Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden on Friday emphatically denied allegations from a former Senate staffer that he sexually assaulted her in the early 1990s, declaring flatly that “this never happened.”
Biden’s first public remarks on the accusation by a former employee, Tara Reade, come at a critical moment for the presumptive Democratic nominee as he tries to relieve mounting pressure after weeks of leaving denials to his campaign.
“I’m saying unequivocally, it never, never happened,” the former vice president and senator said in an interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
Biden said he will ask the National Archives to determine whether there is any record of a complaint being filed, as Reade has claimed. Later Friday, Biden asked the secretary of the Senate via letter to assist in the search, though he told MSNBC that the Archives was the only possible place a complaint would be. He said his Senate papers held under seal at the University of Delaware do not contain personnel records.
“The former staffer has said she filed a complaint back in 1993,” Biden said. “But she does not have a record of this alleged complaint.”
Reade did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.
The Archives deflected inquiries to Capitol Hill, saying any complaint "would have remained under the control of the Senate.” A spokeswoman for the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights said confidentiality rules bar the office from commenting on “whether specific claims may or may not have been filed.”
Biden, in his TV interview, said “there are so many inconsistencies” in Reade's various accounts. But he said he does not “question her motive.” He said over his five decades in public life, none of his employees was asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement.
Republicans worried about President Donald Trump’s increasingly precarious political standing are casting Democrats as only defending women who allege wrongdoing against conservatives. They’re digging in despite the possibility of renewed attention on the multiple sexual assault allegations lodged against Trump, who denies the accusations.
In light of his own situation, Trump is stepping delicately around the Biden controversy.
“He’s going to have to make his own decision,” Trump said in a podcast interview Friday with Dan Bongino. “I’m not going to be telling him what to do.” The president added that it would be a “great thing” if Biden had records that could “dispose” of Reade’s allegation.
Democrats, meanwhile, are in an awkward position of validating women who come forward with their stories while defending their standard-bearer ahead of an expected competitive election.
Former Democratic Party chairwoman Donna Brazile said before Biden's interview that his silence was “damaging,” but afterward said he handled the matter well.
"He responded, he denied it, and there's nothing more to be added,” Brazile said, before alluding to Reade's repeated public statements. “If you add to the story the way Tara Reade has, it only brings more confusion.”
Karen Finney, who worked for Hillary Clinton in 2016, described Biden as “very clear and consistent” and “sincere,” but said it should have come “a little bit sooner.”
The November presidential election will be the first of the #MeToo era, during which numerous women have publicly disclosed experiences of sexual harassment and assault.
Women are a core constituency for Democrats. Biden wrote the Violence Against Women Act as a senator but came under criticism for his handling of Anita Hill’s 1991 Senate testimony against now-Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
Just before he launched his 2020 campaign, Biden apologized after several women said he'd made them uncomfortable with unwanted touching.
Some of them have echoed talking points the Biden campaign issued to surrogates last week that were obtained by The Associated Press. The campaign pointed to investigations by The New York Times, The Washington Post and the AP that found no other allegation of sexual assault against Biden and no pattern of sexual misconduct.
Some Democratic donors say the matter hasn't come up in recent strategy calls. Others worry it'll be used against Biden, much as Republicans harped in 2016 on Clinton’s private email server and Clinton Foundation activities.
“We know they're going to try elements of the same playbook,” said Finney, pointing to calls for Biden to release his Senate papers.
Other Democratic operatives expressed concern the allegation complicates a central Biden pitch: that he provides a moral counter to Trump.
“I think we have to apply a consistent standard for how we treat allegations of sexual assault, and also be clear-eyed about how Donald Trump will use these allegations,” said Claire Sandberg, who worked as Bernie Sanders’ organizing director.
Republicans have seized on the prospects of scouring Biden's records, showing aggressiveness that was harder for them four years ago while Trump was having to deny varying levels of sexual assault and harassment.
Trump joined fellow Republicans in arguing Friday that Democrats aren’t being consistent, pointing again to the aggressive questioning of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh when he faced a sexual assault allegation.
Biden pushed back on those notions Friday during the interview and, later, during a virtual campaign fundraiser. He told 2,200 donors, many of them veterans of the Obama administration, that his position has always been to take women's claims seriously. “It isn't enough just to simply take my word for it and dismiss it out of hand,” he said, because “that sort of approach is how the culture of abuse has been allowed to fester for so long.”
Trump's reelection campaign quickly released a digital ad featuring prominent Democrats, including Biden and Clinton, saying, “Believe women” and similar sentiments.
“Ladies and gentleman, we just can't have it both ways,” White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said. “We cannot decide which women were included in 'believe all women.'”
Hill, long critical of how Biden handled her accusations against Thomas, issued a statement highlighting the complexities across the political spectrum. Noting Reade, Kavanaugh's accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, and Trump's many accusers, Hill called for an investigation of “outstanding claims of sexual misconduct” against Trump and Biden, warning that otherwise “the public is left to figure out the truth on its own.”