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OPINION

Does sexual assault matter only if a Democrat is accused?

Accusations against Trump didn’t prevent him from winning in 2016. Should accusations against Biden derail his presidential bid?

Joe Biden and President Trump.Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

What if Tara Reade’s story is true — that Joe Biden sexually assaulted her in 1993, back when he was a US senator and she briefly worked in his office as a staff assistant?

Biden, through a presidential campaign spokeswoman, denies the allegation. But now, if you believe Reade and not Biden, what does that mean? That Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, should never be president? Politically, that’s the only question that matters right now. And, at this point, politics is the only prism through which this can be viewed. In a decades-old, he-said, she-said scenario, there will never be one universal truth accepted by all.

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However, if treatment of women becomes even a minor subplot in the 2020 campaign, that’s because Donald Trump is president. Reade’s allegation — whatever her motivation — neutralizes the topic to Trump’s benefit and undercuts Biden’s promise to restore decency and morality to the White House.

But remember — as The New York Times report on Reade’s allegation also points out — more than a dozen women have accused Trump of sexual assault and misconduct. He denies those allegations, but in the infamous “Access Hollywood” video of 2005, he bragged about how his celebrity empowered him to grab women whenever and however he wanted.

None of that stopped Trump from winning election in 2016. And subsequent disclosures that he directed illegal payments to women to silence them about alleged affairs certainly didn’t inhibit him from seeking a second term. His ability to win reelection will be determined by his administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and its effect on the economy — not because any woman charged him with rape.

It would be the height of irony if Reade’s allegation derailed Biden. Does sexual assault matter only if a Democrat is accused?

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Did you believe Christine Blasey Ford when she alleged that Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were high school students back in the 1980s? I did. However, Kavanaugh fiercely denied her accusation, and in the end, it did not upend his confirmation as a Supreme Court justice. Even some who believed Blasey Ford — and despised Kavanaugh’s conservative philosophy — might have privately worried about scuttling his nomination over impossible-to-prove allegations dating back to high school.

Reade’s story is also being played in a way to show media hypocrisy about who is believed and promoted as a worthy victim of sexual assault. She first went public with her accusation of sexual assault in a podcast interview released on March 25. If Reade were accusing Trump of such conduct, would it have taken this long for the mainstream media to report on it?

Probably not. On the other hand, Trump’s many accusers have established a pattern of his misconduct that lends credibility to the accusations. Did major news outlets wait until Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont officially dropped out of the presidential race before following up on Reade’s allegation? Maybe.

But Reade’s story also deserved careful vetting. Past accusations about Biden focused on interactions that women said made them feel uncomfortable — not on sexual assault. For example, Lucy Flores, a former Nevada lieutenant governor nominee, wrote in a 2019 essay that Biden smelled her hair and kissed the back of her head at a campaign event in 2014.

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Reade, who was one of several women who came forward after Flores told her story, gave an interview in which she said that when she worked in Biden’s Senate office he would “put his hand on my shoulder and run his finger up my neck.” She did not allege sexual assault at that time.

When Flores and others told their stories a year ago, I wrote that “a kiss on the back of the head should not be the kiss of death” for Biden. I cut him slack for a touchy-feely brand of politics, connected generationally to a past era. That is something quite different from Reade’s updated allegation.

Again, what if her latest story is true? Does it disqualify Biden for the presidency? Sad to say — not against Trump.


Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.