Joe Biden’s denial was unequivocal.
That doesn’t mean he put this controversy to rest.
In his first interview about accusations by a former Senate staffer, Biden repeatedly declared that he never sexually assaulted Tara Reade and he asked that the National Archives search his official personnel records for a harassment complaint she says she filed at the time in 1993.
“It never happened, period,” he said.
But the former vice president seemed thrown off balance when Mika Brzezinski, co-anchor of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, pressed him on whether he would also order a search of his Senate papers archived at the University of Delaware. And he struggled to explain directly why the supportive words he said about accuser Christine Blasey Ford during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh in 2018 shouldn’t apply to Tara Reade today.
Read the statement:Joe Biden’s full statement on Tara Reade’s assault allegation
In the interview, Biden needed to tackle the accusations personally and directly. He did that, and in words that left him no wiggle room – stating flatly that it didn’t happen, not that he didn’t recall, or that this might the result of some sort of misunderstanding. His request to the secretary of the Senate to order a search of his personnel records conveyed his confidence that he had nothing to hide.
Biden also needed to square his denials with the standards of the #MeToo movement, including the assertion by some that women who come forward with accusations of harassment deserve to be believed. One irony is this: President Donald Trump’s election even after he had been accused of sexual misconduct by more than a dozen women, and after he could be heard bragging about sexual assault in an Access Hollywood recording, helped create the changed landscape on which Biden is now being judged.
That was a more difficult line for the former vice president to walk, and one he did with less comfort and less success. Although he repeatedly refused to speculate about Reade’s motives in leveling the accusation, when asked what message he would have for her, he simply repeated: “This never, ever happened.”
Fairly or not, her allegations carry particular peril for Biden because his brand is empathy.
In a USA TODAY/Suffolk Poll released Monday, 57% of those surveyed said Biden was someone who “cares about people like me;” just 39% said that of Trump. What’s more, the energy in the Democratic party, including its gains in the 2018 midterm elections, have come from women voters. In a head-to-head contest in the USA TODAY Poll, men supported Trump, 49%-41%. Women overwhelmingly supported Biden, 60%-32%. They gave him his current 50%-40% nationwide lead.
Biden has been boosted by the continued support of some of the highest-ranking women in Democratic politics. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday cut short a question about Reade and said she had a “great comfort level” in the former vice president. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a leader on combating sexual harassment, said Wednesday, “Vice President Biden has vehemently denied these allegations and I support Vice President Biden.”
Supporting Biden:Prominent Democratic women stand by Biden amid sexual assault claim
But a negative can be hard to prove, and the residue of an accusation can prove stubborn. Remember Barack Obama’s birth certificate? Hillary Clinton’s emails?
Both were case studies in political weaponization. Even debunked allegations, like the false suggestion that former President Obama was born in Kenya, can dog public officials and raise questions they are forced to spend time and effort to battle.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump made criticism of Clinton’s decision to use a private email server while she was secretary of state not only a matter of her judgment but also a way to raise questions about what secrets she might have been trying to shield. In surveys of voters leaving the polls on Election Day, nearly two-thirds said her use of private email bothered them, including one in four Clinton voters.
Her attempts to ignore the issue, to criticize reporters for covering it, to dismiss it with sarcasm didn’t succeed. Those are lessons the Biden camp was trying to apply with his efforts Friday to directly and seriously refute this brewing controversy.
That said, the first interview that Biden did about this issue isn’t likely to be the last. Tara Reade may make sure of that. So will the Republicans.