuomo’s reaction to being called “Fredo”
Though the name-calling that purportedly started this all wasn’t recorded, it requires a little unpacking.
Cuomo’s claim that referring to an Italian as “Fredo” is like using the n-word is dubious. As my colleague Alissa Wilkinson explained, detailing the backstory from The Godfather:
In the movies, Vito (played by Marlon Brando) has three sons: Sonny (James Caan), Fredo (John Cazale), and Michael (Al Pacino). Sonny is the brash and bloody one; Michael is the calculating war hero who tries to stay out of the family business but ends up running the operation. Fredo, the middle son, is the weak link, an insecure womanizer who tries to help out but keeps sticking his foot in his mouth.
In 1972’s The Godfather, Sonny takes over the family operation after an assassination attempt on his father, but he is eventually assassinated himself, after which Vito chooses Michael — not Fredo — to run the family. Given that Michael is the youngest, and given Fredo’s insecurity, this creates a rift between the two brothers.
In The Godfather: Part II, a frustrated Fredo tries to make a power play by colluding with Johnny Ola (a rival gangster) and winds up inadvertently giving him information that helps Ola’s plot to off Michael. He later tells Michael he’s never met Ola, and then royally self-owns when he blurts out to someone else that he did meet Ola.
It probably goes without saying that Fredo doesn’t last long after that. Michael sees to it.
So while referring to an Italian as “Fredo” is clearly an insult, it’s not racially loaded in the same way as the n-word. And Cuomo has come under criticism for minimizing the offensiveness of the n-word in the recent past.
Bad faith actors wasted no time trying to capitalize. Predictably, Donald Trump Jr. — who, like his father, has a long history of disparaging CNN — wasted little time dunking on Cuomo.
CNN brass, however, seemed to agree with Cuomo’s assessment of the situation, and indicated he will not be punished. As the footage went viral on Twitter on Monday evening, CNN spokesperson Matt Dornic posted a tweet in Cuomo’s defense, writing that the host “defended himself when he was verbally attacked with the use of an ethnic slur in an orchestrated setup. We completely support him.”
By Tuesday morning, President Donald Trump — who never lets an opportunity to demean CNN go to waste — was in on the act. Trump posted one tweet saying “I thought Chris was Fredo also … the truth hurts,” then another suggesting Cuomo shouldn’t be allowed to purchase a firearm because of his “[f]ilthy language and a total loss of control … He’s nuts!”
Would Chris Cuomo be given a Red Flag for his recent rant? Filthy language and a total loss of control. He shouldn’t be allowed to have any weapon. He’s nuts!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 13, 2019
During a subsequent Q&A with reporters, Trump compared Cuomo’s behavior on the video to “a total out of control animal,” and used the clip to try and discredit Cuomo’s coverage, which is often critical of him.
“Frankly, I don’t think anybody can defend him, because he spews lies every night, so I don’t know what anybody would defend him,” Trump said.
Right-wing media, meanwhile, couldn’t get enough of the story. As of late Tuesday morning, coverage of Cuomo-gate took occupied almost the entirety of Breitbart’s homepage.
The video is fascinating in its own right. But it says something larger about being a public figure in the era of Trump.
Even as the president’s son gloried in the video, not all Trump supporters agreed with his and his father’s assessment. Controversy surrounding the video made for some interesting bedfellows. Fox News host Sean Hannity, whose show airs during the same time slot as Cuomo’s, posted a tweet coming to his competitor’s defense, noting that Cuomo was out with his family.
I say good for @ChrisCuomo
He’s out with his 9 year old daughter, and his wife, and this guy is being a jackass in front of his family.
Imho Chris Cuomo has zero to apologize for. He deserves the apology. https://t.co/VnyMNgz14U
— Sean Hannity (@seanhannity) August 13, 2019
Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s first campaign manager, also posted a tweet defending Cuomo, writing, “Too many of us have seen this happen when we are out with out famIiies [sic]. If this continues someone is going to get hurt. Have some respect. @ChrisCuomo has every right to defend himself and his family.”
In coming to Cuomo’s defense, Hannity and Lewandowski may have had in mind previous incidents where Trump administration officials have been in the news for confrontations they’ve had with critics while out in public, such as when then-press secretary Sarah Sanders and then-Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen were forced out of DC-area restaurants by over the same weekend last year. While those incidents came in response to specific Trump administration policies that hurt people, Cuomo’s confrontation shows that cable news personalities perceived to be opposed to Trump can be targets too.
Late Tuesday morning, Cuomo posted a tweet addressing the controversy, saying that he “[a]ppreciate[s]all the support” but “should be better than what I oppose.”
Appreciate all the support but – truth is I should be better than the guys baiting me. This happens all the time these days. Often in front of my family. But there is a lesson: no need to add to the ugliness; I should be better than what I oppose.
— Christopher C. Cuomo (@ChrisCuomo) August 13, 2019
Cuomo recently told Jeremy Barr of the Hollywood Reporter that since his show moved into a primetime time slot last year, he gets recognized more often in public and often can’t tell what people’s intentions are. Barr’s profile reveals that earlier this year, Cuomo and his family were victims of a “SWATing” attempt, and they put their house in the Hamptons on the market as a result. And of course, Cuomo’s employer received two explosive devices in the mail from a Trump supporter last year.
“I have people fucking threatening me on a regular basis,” Cuomo told Barr. “That’s a whole new reality for me.”
Cuomo’s possible threat to throw someone down a flight of steps, even if he didn’t really mean it, is hard to defend. But it’s understandable that he was upset about being insulted in public.
The incident and surrounding controversy serves as a reminder that when in the public eye — especially when political operatives are seemingly out to discredit you — anything you say can and will be used against you in the court of public opinion. So as Cuomo seems to now recognize, it’s best to behave as though anything you say could end up in a video on social media, even if that means a taking a “Fredo” insult on the proverbial chin.