As the primary winds down and former Vice President Joe Biden, the party’s presumptive nominee, pivots to the general election, a claim that he sexually assaulted a former staffer in the early 1990s is already popping up on the virtual campaign trail from Democrats and Republicans alike.
Biden’s pledge to select a female running mate to round out the Democratic ticket has recently put several of the top women thought to be considered for that role in a tough spot: how to respond to the decades-old allegation against him by Tara Reade.
In President Donald Trump’s vast network, the Reade assault allegation had already piqued the interest of some of the president’s top operatives, as well as the president himself. For weeks, the claim has been the subject of a quiet deliberation within the 2020 Trump campaign and the broader Trump re-election project about how much, and how aggressively, to promote the accuser and her story, according to three sources with knowledge of the various deliberations.
After the shocking allegation appeared weeks ago in The Intercept, The New York Times published on Sunday a lengthier investigation into the claim by Reade, a former staff assistant in Biden’s Senate office who says that he assaulted her in 1993. Reade told the Times that he “pinned her to a wall in a Senate building, reached underneath her clothing, and penetrated her with his fingers.” According to the paper, two of Reade’s friends said they remembered hearing about an alleged incident; Reade also said she mentioned to top Biden staffers that she was harassed by him at the time, but did not bring up an allegation of assault. The Times reported that it interviewed “nearly two dozen people who worked with Mr. Biden during the early 1990s,” none of whom could corroborate Reade’s story. The Daily Beast spoke to a smaller number of Biden staffers from that era, with similar results.
The Biden campaign has categorically denied the allegation. “Vice President Biden has dedicated his public life to changing the culture and the laws around violence against women,” Biden’s Deputy Campaign Manager Kate Bedingfield said in a statement on Sunday. “He firmly believes that women have a right to be heard—and heard respectfully. Such claims should also be diligently reviewed by an independent press. What is clear about this claim: it is untrue. This absolutely did not happen,” she said.
While several of Biden’s highest-profile potential VP picks have yet to comment, other influential female leaders thought to be in the running are beginning to play interference over the charge.
The Daily Beast contacted the offices of seven female Democrats floated as possible Biden running mates who have not already spoken publicly about Reade’s claim, including three of the most prominent public figures: Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who both ran against Biden in the crowded primary before endorsing his bid, and former Georgia gubernatorial Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams. On Wednesday, Abrams seemed to endorse the possibility of becoming VP when asked in an interview, saying she would make an “excellent running mate,” while Warren told a cable news host the same day that she would accept the position as Biden’s No. 2 if offered. Out of the seven Democrats contacted, only Abrams responded to requests or provided comment by press time.
In an exclusive statement to The Daily Beast, Abrams said: “Women have the right to be heard and we have the responsibility to listen. Allegations should be given serious independent review, as was done by The New York Times. Vice President Biden has spent over 40 years in public life advocating for women, and nothing in the Times review suggests anything other than what I already knew: That Joe Biden is a man of highest integrity who will make all women proud as our next president.”
Among those who have spoken freely, however, a similar response appears to be emerging, which combines an emphasis on recent exhaustive news reporting, coupled with a reiteration of support for Biden and his career legacy on women’s issues. That balance—an acknowledgement that women’s stories should be heard, along with an impartial investigation and statement of loyalty to the former vice president—was particularly evident in recent comments from Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
Klobuchar, a former prosecutor, appeared to defend Biden when questioned about the allegation in a recent interview. When asked what she needs to know about the charge, the Minnesota senator, who swiftly endorsed the former vice president immediately after withdrawing from the race, said all women have a right to be heard and to have their claims reviewed thoroughly. She also referenced the investigation by the Times.
“There was a thorough review by The New York Times,” she told NPR on Tuesday. “And I think that's very important to have, especially involving public figures. But I think when I look at—when I see Vice President Biden, someone I worked with, I see him on—a leader on domestic abuse, led the bill before people were even willing to talk about those horrific crimes and has really been a champion of abuses of power against women and has used his voice on the domestic abuse front in such a big way.” On Thursday night, she doubled down in an interview on MSNBC. “I think this case has been investigated. I know the vice president as a major leader on domestic abuse, I worked with him on that and I think again, the viewers should read the article.”
Whitmer, who has spoken publicly about her experience as a sexual assault survivor as a freshman at Michigan State University in the late 1980s, was asked if the allegation caused her to pause. In responding, she echoed sentiments similar to Klobuchar’s.
“Well, I think women should be able to tell their stories. I think that it is important that these allegations are vetted, from the media to beyond. And I think that, you know, it is something that no one takes lightly,” she told NPR on Tuesday. “But it is also something that is, you know, personal. And so it's hard to give you greater insight than that, not knowing more about the situation.” When asked this week if she would consider being Biden’s running mate, the governor said, “I think the world of Joe Biden. You know, I would do just about anything for Joe Biden and to be even mentioned among the phenomenal caliber of women leaders across the country—that in it of itself is an honor.”
