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Frustration mounts as Biden remains silent on sexual assault allegation

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden.Matt Rourke/Associated Press

NEW YORK — For more than three weeks, progressive activists and women’s rights advocates debated how to handle an allegation of sexual assault against Joe Biden. The conversations weren’t easy, nor were the politics: Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, faced one allegation; his opponent, President Trump, at least a dozen.

Finally, several of the women’s groups prepared a public letter that praised Biden’s work as an “outspoken champion for survivors of sexual violence” but also pushed him to address the allegation from Tara Reade, a former aide who worked in his Senate office in the early 1990s.

“Vice President Biden has the opportunity, right now, to model how to take serious allegations seriously,” the draft letter said. “The weight of our expectations matches the magnitude of the office he seeks.”

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Then Biden’s team heard about the advocates’ effort. According to people involved in the discussions, the group put the letter on hold as it began pressuring Biden advisers to push the candidate to make a statement himself before the end of April, which is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Along with liberal organizers, they urged him to acknowledge the importance of survivors and the need for systemic change around issues of sexism and assault.

Nearly two weeks later, Biden and his campaign have yet to make that statement, and the advocates have not released their letter. The Biden campaign has said little publicly beyond saying that women deserve to be heard and insisting that the allegation is not true; privately, Biden advisers have circulated talking points urging supporters to deny that the incident occurred.

As two more women have come forward to corroborate part of Reade’s allegation, the Biden campaign is facing attacks from the right and increasing pressure from the left to address the issue. And liberal activists find themselves in a tense standoff with a candidate they want to support but who they say has made little attempt to show leadership on an issue that resonates deeply with their party’s base.

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“It’s difficult for survivors to see that a woman who has more corroborating sources than most survivors have in similar situations is being tossed aside and actively being weaponized by cynical political actors,” said Shaunna Thomas, a founder of UltraViolet, a women’s rights advocacy group that is involved in the effort to push the campaign. “It would be an incredible moment of leadership for Joe Biden to show up.”

Since Reade spoke out in March with her allegation — that Biden penetrated her with his fingers in a Senate building in 1993 — his aides and advisers have denied it, saying it is “untrue.” They have remained unconcerned about any significant political blowback from Reade’s accusation, according to people who have spoken with the campaign, who insisted on anonymity to discuss private conversations.

Top Biden aides are telling allies that they do not see the allegation resonating with voters in a measurable way, these people say. They’re confident that the allegation will not shake voters’ perceptions of Biden’s character as a devoted father and husband, with family ties forged through deep tragedies. They also believe that voters will view the allegation with great skepticism.

A Biden campaign spokesman declined to comment for this article Wednesday. A Biden adviser said that the campaign was talking to activists and that Biden considered their views important.

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The Biden campaign talking points, which were first reported by BuzzFeed News, instruct supporters to describe the candidate as a “fierce advocate for women” who has never faced any “complaint, allegation, hint or rumor of any impropriety or inappropriate conduct.” The talking points also inaccurately suggested that an investigation by The New York Times this month found that “this incident did not happen.”

In a statement issued Wednesday, The Times noted that the investigation “made no conclusion either way.”

One person who received a version of these talking points said it was pulled back by the campaign several hours later because it was revising its strategy.

Biden has yet to be asked about the allegation in an interview.