In his first public remarks since more than half a dozen women accused him of inappropriately touching them, former Vice President Joe Biden warned a raucous crowd of union workers in Washington, D.C., that their warm reception “may go to my head!”
A few moments later, Biden proved himself right.
Less than one minute into his speech before the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Biden joked that “I just want you to know, I had permission to hug Lonnie,” referring to union president Lonnie R. Stephenson, and making light of charges made by seven women that he touched, hugged, kissed and physically handled them in ways that made them uncomfortable.
The audience of union workers, nearly entirely male, reacted to the joke with hoots, cheers, and whistles.
“I don’t know, man,” Biden continued over the laughter. “Anyway.”
The former vice president then continued with his address, making no further mention of the allegations against him until making another joke, this time after having approached the children of some union workers who had assembled on the podium and wrapping his arm around the neck of the boy closest to him.
“By the way, he gave me permission to touch him,” Biden said, to further applause.
Speaking to reporters after the speech’s conclusion, Biden said that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if other women came forward with allegations that he crossed a line in touching, caressing or kissing them, but suggested that the onus was on the women to make it clear before he touched them.
“It is important that I and every one else is aware that any woman or man who feels uncomfortable, should have the right to say ‘I’m uncomfortable with that’ or hopefully get to the point before and say ‘I’m uncomfortable with that, no matter what.’ I really do understand it.”
Biden also denied that he had joked about the issue of consensual touching in his speech.
“I wasn’t joking,” Biden said. “The president of the union put his arms around me. That’s how it’s always been. That’s how people react.”
Asked if he felt that he owed the women an apology, Biden initially dodged the question before allowing that while he was “sorry I didn’t understand, I’m not sorry for any of my intentions. I’m not sorry for anything I’ve done.”
Biden’s decision to make mockery of the issue of consensual physical contact on the campaign trail—sparked by former Democratic candidate for Nevada lieutenant governor Lucy Flores, who wrote about an alleged incident in a piece for New York Magazine’s “The Cut”—is a departure from a video he released hastily on Thursday, in which he offered qualified contrition for making any women feel uncomfortable.
“In my career I’ve always tried to make a human connection, that’s my responsibility,” Biden said in the video. “Whether they’re men, women, young, old—it’s the way I've always been. It’s the way I try to show I care about them and I’m listening... It’s just who I am.”
Flores, of course, was not impressed with Biden’s comments Friday, tweeting: “It’s clear @JoeBiden hasn’t reflected at all on how his inappropriate and unsolicited touching made women feel uncomfortable. To make light of something as serious as consent degrades the conversation women everywhere are courageously trying to have.”
Asked by The Daily Beast if this helped solidify her rationale for coming forward, Flores said: “Yes. Until his type of inappropriate behavior, which to be clear, isn’t friendly hugs, is taken seriously, women will continue to feel disempowered to speak out against inappropriate behavior.”
Biden, who is approaching a potential third run for the Democratic presidential nomination, acknowledged in the video that “social norms” have changed, and that he would be more “mindful” in the future. “They’ve shifted, and the boundaries in protecting personal space have been reset. And I get it,” Biden said. “I’ll be much more mindful and will respect it.”
Biden has styled himself as a champion for women’s rights, pointing to his authorship of the Violence Against Women Act, but skeptics have pointed to the charges against him, as well as his mishandling of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings, as evidence that he does not adequately understand the post-#MeToo political climate.
“As human beings, we all make mistakes,” said Sukari Hardnett, who Biden refused to allow to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of Anita Hill, who in 1991 accused Thomas of sexual harassment. “But what’s critical is that we learn from those mistakes.”
The former vice president’s nascent presidential campaign has struggled to shake the allegations, in part because there is no official campaign organization to do so.
On Thursday, The Daily Beast reported that some of Biden’s advisers have become convinced that the stories of women having been made to feel physically uncomfortable around the former vice president as “all coming out of Bernie World,” insinuating that Flores’ allegations were made to support the candidacy of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).
Sanders’ campaign fervently denied that implication.
“Neither the Bernie Sanders campaign nor anyone involved in it, planted, planned, persuaded, cajoled or otherwise urged Lucy Flores or anyone else to tell their story. Full stop, period, end of sentence. I don’t want to hear it. We didn’t play a role,” Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir told The Daily Beast.
—With reporting by Gideon Resnick.