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Joe Biden’s statement and television interview did not put sexual assault allegation behind him

Democratic presidential candidate former vice president Joe Biden spoke about the coronavirus in Wilmington, Del., on March 12.Matt Rourke/Associated Press

Responding to pressure to directly address a decades old sexual assault allegation, former vice president Joe Biden delivered a categorical denial on Friday as he sought to tamp down a controversy that recently took on new life with additional corroboration for the claim.

“They aren’t true. This never happened,” Biden said in a written statement. The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee then repeated his denial on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” show. “I’m saying unequivocally, it never, never happened,” he said.

Tara Reade, an aide when Biden served in the Senate, said in March that Biden assaulted her in the basement of a Capitol Hill office building in 1993. Reade said Biden pushed her up against a wall, reached under her clothing, and penetrated her with his fingers. His campaign issued a statement in early April denying the allegation.

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But until Friday, Biden had remained silent on the matter, putting women’s groups, progressive activists, and Democrats in a complicated situation after spending the last three years trying to set new standards over how sexual abuse cases are addressed in the #MeToo era.

In a 1,006-word statement and a sometimes contentious MSNBC interview, Biden sought to carefully thread the needle between acknowledging Reade’s right to come forward while still forcefully denying her allegations. Reade did not respond to a message seeking comment Friday.

Biden didn’t appear to put the controversy behind him. Some Democrats, women’s rights advocates, and progressive activists said they were pleased to see Biden strike the correct tone and not attack the victim, calling his response an effective first step in addressing the allegations. But others said he would need to do more to address his past behavior toward women and support policies that put survivors of sexual abuse and harassment at their center.

“It was right for Joe Biden to directly address this issue, and he has more to do," said Shaunna Thomas, a founder of UltraViolet, a women’s rights advocacy group that was part of a behind-the-scenes effort to push the Biden campaign to address the allegation. “We need a leader who can show humility, own the harm that people have experienced as a result of their behavior, and take meaningful steps to facilitate healing."

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A joint statement from Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, and Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY’s List, said Biden now needed to lead on the issue as he had when he helped pass the Violence Against Women Act in the 1990s.

Some #MeToo leaders and activists said Biden did the best he could to address the allegations when there hasn’t been enough emphasis on creating better legal and cultural systems where women’s claims can be seriously investigated while still providing due process for the accused.

“Only two people really know what happened there,” said Adama Iwu, a corporate lobbyist in Sacramento and founder of the “We Said Enough” campaign to call out sexual harassment. “It just continues to be so disappointing to me that the only place that victims and the accused have to play out what happened is in the press.”

Reade was one of eight women who came forward against Biden last year as he was preparing to launch his presidential bid. At the time, the women said he made them feel uncomfortable with inappropriate touching, hugging, and kissing. But none accused him of sexual assault. Reade has said she didn’t speak publicly about the alleged assault then because no one witnessed it.

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She made the assault allegations in a podcast interview that aired on March 25. The New York Times and Washington Post followed with investigations that both anonymously quoted a friend of Reade who said that Reade told her of the assault at the time but no witnesses.

Reade told The Washington Post that she filed a complaint in 1993 with a congressional office about alleged harassment by Biden but not about the assault. She did not remember the name of the office, and the Post and other news organizations have not been able to find the complaint.

But pressure has grown in recent days for Biden to address the allegations after a former neighbor of Reade told Business Insider that Reade told her about the alleged assault shortly after it happened. Another woman who had worked with Reade in the mid-1990s in California also told the publication that she remembered Reade telling her at the time that her former boss in Washington, D.C., had sexually harassed her, and that Reade had been fired after raising concerns.

Several of Biden’s staffers have said they do not remember Reade, and other Democrats came to Biden’s defense saying there was no culture of harassment in his office. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said this week that while she has “complete respect for the whole #MeToo movement,” she stood by her endorsement of Biden as “a person of great integrity.”

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Biden also has drawn support from other prominent Democratic women, including New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who centered her presidential campaign on the #MeToo movement. Biden has promised to pick a female running mate, and two contenders for that position, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, have stood behind Biden. But Senator Elizabeth Warren has been notably silent. A Warren representative did not respond to an e-mail, text message, and phone call seeking comment Friday.

Biden denies sexual assault allegation on MSNBC
On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” show, Joe Biden denied he had sexually assaulted a former staffer in 1993.

Republicans have ramped up their attacks on Biden over Reade’s allegation, calling out Democrats and #MeToo leaders in recent weeks who they say defend women only when allegations are against conservative political figures. “The only thing Joe Biden did today was dig himself a deeper hole,'” President Trump’s campaign said in a statement blasted out to supporters. “He once again demonstrated that he believes he should be held to a different standard than he has set for others.”

Trump has faced 16 allegations of various forms of sexual assault, along with several other allegations of improper conduct with women, according to a tally by PBS Newshour.

“Morning Joe” host Mika Brzezinski pressed Biden on comments he made when Christine Blasey Ford came forward with a sexual assault allegation against Brett M. Kavanaugh as the Senate was considering his nomination to the Supreme Court two years ago.

Kavanaugh was narrowly confirmed after a bitter fight in which most Senate Democrats said they believed the allegations but Republicans said they did not.

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“You were unequivocal, Mr. Vice President back in 2018 during the Kavanaugh controversy and hearings and you said that women should be believed,” Brzezinski said. "To use your words, should we not start off with the presumption that the essence of what she’s talking about is real? She says you sexually assaulted her.”

“Look, from the very beginning I’ve said, believing women means taking the woman’s claim seriously,” Biden responded. “That’s true in this case as well. Women have a right to be heard and the press should rigorously investigate claims they make. I’ll always uphold that principle.”

But he added that in every case, "the truth is what matters.”

“In this case, the truth is the claims are false,” Biden said.

In the MSNBC interview, as in his written statement, Biden said he would request the National Archives “to identify any record of the complaint she alleges she filed and make available to the press any such document. If there was ever any such complaint, the record will be there.”

But Biden rejected Brzezinski’s repeated push for him to search his Senate papers at the University of Delaware, which have not been made public, for any records about Reade or her allegation.

“They don’t contain any personnel files,” Biden said.

Lucy Flores, a former Nevada state assemblywoman who came forward against Biden last year for inappropriately touching her and kissing her on the head, called it troubling that he had so far only offered “quasi-apologies” to her and other women and had done so only after coming under political pressure. She said she hoped Biden could move the #MeToo conversation beyond catchphrases like “Believe Women” to a system that actually provides justice for women.

“This catchphrase, it should have never been because there is a much deeper conversation to be had about how we perceive women in general and their truthfulness,” Flores said. “I hope this is where it leads and this is something Joe Biden could lead on if he has the self-awareness and the leadership to actually do it.”



Reach Jazmine Ulloa at jazmine.ulloa@globe.com or on Twitter: @jazmineulloa.