Illustration for article titled Tarana Burke, Stacey Abrams, Weigh In on Sexual Assault Allegations Against Joe Biden
Photo: MANDEL NGAN (AFP via Getty Images)

This week, new reporting about Tara Reade, a former Senate staffer who accused former Vice President Joe Biden of sexually assaulting her in the mid-1990s, forced the Biden campaign, its surrogates and its supporters to once again confront the polarizing allegations.

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Among them was former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who is considered a potential running mate for Biden. Keeping in line with the rest of the Democratic Party, Abrams defended the former vice president in a Tuesday night interview with CNN’s Don Lemon.

“As someone who wants to be his vice president, I think it’s important that we speak about something that’s in the news now,” Lemon said toward the end of his interview with Abrams, who has been openly campaigning to join Biden on the Democratic presidential ticket.

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Lemon referred to a recent report from Business Insider in which two women corroborated Reade’s story, saying the former Senate staffer told them about the incident within a few years of the alleged attack.

“CNN has now spoken on the record with her former neighbor, who says Reade told her about the allegation within a few years of the alleged incident,” Lemon said (h/t Daily Beast). “Biden’s campaign says untrue, never happened. Is this a credible allegation?”

“I believe that women deserve to be heard and I believe that they need to be listened to. But I also believe that those allegations have to be investigated by credible sources,” Abrams responded. She then referred to a New York Times investigation earlier this month into the allegations, which she said found the accusation was “not credible.”

“I believe Joe Biden,” Abrams continued. “I believe that he is a person who has demonstrated that his love of family, his love of our community, has been made perfectly clear through his work as a congressional leader and as an American leader. I know Joe Biden and I think he’s telling the truth and that this did not happen.”

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The argument that the Times reporting deemed Reade’s accusation as “not credible,” has been repeated by the Biden campaign in the last several weeks. It’s also worth pointing out that it is not a correct assessment of the Times story.

Speaking about the controversial report on April 13, Times executive editor Dean Baquet said the following:

What I think readers should take away from this is that this is a serious allegation made by somebody who has some standing. It is denied strenuously by Mr. Biden and his campaign. Here’s everything we know and you have to make your own judgment.

Sometimes I think it is OK to tell readers they have to make their own judgment. I understand that people want simple answers, but in my experience editing stories like this, sometimes there aren’t simple answers and sometimes you just have to figure that the reader is sophisticated, thoughtful, will read it, weigh it and make his or her own judgment

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He also acknowledged one noteworthy edit made to the story after it was published—“The Times found no pattern of sexual misconduct by Mr. Biden, beyond the hugs, kisses and touching that women previously said made them uncomfortable”—was made in consult with the Biden campaign.

Abrams has been far from alone in her defense of the former vice president in recent weeks. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, known as one of Congress’ most strident #MeToo supporters, also leaped to Biden’s defense, telling reporters on a recent conference call: “I stand by Vice President Biden.”

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“He’s devoted his life to supporting women, and he has vehemently denied this allegation,” she said.

California Senator Kamala Harris, also considered a potential running mate for Biden, made similar comments in the last two weeks, telling the San Francisco Chronicle’s “It’s All Political” podcast that Reade “has a right to tell her story. And I believe that and I believe Joe Biden believes that, too.”

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Harris, who landed some hard punches against Biden in the early Democratic primary debates, said she could “only speak to the Joe Biden I know.”

“He’s been a lifelong fighter, in terms of stopping violence against women,” she said, referring to his leading role in passing the 1994 Violence Against Women Act as a Delaware senator. The act was part of the controversial 1994 crime bill signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton and marked the first federal legislation acknowledging domestic violence and sexual assault as crimes.

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Harris offered that a “bigger structural issue” was that “women must be able to speak without fear of retaliation.”

But Reade’s allegations against Biden have become about far more than being heard.

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At least seven women, not including Reade, have come forward over the years to say that Biden made contact with them that they found inappropriate or uncomfortable. As recently as 2019, Reade was on record saying that during her time working at Biden’s Senate office, he would touch her neck and shoulders, and once asked her to serve drinks at an event because he liked her legs.

But in a podcast interview with political commentator Katie Halper in March, Reade expanded on her fallout with Biden, saying he once pinned her to a wall and put his hands under her skirt, groping her and penetrating her with his fingers.

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Reade, who was in her 20s at the time, said she was so shocked by Biden’s actions, she couldn’t recall if she actually said something to him at the time.

“I remember wanting to say stop, but I don’t know if I said it out loud or if I just thought it. I was kind of frozen up,” she told the Associated Press this year.

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The Biden campaign vehemently denied the allegations, which have been gleefully circulated by supporters of President Donald Trump. The GOP has never cared about women’s rights except when politically expedient, and their disingenuous concern for Reade has made the allegations particularly difficult to parse. Reade also tried unsuccessfully to get the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which has backed women with sexual abuse claims against high-profile accusers, to provide her with funding or public relations support for her case.

According to the Intercept, Time’s Up didn’t support Reade not because her case wasn’t credible, but because “as a nonprofit 501(c)(3) charitable organization, the National Women’s Law Center is restricted in how it can spend its funds, including restrictions that pertain to candidates running for election.”

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It’s this dynamic—a perceived lack of support for a sexual assault survivor from political figures and institutions that have built their reputations on championing their rights—that has left a bad taste in the mouths of some advocates.

Perhaps no one touched on the nuances of the Reade case better than #MeTooFounder Tarana Burke, who discussed Reade’s allegations in a Twitter thread on Tuesday afternoon.

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“I hate to disappoint you,” Burke wrote, “but I don’t have really have easy answers. There are no perfect survivors. And no one, especially a presidential candidate, is beyond reproach.”

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Burke pointed out that news investigations aren’t the same as due process, pointing out that, “like other public survivors before her, she had to rely on journalists in order to be heard—precisely because the systems for survivors are not in place.”

She also pushed back on the argument that Biden’s status as a “good guy” was a sufficient defense.

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“Instead, he could demonstrate what it looks like to be both accountable and electable,” Burke wrote. “Meaning, at minimum, acknowledging that his demonstrated learning curve around boundaries with women, at the very least, left him open to the plausibility of these claims. No matter what you believe, we are allowed to expect more of the person running for U.S. President.”

“Survivors deserve more than being used as a political football by disinterested parties,” she closed. “And a culture of acknowledging harm can’t exist if we continue to view sexual violence as a catastrophic outlier rather than an embedded toxic element of our culture.”

Staff writer, The Root.

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