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 Donald 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 Biden’s 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.”
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.
“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.
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 the campaign was revising its strategy. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose the private communication.
Biden has yet to be asked about the allegation in an interview. In a joint appearance with Hillary Clinton that was livestreamed on his website Tuesday, he discussed domestic violence, economic challenges facing women and the stresses of the coronavirus pandemic. No mention was made of Reade or her specific allegation.
“Violence against women is a huge problem, and especially right now,” he said. Ending violence against women has “been one of the leading causes of my life,” he added.
His campaign Tuesday also released plans to support women during the coronavirus crisis that included proposals to help victims of domestic violence.
In recent months, Biden has taken steps that appear to show he understands how a commitment to representation and equity might resonate with women, who make up the majority of voters for Democratic candidates. He has pledged to pick a woman as a running mate and nominate a black woman to the Supreme Court.
Yet as he seeks to unite the Democratic Party after the primaries and pivot to a general election against Trump, Reade’s allegation remains a subject of intense discussion in the political world.
Republicans and the Trump campaign are already using the accusation to undercut Biden and the Democratic Party as hypocritical on issues of gender equity. Some in the party’s liberal wing have seized on Reade’s account, saying she should be heard and using her allegation to argue that Biden is not the party’s strongest possible nominee — a tactic that Biden backers fear could hamper their ability to build Democratic enthusiasm around his bid.
“It can’t appear that she is being ignored,” said Nina Turner, a former national campaign co-chair for Sen. Bernie Sanders, Biden’s last rival for the nomination. “If we want to keep our credibility as a party, then we will have to agree that this allegation and any allegation should be vetted in the public.”
Apart from the discussions with the campaign, some progressive activists have been debating how to respond to the allegation, a conversation that has intensified in recent days.
“Joe Biden himself needs to respond directly,” said Yvette Simpson, the chief executive of Democracy for America, a progressive advocacy organization, which plans to back the Democratic nominee. “While it is absolutely essential that we defeat Donald Trump in November, trying to manage the response through women surrogates and emailed talking points doesn’t cut it in 2020 — especially if Democrats want to continue to be the party that values, supports, elevates, hears and believes women.”
There has been no public polling on how voters are viewing the specific allegation, though surveys show that among voters who dislike both candidates, significantly more prefer Biden.
Tresa Undem, a pollster who specializes in surveys on gender issues, said that so far the allegation hasn’t dampened support for Biden among Democrats. But that could change quickly, she said, depending on how Biden and his campaign handle the evolving situation.
“If the election was held today, I don’t think he’d lose any support,” she said. “But this is a huge deal that’s not going away. The story is going to be on the hypocrisy, and that is the No. 1 thing voters loathe.”
Among Republicans, the years of allegations against Trump have inflicted little damage with his base. He has been accused of sexual assault and misconduct by more than a dozen women, who have described behavior that went far beyond the allegation against Biden. He has repeatedly denigrated women over their appearance and intellect. The “Access Hollywood’’ tape, in which he boasted about grabbing women’s genitals, was released just weeks before his victory in the 2016 election.
In recent years, Democrats have sought to confront current and past misconduct in their own ranks and spoken bluntly about racial and gender inequalities.
Already, the allegation against Biden has caused top female allies — including several widely considered to be vice-presidential prospects, like Stacey Abrams of Georgia and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota — to face questioning about whether they stand with Biden after the allegation. Privately, some female Democrats are growing frustrated with being put in the position of answering for Biden when he has remained silent, and male progressive leaders, even outspoken allies in combating sexual assault, have not been pressured to address this point.
Many have publicly defended him, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who helped lead the effort to push Al Franken, the former Minnesota senator, to resign over sexual harassment accusations in 2017. “I stand by Vice President Biden,” Gillibrand said on a conference call, adding there needed to be “space for all women to come forward to speak their truth, to be heard.”
Last year, Reade was one of eight women who came forward to say Biden had kissed, hugged or touched them in ways that made them feel uncomfortable, but she did not raise the assault allegation then.
In an interview Tuesday, Reade described herself as disappointed with the response from the Biden campaign, saying it had not contacted her. Reade backed Sanders in the primary race and does not plan to vote in the general election. She told The Times that politics were not the reason she came forward with her allegation, saying she did not want to be used by the Trump campaign.
“Sexual assault and sexual harassment in the workplace is a huge gender, institutionalized problem in our country, and the fact that they are not addressing my allegations head-on and dealing with the corroborating evidence is simply a testimony to the hypocrisy,” she said. “There is no partisanship with sexual assault and harassment. It is an equal opportunity offender.”
Last week, The Intercept published a transcript of a call that aired on a Larry King program between a woman living in California and King. The woman was seeking advice about what her daughter could do about “problems” she had while working for a “prominent senator” but did not specifically mention sexual assault or harassment. Reade has previously said her mother, who has since died, called into the program after she told her about her experience.
Two women also came forward in an article this week in Business Insider to corroborate parts of Reade’s account.
One of the women, Lynda LaCasse, a former neighbor of Reade’s, said in an interview with The Times on Tuesday that Reade told her around 1995 about her encounter with Biden. LaCasse said she and Reade had been discussing their experiences with abuse and violence when Reade mentioned Biden.
“She said that he put her up against the wall and he put his hand up her skirt and he put his fingers inside her,” LaCasse said, adding that Reade “was devastated. She sounded really upset. She was crying.”
LaCasse, who is now 60 and lives in Oregon, said she was a Democrat and supported Biden. But she said she wanted to come forward because “that doesn’t take away from what happened.”
The second woman, identified as Lorraine Sanchez by Business Insider, a former colleague of Reade’s in the mid-1990s, said she recalled Reade describing an incident of harassment by her former boss. She provided a statement outlining her account to The Times.
Former Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, who has endorsed Biden, said in an interview that she thought the campaign had handled Reade’s allegation “well” and that it had “done everything that they can do.” She said the Biden campaign had not given her talking points.
“If they ask me my advice,” she said, “it would be keep on doing what they’re doing.”