UPDATED: 16 NOV 2023 11:33 AM EST
NEW YORK — Defenders of New York Mayor Eric Adams are adopting the same rhetoric as Donald Trump as they try to politically insulate the Democrat from a federal investigation.
Surrogates and the mayor’s political team, hoping to protect his base, are saying the mayor is being unfairly targeted. The messaging seems destined to reach key voting blocs in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx.
“I’ve been telling other people that I thought this was a witch hunt and the FBI’s going too far,” state Sen. Leroy Comrie, a Democrat who represents southeast Queens, told POLITICO.
It’s language that has also been embraced by some Republicans who have likened in the inquiry of Adams’ campaign to what they believe is overzealous prosecution of Trump. Adams, one Republican noted, has blasted the White House over the city’s migrant surge, leaving the mayor on the outs.
"What I find of interest is that Mayor Adams spoke out on the Biden administration and now he himself is under investigation by the Biden administration,” Rep. Brandon Williams said, a Syracuse-area Republican who has no particular ties to Adams but has supported Trump. "That should concern all of us — this kind of weaponization of the justice system."
Even the conservative New York Post editorial board — which often backs the mayor and his tough-on-crime rhetoric — has jumped on the Justice Department angle.
One bit of evidence: The FBI seized Adams’ electronic devices in public as he was leaving an event rather than issue a subpoena. “What reason to ambush him publicly … except to humiliate him?” the board wrote.
There’s no indication Adams’ team is asking Republicans for their help. In fact, New York City Council Minority Leader Joe Borelli said he defended the mayor in a social media post without a nudge. The mayor himself is being increasingly careful with his words — but he doesn’t seem to mind the help, either.
Adams is ensnared in a federal investigation into Turkish influence through campaign donations. And in the absence of any charges, Adams, his aides and his allies have been working hard to defend the first-term mayor in the court of public opinion.
The key defense strategy from Adams’ closest advisers seems to be galvanizing support in communities where the city’s second-ever Black mayor remains strongest.
Officials representing Black communities in Southeast Queens and Central Brooklyn and Latino voters in the Bronx are echoing objections as the daily drip of news about the probe into Adams’ 2021 campaign and its ties to Turkey emboldens a suite of 2025 wannabes.
The effort to push back on the narrative is the product of both strategy and the result of Adams’ decades of building alliances as an advocate for Black police officers, a state senator and then Brooklyn borough president before ascending to City Hall.
Comrie, for example, said he approached the mayor’s chief adviser, Ingrid Lewis-Martin, and offered to help the mayor’s team.
Comrie did not endorse the mayor in his 2021 campaign. However, his primarily Black southeast Queens district went heavily for Adams and remains a keystone to the mayor’s electoral coalition.
Now, Comrie and other key allies of the mayor are among a handful of Democratic figures the mayor’s camp is encouraging reporters to talk to — since they will say what the mayor is not.
“I can also attest that Black leaders in politics often face more scrutiny and criticism,” said Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn, a longtime Adams ally and the leader of the Brooklyn Democratic Committee.
Other allies from Adams strongholds include former Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., who’s Puerto Rican, and City Councilmember Kevin Riley, who is Black and represents the Northeast Bronx. Both have already defended the mayor in the press, arguing that the FBI is reportedly investigating normal behavior for an elected official: He helped Turkey with a building permit in Manhattan when he was borough president.
“Yes I did reach out. This is what elected officials, what we do.” Adams said Tuesday, confirming he texted then-Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro in 2021 after being asked by a Turkish official for assistance.
But the strategy of claiming unfair treatment isn’t working on state Sen. Jabari Brisport, a Democratic Socialist who represents a central Brooklyn district with a large Black population.
"Men like Eric Adams and Donald Trump think they’re entitled to do or say whatever they want, that they can get away with anything,” he said. “So of course when they’re finally held accountable, all they can think to do is double down on their own Kool-Aid."
Others say the argument that the mayor is being targeted can play well — to a point.
“Voters can hold two thoughts in their head simultaneously. Is it a witch hunt, yes. Have you given something to hunt for? Yes, possibly,” said Christina Greer, a professor at Fordham University and expert on Black ethnic politics.
“We can’t be naive and not talk about the fact that he is the second Black mayor of New York City. But we also have to recognize that if he’s done something illegal or inappropriate, then he should be treated like any other mayor should be treated,” she said. “We’re about to start threading some thin needles.”
There’s no evidence that the mayor is being targeted in a conspiracy. The federal government is known to take foreign interference into elections very seriously and chase every lead. Adams’ City Hall Counsel Lisa Zornberg said Tuesday that she has seen no indication the mayor is a target.
A spokesperson for the White House did not respond to a request for comment on whether Adams was being politically targeted. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York declined to comment.
That absence of communication from the federal government has given Adams’ team room to defend him as speculation swirls.
His team is running a multifaceted strategy, including stressing cooperation with the government, complaining about leaks and downplaying the reported focus of the investigation.
Even Adams — often one to go off script — has been more careful with his words than usual while under pressure.
The mayor himself was asked four times Tuesday at a press conference if he felt the federal government was targeting him, or if this was retribution from the Biden administration.
Adams brushed it away each time, saying a variation of “I’m not going to speculate.” His criticism of the White House on immigration “is based on the fact that this is unsustainable for New York City,” he said. “I can't speculate that these people are upset because I'm raising that.”
How’d he feel about the FBI seizing his phones on the street? He was similarly demure. “Whatever methods they use, I respect that,” he said. “As a person who was in law enforcement, we have methods of doing what we do. So I respect the methods that are being used.”
The full scope of the federal investigation isn’t clear, but for now, Adams’ donor base is sticking by him, those close to him contend.
“People are reaching out, asking how they can be helpful,” Frank Carone, a close ally and former aide of the mayor, told POLITICO. “People are reading between the lines and think he’s getting unfairly maligned.”
Carone was the mayor’s chief of staff in City Hall and is now organizing fundraisers for his reelection campaign. From donors, “it’s been 100% support,” Carone said, and it’s “full steam ahead” to 2025.
Privately, some on Adams’ team disparage many of the progressive politicians who are considering running against the weakened, moderate mayor, calling them unserious people.
The public defense effort is still only in its infancy.
Adams won with the support of many of New York City’s biggest labor unions. One labor leader who previously endorsed the mayor said they haven’t heard from Adams’ team — but had gotten calls from potential challengers.
Another labor leader who supported Adams said the mayor’s team reached out and hadn’t “asked for much” in terms of a response. But “they’re definitely calling around, making sure their support is shored up,” they said. Both were granted anonymity to discuss private conversations.
City Council members, even ones who were early endorsers of Adams, also haven’t gotten any direct communication.
Many “allies and leaders” are “upset by the investigation and negative speculation, and they will be expressing that over the coming days and weeks,” a person close to the mayor’s political operation told POLITICO.
“The team is confident that no laws or rules were broken on our side,” the person said, “but this investigation is playing out in the court of public opinion now, so it must be made clear there was no wrongdoing and that the mayor isn’t wrongly convicted by media and speculation before any actual evidence is even presented.”
Nick Reisman contributed to this report.