Assault allegation puts Joe Biden — and the Democratic Party — in a bind

Joe Biden’s campaign adamantly denied it and then stopped talking about it. His surrogates get uncomfortable when it comes up — and it keeps coming up. And his aides insist the media have already litigated the mess and exonerated the former vice president, which is not entirely true.

An allegation that the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee sexually assaulted a young staffer in a Capitol Hill basement hallway nearly three decades ago refuses to go away even as the campaign disputes the claim.

Top Democrats are rallying behind Biden, and there are no available records from the time substantiating his accuser’s account. But Biden, stuck at home in Delaware in the coronavirus crisis, is facing demands by some supporters to mount a more aggressive defense.

“It is clear there is a lot of pressure and Biden has to personally and convincingly deny this,” said Robert Shrum, a veteran Democratic strategist and director of the USC Dornsife Center for the Political Future. “I think the guy is innocent of all this. But the pressures are now such that he’s got to respond.”

All of this puts Democrats in an awkward place as they confront allegations from Tara Reade, the former Senate staffer who says Biden cornered and assaulted her in 1993. In an era when Democratic leaders stress the urgency of empowering sexual assault victims to tell their story, Reade’s charges have been eagerly seized by Republicans as a political weapon.

Although President Trump stands accused of serial sexual assaults, with over a dozen women alleging he violated them in incidents that spanned many years — allegations he denies — Reade’s name lights up conservative social media, amplifying her charges and spawning conspiracy theories that threaten to ricochet through the internet and resonate broadly.

It is a familiar predicament for Democrats. Their delays in confronting charges about Hillary Clinton’s misuse of an email server when she was secretary of State enabled a conspiratorial right-wing narrative to fester and seep into the mainstream, contributing to her defeat in the 2016 presidential race.

In the 2004 election, Democratic nominee John F. Kerry’s flat-footed defense of his Vietnam War record against accusations by Swift Boaters for Truth so tarnished the candidate that a new political term was coined for creating doubt: “swift boating.”

Some Democratic strategists worry Reade’s account could also snowball if Biden doesn’t move quickly to quell the controversy.

“This story is a slow burn, but it’s not going away,” said a Democratic strategist who was involved in the 2020 race and who, like many Democrats interviewed, would only talk frankly about Biden’s handling of allegation under the condition of anonymity. “In the meantime, he’s putting Democrats — particularly women — in a terrible spot.”

Biden has laid low so far. He isn’t holding rallies or news conferences during the pandemic shutdown, so journalists have little chance to question him. At a live stream event Tuesday, he spoke at length about protecting women from violence, but did not mention the claim against himself.

That may change in the coming days. People with knowledge of the campaign’s thinking say he is prepared to answer questions about the allegations, but has not yet been asked in the limited interviews he has granted recently.

The story first landed late last month, when Reade told progressive podcast host Katie Halper that Biden, then a U.S. senator and her boss, had pushed her against a wall and penetrated her with his fingers in 1993.

She said she told her superiors but they did not act, and instead dismissed her. Soon after last month’s podcast, Reade detailed her allegations in a police report she filed in Washington, D.C.

Deep dives into Reade’s account by major news outlets were inconclusive, with teams of journalists unable to find solid corroboration. But her story kept re-emerging.

On April 27, Business Insider published an interview of a former neighbor who said Reade had told her about the assault in the mid-1990s. Days earlier, the Intercept unearthed a 1993 tape of CNN’s “Larry King Live” in which a caller said her daughter had problems with a prominent senator, although she did not mention sexual assault. Reade says that caller was her late mother.

Prominent Democratic women backing Biden say they are not persuaded.

“This whole picture that is painted to me does not ring true,” former California Sen. Barbara Boxer, a longtime crusader for women’s rights, said of the Reade allegations. “This is a changing story from someone who started off with a different story.”

Reade’s brother has offered differing accounts of what she told him about Biden. Reade had initially been one of several women who complained last year that Biden was inappropriately touchy, but she did not publicly accuse him of assault until he started winning primaries.

“If my daughter told me she was sexually assaulted, would I call Larry King?” said Boxer. “I’d be in tears. I’m calling the cops.”

Attempts to reach Reade for comment were unsuccessful.

The charges by Reade — and the reluctance of mainstream Democrats to side with her — have reignited tensions on the left.

“There is simply no moral justification for Biden to continue as the presumptive nominee,” tweeted Claire Sandberg, who was national organizing director for Bernie Sanders, who endorsed Biden after suspending his own presidential campaign. “Out of respect for survivors and for the good of the country, he should withdraw from the race.”

Biden’s defenders argue the story is no longer Reade’s allegations but the way they are being used to attack Biden.

The Republican National Committee plans to launch a video that accuses Democrats, the media and women’s rights advocates of hypocrisy for ignoring sexual harassment allegations because they are aimed at a Democrat, not a Republican like Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

The many allegations of sexual harassment and assault against Trump do not appear to be giving Republican officials pause.

“That was litigated in 2016 and voters were able to decide,” said RNC spokeswoman Elizabeth Harrington. “The troubling thing here is that most of the media doesn’t want voters to have the information to be able to decide.”

Reade’s allegation is putting the women in contention to be Biden’s running mate in a sensitive spot. Instead of questions about policy expertise, they are asked to comment on whether the party’s presumptive nominee committed sexual assault.

Their responses have been in sync with the Biden campaign strategy of saying they respect women’s right to speak out, coupled with praise for Biden’s record on women’s issues.

Sen. Kamala Harris of California in mid-April told the San Francisco Chronicle, “This woman has a right to tell her story and I believe that and I believe Joe Biden believes that.”

“I can only speak to the Joe Biden I know,” Harris said. “You know he’s been a lifelong fighter in terms of stopping violence against women.”

Also backing Biden is Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), a former 2020 presidential candidate who helped pressure Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) to resign from the Senate in 2018 amid harassment accusations that he denied.

Gillibrand said Wednesday she was satisfied that Reade was able “to be heard” and was investigated by media outlets. But she said she believes Biden: “He has devoted his life to supporting women.”

How closely voters are paying attention is an open question, especially as most Americans are preoccupied by the rising death toll and crashing economy from the coronavirus pandemic.

The controversy may never get settled — and may not matter for Democrats in November.

“Two things can be true at the same time,” said Rebecca Katz, a progressive Democratic strategist. “Tara Reade may have credible allegations, and also, Joe Biden would be a much, much better president than Donald Trump.”