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), whose name has been thrown out as a potential dark horse pick for Biden to help woo Midwestern voters, in particular those in the critical Wisconsin battleground, said in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Wednesday that the “allegations are being aired publicly,” but declined to elaborate much beyond that. “There’s a statement that Joe Biden and his team have put out and there is a report, I believe in The New York Times, indicating that there's not corroboration,” she said. “I would feel more comfortable had I read every word of the article before commenting at greater length.”
During Biden’s lengthy career in the Senate, his record on issues involving women is mixed. The former vice president was widely criticized for his handling of sexual harassment allegations against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas by Anita Hill in 1991. Biden, who chaired the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, declined to call additional witnesses to the stand and allowed Republicans to smear Hill as uncredible. Biden called Hill to express regret over the role he played in the event before he launched his presidential bid in April.
Other parts of his legacy, however, sought to advance women’s rights, a point his campaign has leaned into throughout his candidacy. In 1994, Biden championed the Violence Against Women Act, a signature legislative achievement that he promoted in an campaign ad earlier in the primary, showcasing new efforts he would take to expand the plan during his first 100 days in office.
But as his campaign looks ahead to the general election, the allegation is already on the minds of at least some progressives he’ll have to win over, including freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), said it was “legitimate to talk about.”
And if some Democrats aren’t prepared to talk about it in a substantive manner, there are many in the Republican Party who have already started discussing—and strategizing on—Reade’s claim behind the scenes.
Publicly, a number of Trump’s more prominent lieutenants have already taken to social media to highlight the Reade story—but primarily in the form of working the refs and bashing mainstream print and TV news outlets for being slow to cover it.
“CNN Search Results: Christine Blasey Ford: 678 [but] Tara Reade: 0,” GOP chairwoman Ronna McDaniel posted to Twitter on Wednesday. The day before, Trump campaign official Matt Wolking had also tweeted, “CNN missing in action on Joe Biden assault accuser Tara Reade's story.” The same day, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted, “Is anyone at all surprised that the NYT would bow to the requests of the Biden Campaign?…You think they would give Trump or even Kavanaugh the same treatment?” The post was then shared by Trump campaign senior adviser Katrina Pierson.
And on Wednesday, the president’s campaign manager Brad Parscale tweeted a video made by Trump campaign staff that chided the Times for its coverage of Biden and Reade.
Some on Team Trump, however, also think that going harder at Biden for this could easily and inconveniently boomerang on the president, given the numerous women who’ve gone on the record, or to court, with their sexual misconduct, harassment, assault, attempted rape, and rape allegations against Trump in recent years and months.
The official position of the Trump White House is that all the women who’ve accused Trump are just lying.
And among those who have kept noticeably quiet on Reade’s allegation is none other than Biden’s 2020 foe, Trump himself, who often just runs with rumors and accusations, including completely baseless ones, against Biden and other political enemies—even when doing so has gotten the president impeached. It’s not out of a lack of awareness, though. Two sources with direct knowledge tell The Daily Beast that the president has been shown news articles on Reade and in recent weeks has casually discussed the matter with administration officials and people close to him. In one of these conversations in the White House that occurred about two weeks ago, Trump asked about how credible the allegations were, one of the sources said.
Still, the president has yet to publicly weigh in on the subject. It appears it is one of the few topics he hasn’t had time to weigh in on during the ongoing pandemic and economic collapse, as he’s had time to tweet about and discuss subjects ranging from his interpretation of the classic film Mutiny on the Bounty to the Netflix true crime show Tiger King.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment, and a Trump campaign spokesperson declined to comment.
But among some of Trump’s senior campaign staffers and other officials at allied organizations, including the Republican National Committee, a general consensus has emerged that—at least for now—the best way to address Reade’s story is to accuse CNN, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and other major media of “protecting” Biden and approaching this assault allegation with a double standard that Republicans such as Brett Kavanaugh did not enjoy. Part of the restraint is explained by Trump officials believing that it’s not worth it at this time to go all-in on Biden on the sexual-assault claim, arguing that Biden has far greater vulnerabilities, especially on China policy, that they should be focusing on, the sources said. Certain officials working on the Trump reelection effort have also chosen to prioritize for now attacks that have to do with China, because there is a more direct link to the coronavirus, and thus ensuring greater visibility in a media environment completely inundated with pandemic coverage.
Several officials on and close to Trump 2020 expect messaging regarding Reade to increase when coronavirus starts to move out of the news cycle, or as the country approaches election day in November.
The fact that Trump can be hit with similar, if not more serious and a greater quantity of, assault allegations may not end up mattering, at least not to the president.
Charges of hypocrisy haven’t seemed to bother Team Trump much in the past. In the closing weeks of the 2016 campaign, when the then GOP nominee, who has been accused of sexual misconduct by roughly two dozen women, was being flooded with accusations in the aftermath of the publication of the “grab ’em by the pussy” tape, his campaign responded by holding a public event for the cameras featuring Trump and several accusers of the Democratic nominee’s husband, Bill Clinton. And early this year, when former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg seemed like a rising threat in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, the Trump team was already planning to attack Bloomberg for sexist and racist things… that Trump himself had also clearly done.
With additional reporting from Will Bredderman