Chairman Tom Perez on Sunday dismissed calls for the Democratic National Committee to launch an investigation into a former Senate staffer’s allegation that Joe Biden assaulted her 17 years ago, saying the former vice president was already an “open book.”
Biden had already undergone a “comprehensive investigation” when he was selected as Barack Obama’s running mate in 2008, Perez told ABC News “This Week” host Martha Raddatz.
“They looked at the entire history of Joe Biden, his entire career,” Perez said. “And I’ll tell you, if Barack Obama had any indication that there was an issue, Barack Obama would not have had him as his vice-president. Barack Obama trusted Joe Biden. I trust Joe Biden. And those investigations have been done.”
After weeks of silence, Biden denied the accusations publicly for the first time Friday: “No, it is not true. I’m saying unequivocally it did not happen,” he said.
But it’s unclear whether the presumptive Democratic nominee’s interview on MSNBC’s Morning Joe did enough to extinguish the controversy as allies of President Donald Trump seized on the allegation.
By opposing the release of records stored at the University of Delaware – he says the school’s collection doesn’t contain personnel records – Biden might have provided more fuel for Republicans to keep the issue alive, experts said.
“We’ve seen him really be challenged for the first time in five weeks on allegations that many in the media have ignored, and finally, those are coming to light,” Ronna McDaniel, the Republican National Committee chair, told Raddatz.
McDaniel argued that the assault allegation – combined with what she called a “far-left” policy shift – revealed the veteran politician, first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1972, was actually an unknown commodity.
“He hasn’t been vetted. People haven’t seen the 2020 version of Joe Biden,” McDaniel said.
Still, even after the rise of the #MeToo movement, not all political experts are convinced the allegation will hurt Biden, despite him needing strong support among suburban women to beat Trump in November.
“For many years, these sorts of allegations would kill off a candidacy, partly because people didn’t know all the gory details about everybody else,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “That’s gone.”
Sabato pointed to the multiple sexual assault allegations against Trump and the infamous video where Trump describes grabbing women’s genitals that came out one month before the November election. Trump, who has denied all allegations related to sexual impropriety, won the presidency.
“It tells you it doesn’t matter,” Sabato said. “What makes that even more true is the pandemic and the economic collapse. That’s all people care about. They’re focused on what’s happening in their lives, and right now it’s a disaster.”
The #MeToo factor
Tara Reade, a former Biden Senate staffer, has alleged that while bringing a gym bag to Biden in a Capitol Hill office building in 1993, Biden pushed her against a wall, groped her and digitally penetrated her without consent. She was 29 years old at the time.
The allegation has gained increasing media coverage since Reade discussed them in a March podcast, and comes at a time when Biden leads most national and swing-state polls, while Trump has had to defend his reaction to the coronavirus pandemic.
Former President Bill Clinton, like Trump, was not thwarted by sexual misconduct allegations that arose during his re-election bid. But complicating things for Biden: He’s a Democrat running in the #MeToo era, where top Democrats and liberals have said women should be believed when they come forward with sexual assault claims.
Biden was among the Democrats who came to the defense of Christine Blasey Ford when in 2018 she accused Brett Kavanaugh, then a nominee for the Supreme Court, of sexually assaulting her decades ago. Kavanaugh was eventually confirmed and now sits on the high court. In the MSNBC interview Friday, Biden didn’t directly answer a question about the difference between Ford’s allegation and Reade’s.
“(Women) should start off with a presumption they’re telling the truth,” Biden said. “Then you have to look at the circumstances and the facts. And the facts in this case do not exist. They never happened.”
A dampening effect?
Political experts said Reade’s allegation could complicate Biden’s support among two crucial voting blocs – liberals who backed U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary and are not sold yet on Biden, and independent women in suburbs who were key to Democrats regaining control of the House in the 2018 midterms.
A USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll last week found Biden ahead of Trump 50% to 40% in a head-to-head race. But the same poll found 22% of Democrats who supported Sanders in the Democratic primary don’t necessarily plan to support Biden in November.
“I wonder if the sexual-allegations issue is something that is holding maybe even Sanders voters back. I don’t know,” said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center. “But certainly, you cannot afford to lose independent women or Democratic women on an issue like this.”
Although either group might not vote for Trump as a result of Reade’s allegation, Paleologos suggested their enthusiasm for Biden could wane if the issue continues to draw attention.
Grant Reeher, a political science professor at Syracuse University, said Biden and Trump are both ensured a similar percentage of voters regardless of any allegations or missteps on the campaign trail. The race is about the fight for the middle.
