Anger from women's groups mounts as Biden remains silent on sexual assault allegation

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A letter, written by advocates, demands presidential candidate speak out over accusations made by former aide Tara Reade

World | The Independent

For more than three weeks, progressive activists and women’s rights advocates debated how to handle an allegation of sexual assault against Joe Biden. The conversations weren’t easy, nor were the politics: Mr Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, faced one allegation; his opponent, Donald Trump, at least a dozen.

Finally, several of the women’s groups prepared a public letter that praised Mr Biden’s work as an “outspoken champion for survivors of sexual violence” but also pushed him to address the allegation from Tara Reade, a former aide who worked in Mr Biden’s Senate office in the early 1990s.

“Vice president Biden has the opportunity, right now, to model how to take serious allegations seriously,” the draft letter said. “The weight of our expectations matches the magnitude of the office he seeks.”

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Then Mr Biden’s team heard about the advocates’ effort. According to people involved in the discussions, the group put the letter on hold as it began pressuring Mr Biden’s advisers to push the candidate to make a statement himself before the end of April, which is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Along with liberal organisers, they urged him to acknowledge the importance of survivors and the need for systemic change around issues of sexism and assault.

Nearly two weeks later, Mr Biden and his campaign have yet to make that statement, and the advocates have not released their letter. The Biden campaign has said little publicly beyond saying that women deserve to be heard and insisting that the allegation is not true; privately, Mr Biden’s advisers have circulated talking points urging supporters to deny that the incident occurred.

As two more women have come forward to corroborate part of Ms Reade’s allegation, the Biden campaign is facing attacks from the right and increasing pressure from the left to address the issue. And liberal activists find themselves in a tense standoff with a candidate they want to support but who they say has made little attempt to show leadership on an issue that resonates deeply with their party’s base.

“It’s difficult for survivors to see that a woman who has more corroborating sources than most survivors have in similar situations is being tossed aside and actively being weaponised by cynical political actors,” said Shaunna Thomas, a founder of UltraViolet, a women’s rights advocacy group that is involved in the effort to push the campaign. “It would be an incredible moment of leadership for Joe Biden to show up.”

Since Ms Reade spoke out in March with her allegation – that Mr Biden penetrated her with his fingers in a Senate building in 1993 – his aides and advisers have denied it, saying it is “untrue”. They have remained unconcerned about any significant political blowback from Ms Reade’s accusation, according to people who have spoken with the campaign, who insisted on anonymity to discuss private conversations.

Top Biden aides are telling allies that they do not see the allegation resonating with voters in a measurable way, these people say. They’re confident that the allegation will not shake voters’ perceptions of Mr Biden’s character as a devoted father and husband, with family ties forged through deep tragedies. They also believe that voters will view the allegation with great scepticism.

A Biden campaign spokesman declined to comment for this article on Wednesday. A Biden adviser said that the campaign was talking to activists and that Mr Biden considered their views important.

The Biden campaign talking points, which were first reported by BuzzFeed News, instruct supporters to describe the candidate as a “fierce advocate for women” who has never faced any “complaint, allegation, hint or rumour of any impropriety or inappropriate conduct”. The talking points also inaccurately suggested that an investigation by The New York Times this month found that “this incident did not happen”.

In a statement issued Wednesday, the Times noted that the investigation “made no conclusion either way”.​

In recent months, Mr Biden has taken steps that appear to show he understands how a commitment to representation and equity might resonate with women, who make up the majority of voters for Democratic candidates. He has pledged to pick a woman as a running mate and nominate a black woman to the Supreme Court.

Yet as he seeks to unite the Democratic Party after the primaries and pivot to a general election against Donald Trump, Ms Reade’s allegation remains a subject of intense discussion in the political world.​

“Joe Biden himself needs to respond directly,” said Yvette Simpson, the chief executive of Democracy for America, a progressive advocacy organisation, which plans to back the Democratic nominee. “While it is absolutely essential that we defeat Donald Trump in November, trying to manage the response through women surrogates and emailed talking points doesn’t cut it in 2020 – especially if Democrats want to continue to be the party that values, supports, elevates, hears and believes women.”​

Among Republicans, the years of allegations against Donald Trump have inflicted little damage with his base. He has been accused of sexual assault and misconduct by more than a dozen women. He has repeatedly denigrated women over their appearance and intellect. The Access Hollywood tape, in which he boasted about grabbing women’s genitals, was released just weeks before his victory in the 2016 election.

In recent years, Democrats have sought to confront current and past misconduct in their own ranks and spoken bluntly about racial and gender inequalities.

Already, the allegation against Mr Biden has caused top female allies – including several widely considered to be vice-presidential prospects, like Stacey Abrams of Georgia and senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota – to face questioning about whether they stand with Mr Biden after the allegation. Privately, some female Democrats are growing frustrated with being put in the position of answering for Mr Biden when he has remained silent, and male progressive leaders, even outspoken allies in combating sexual assault, have not been pressured to address this point.

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Many have publicly defended him, including senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who helped lead the effort to push Al Franken, the former Minnesota senator, to resign over sexual harassment accusations in 2017. “I stand by vice president Biden,” Gillibrand said on a conference call, adding there needed to be “space for all women to come forward to speak their truth, to be heard”.

Last year, Ms Reade was one of eight women who came forward to say Mr Biden had kissed, hugged or touched them in ways that made them feel uncomfortable, but she did not raise the assault allegation then.

In an interview Tuesday, Ms Reade described herself as disappointed with the response from the Biden campaign, saying it had not contacted her. Ms Reade backed Bernie Sanders in the primary race and does not plan to vote in the general election. She told the Times that politics were not the reason she came forward with her allegation, saying she did not want to be used by the Trump campaign.

“Sexual assault and sexual harassment in the workplace is a huge gender, institutionalised problem in our country, and the fact that they are not addressing my allegations head-on and dealing with the corroborating evidence is simply a testimony to the hypocrisy,” she said. “There is no partisanship with sexual assault and harassment. It is an equal opportunity offender.”

Last week, The Intercept published a transcript of a call that aired on a Larry King program between a woman living in California and King. The woman was seeking advice about what her daughter could do about “problems” she had while working for a “prominent senator” but did not specifically mention sexual assault or harassment. Ms Reade has previously said her mother, who has since died, called into the program after she told her about her experience.

Two women also came forward in an article this week in Business Insider to corroborate parts of Ms Reade’s account.

One of the women, Lynda LaCasse, a former neighbour of Ms Reade’s, said in an interview that Ms Reade told her around 1995 about her encounter with Mr Biden. Ms LaCasse said she and Ms Reade had been discussing their experiences with abuse and violence when Ms Reade mentioned Mr Biden.

“She said that he put her up against the wall and he put his hand up her skirt and he put his fingers inside her,” Ms LaCasse said, adding that Ms Reade “was devastated. She sounded really upset. She was crying”.

Ms LaCasse, who is now 60 and lives in Oregon, said she was a Democrat and supported Mr Biden. But she said she wanted to come forward because “that doesn’t take away from what happened”.

The second woman, Lorraine Sanchez, a former colleague of Ms Reade’s in the mid-1990s, said she recalled Ms Reade describing an incident of harassment by her former boss. She provided a statement outlining her account to the Times.

Former senator Barbara Boxer of California, who has endorsed Mr Biden, said in an interview that she thought the campaign had handled Ms Reade’s allegation “well” and that it had “done everything that they can do”. She said the Biden campaign had not given her talking points.

“If they ask me my advice,“ she said, “it would be to keep on doing what they’re doing.”

New York Times

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