By DANNY HAKIM and VIVIAN WANG
NEW YORK – New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who has risen to prominence as an antagonist of the Trump administration and a defender of women’s rights, abruptly resigned Monday night, hours after four women accused him of physically assaulting them in an article published by The New Yorker.
“It’s been my great honor and privilege to serve as attorney general for the people of the State of New York,” Schneiderman said in a statement. “In the last several hours, serious allegations, which I strongly contest, have been made against me.
“While these allegations are unrelated to my professional conduct or the operations of the office, they will effectively prevent me from leading the office’s work at this critical time. I therefore resign my office, effective at the close of business on May 8, 2018.”
New York State Solicitor Barbara Underwood will serve as acting New York Attorney General. In a statement to the media Tuesday, Underwood said: " I am honored to serve the people of New York as acting Attorney General. The work of this office is critically important. Our office has never been stronger, and this extraordinarily talented, dedicated, and tireless team of public servants will ensure that our work continues without interruption.”
Underwood was appointed solicitor general in 2007. She was a prosecutor for the Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan district attorneys and worked as a Yale Law School professor. She was a law clerk to Chief Judge David L. Bazelon of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
Schneiderman's resignation represented a stunning fall for a politician who had not only turned his office into a bulwark of resistance against President Donald Trump, but also assumed a prominent role in the #MeToo movement.
Two of the women, Michelle Manning Barish and Tanya Selvaratnam, who spoke on the record to the magazine, said they had been choked and hit repeatedly by Schneiderman. Both said they had sought medical treatment. Another woman, a lawyer, said she was slapped violently across the face. A fourth woman also said she had similar experiences.
All the women in the article, who had been in relationships with Schneiderman, said the violence was not consensual.
Schneiderman initially denied abusing the women, saying in a statement: “In the privacy of intimate relationships, I have engaged in role-playing and other consensual sexual activity. I have not assaulted anyone. I have never engaged in nonconsensual sex, which is a line I would not cross.”
But not long after the allegations were made public, many of his allies, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who like Schneiderman is a Democrat, called for him to step down.
“My personal opinion is that, given the damning pattern of facts and corroboration laid out in the article, I do not believe it is possible for Eric Schneiderman to continue to serve as attorney general,” Cuomo said.
The call was echoed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who led the charge to oust Al Franken from the Senate. “The violent actions described by multiple women in this story are abhorrent,” she said in a statement. “Based on this extensive and serious reporting, I do not believe that Eric Schneiderman should continue to serve as attorney general.
Schneiderman, the chief law enforcement officer of the state who was widely seen as harboring ambitions to be governor himself one day, is up for re-election this year. No Democrats have declared an intention to challenge him in the primary; Manny Alicandro, a corporate lawyer from New York City, is running as a Republican and officially declared his candidacy Monday.
Schneiderman had been previously outspoken about women’s issues, announcing, for instance, a lawsuit against the company once run by the former filmmaker Harvey Weinstein, who was accused of decades of sexual misconduct. “We have never seen anything as despicable as what we’ve seen right here,” Schneiderman said then.
Since 2017, Schneiderman had also raised his profile nationally by taking on President Donald Trump’s agenda repeatedly in the courts. He is pushing to change state law so that his office could prosecute Trump’s aides even if the president pardoned them.
Manning Barish, in The New Yorker account, described being slapped by Schneiderman after they had both been drinking; she and Selvaratnam said several of the attacks occurred after alcohol had been consumed.
“It was horrendous,” she said. “It just came out of nowhere. My ear was ringing. I lost my balance and fell backward onto the bed. I sprang up, but at this point there was very little room between the bed and him. I got up to try to shove him back, or take a swing, and he pushed me back down. He then used his body weight to hold me down, and he began to choke me. The choking was very hard. It was really bad. I kicked. In every fiber, I felt I was being beaten by a man.”
Debra S. Katz, a lawyer for Manning Barish, said that it was Schneiderman’s “fantasy and his fantasy alone that the behavior was welcome.”
Schneiderman, she continued, “has made a career railing against this type of abuse. Yet apparently he intends to revictimize these courageous women who have come forward by pulling out that age old sexist trope that they wanted it.”
Manning Barish and Selvaratnam have in recent days repeatedly declined to comment when reporters for The Times asked them to address the allegations.
“After I found out that other women had been abused by Attorney General Schneiderman in a similar manner many years before me, I wondered, who’s next, and knew something needed to be done,” Selvaratnam said in a statement released Monday night. “So I chose to come forward both to protect women who might enter into a relationship with him in the future but also to raise awareness around the issue of intimate partner violence.”
Manning Barish also followed the article’s publication with a post on Twitter:
“After the most difficult month of my life-I spoke up,” Manning Barish said in her post. “For my daughter and for all women. I could not remain silent and encourage other women to be brave for me. I could not ...”
A former wife of Schneiderman’s was taken aback by the allegations being leveled against him.
“I’ve known Eric for nearly 35 years as a husband, father and friend,” said Jennifer Cunningham, his ex-wife and frequent political strategist. “These allegations are completely inconsistent with the man I know, who has always been someone of the highest character, outstanding values and a loving father.”
Schneiderman has long been regarded as one of the state’s most progressive politicians, even before his 2013 lawsuit against Trump University and his subsequent suits against the Trump administration made him the darling of the political left. Last fall, Schneiderman’s office proudly pointed to a segment on the late-night comedy show “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee,” in which the attorney general was described as “a hero who stood up to democracy’s nemesis,” a Superman-like character known as Schneider-man.
His credentials as an advocate for women, in particular, had gone unquestioned.
In 2010, as a state senator from Manhattan, he introduced a bill to make intentional strangulation to the point of unconsciousness a violent felony. That same year, the National Organization for Women’s New York branch endorsed him in his successful bid for attorney general, citing his “unmatched work” in “protecting women who are victims of domestic abuse.”
For several years, his office has published a “Know Your Rights” brochure for victims of domestic violence. “We must recognize that our work keeping New Yorkers safe from domestic violence is far from over,” Schneiderman said in the announcement for the 2016 brochure.
At the direction of Cuomo, he is reviewing the 2015 decision by the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., not to prosecute Weinstein after an Italian model accused him of groping her.
But some national Republicans were gleeful at the allegations. The Republican research shop America Rising quickly packaged Schneiderman’s ties to other prominent national Democrats.
And on Monday evening, Trump’s son, Donald Trump, Jr., dug up an old tweet from Schneiderman in which he said “No one is above the law” and tweeted at him, “You were saying???”