“Both of these candidates, no matter what allegations come forward, or no matter what, strange and bizarre thing they do in a press conference, they’re both going to get 43% of the vote because the country is so polarized,” Reeher said.
However, he warned of a possible “dampening effect” for Biden if more comes out about Reade’s allegation.
Reeher also suggested the controversy could complicate Biden’s’ ability to win over Sanders’ supporters – many who have argued the Vermont senator should be the Democratic nominee because he doesn’t have these “kind of skeletons in the closet that we worried about with Biden.”
‘He has more to do’
Democrats, for the most part, have remained united behind Biden amid Reade’s allegation. That includes two women considered contenders as Biden’s vice presidential pick: Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, and former George state Rep. Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost a bid for Georgia governor in 2018.
“I believe women, and I believe survivors of violence always deserve to be supported and to have their voices heard,” Abrams told CNN’s Don Lemon this week. But she pointed to a New York Times report on Reade’s allegation that Abrams said she believes exonerates him. “I believe Joe Biden.”
Other potential running mates, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, have not commented on the accusations. On Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she was “satisfied” with how Biden has responded.
“The happiest day for me this week week was to support Joe Biden for president of the United States,” Pelosi said. “He’s a person of great integrity.”
Biden’s interview came after liberal activists – including Alexis McGill Johnson, acting president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, and Shaunna Thomas, co-founder and executive director of the women’s advocacy group UltraViolet – called on Biden to address Reade’s allegation.
Advocates from the left face a dilemma: Wanting to support Biden against Trump while not ignoring an issue important to their supporters.
“It was right for Joe Biden to directly address this issue and he has more to do,” Thomas said later Friday, adding that those seeking power have an “obligation to support policies and practices” that put the needs of survivors first.
“We need a leader who can show humility, own the harm that people have experienced as a result of their behavior, and take meaningful steps to facilitate healing,” she said. “We know that leader can not be and will not be Donald Trump.”
Republicans – but not Trump himself – seize on allegation
Despite the multiple sexual misconduct allegations against Trump, the Trump campaign and other Republicans have worked to draw attention to Reade’s allegation. They’ve argued the situation underscores a “double standard” when compared with how Democrats and members of the media handled the sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh.
Following Biden’s MSNBC interview, the Trump campaign released an ad attacking Harris, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.
“The double standard exhibited by Biden, prominent liberal women’s groups, and Democrat elected officials – some of whom want to be Biden’s running mate – is glaring and cannot be allowed to stand,” Trump Campaign Deputy Communications Director Erin Perrine said in a statement.
The president, usually quick to attack his adversaries, has largely refrained from going on the attack himself, telling reporters Thursday Reade’s accusation could be false.
“I know about false accusations,” Trump said. “I’ve been falsely charged numerous times – and there is such a thing.” He then pointed to the accusations against Kavanaugh, whom he said was “falsely charged.”
But Trump’s top campaign surrogates, including his son Donald Trump Jr., have not avoided the issue.
“What’s #BidenHiding?” Trump Jr. said Friday in a long series of tweets on Reade’s allegation.
The strategy could be aimed at eroding one of Biden’s strengths: trust. Only 31 percent of Americans in the USA TODAY/Suffolk poll said Trump is trustworthy and honest, compared to 47% for Biden.
But the tactic could also renew scrutiny of the numerous allegations leveled against the president, as well as the “Access Hollywood” tape that emerged in 2016 in which Trump can be heard bragging about groping women. White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany bristled at the suggestion, telling reporters Friday that the president had denied the allegations against him and the matter had been put to rest after his election.
“Leave it to the media to really take an issue about the former vice president and turn it on the president and bring up accusations from four years ago that were asked and answered in the form of the vote of the American people,” McEnany said.
Alex Conant, a GOP strategist and former spokesman for Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential bid, said it’s too early to tell how the allegation against Biden will affect the election in November.
Conant said while it’s possible the president doesn’t want to get into a back-and-forth with Biden over #MeToo issues, Trump is not afraid to invoke Kavanaugh as a campaign issue. Kavanaugh’s contentious Senate confirmation hearing had a rallying effect that united Republicans before the 2018 election.
“I think these sort of scandals will occupy media attention and fire up the base in both parties. But given how many people are worried about their job, it’s hard to imagine anything other than the economy dominates not just the presidential race, but down ballot races as well,” Conant said.
“If we’re still talking about these allegations in six months, things have gone very off the rails for the Biden campaign.”
Contributing: Rebecca Morin
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.