Former Vice President Joe Biden kicked off his speech before an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers conference on Friday in Washington, D.C., with a joke about the recent controversy over whether he touched women inappropriately in the past.
“I just want you to know, I had permission to hug Lonnie,” Biden told the crowd after embracing the organization’s president, Lonnie Stephenson, who introduced him.
Biden then hung his head as the crowd laughed and cheered.
“I don’t know, man. Anyway,” he continued, launching into his speech about the dignity of blue-collar work.
Later, after having invited a group of kids up to the stage, Biden shook their hands and put his arm around one boy’s shoulders before recycling the joke.
“By the way, he gave me permission to touch him,” he said, again.
Biden has become an object of criticism in recent days after a former Nevada assemblywoman, Lucy Flores, described in an essay for New York Magazine’s The Cut how Biden once put his hands on her shoulders, smelled her hair, and kissed the back of her head offstage before a political event in 2014. The move made Flores feel “uneasy, gross, and confused,” she wrote.
Since Flores came forward March 29, at least six other women have said that Biden made them feel uncomfortable in various settings.
Biden said after the event he “wouldn’t be surprised” if more women came forward. While he has addressed the issue, Biden has not apologized for his actions and, pressed by a reporter about whether or not he owed anyone an apology, he answered in the negative.
“I’m sorry I didn’t understand more,” he said. “I’m not sorry for any of my intentions. I’m not sorry for anything that I have ever done. I’ve never been disrespectful, intentionally, to a man or a woman. That’s not the reputation I’ve had since high school, for God’s sake.”
In response, Flores told CNBC’s Brian Schwartz in an email: “It’s clear Mr. Biden hasn’t reflected at all on how his inappropriate and unsolicited touching made women feel uncomfortable.”
The former vice president previously defended himself by explaining that he tries to make a “human connection” with everyone he meets as a politician and did not know he had been making people uncomfortable. On Wednesday, he released a video pledging to be “much more mindful” of how he interacts with others following the controversy.
On Friday, still mulling a presidential run, much of Biden’s speech before the electrical workers union centered on strengthening the middle class and lamenting what he called Americans’ inability to “talk to one another” across political divides.
“I hate the way life has changed over the last 10, 15 years,” he said.
After ticking off a list of working-class jobs ― including firefighters, garbage men, steel workers and plumbers ― Biden posed a question that nodded to discussions of “civility” in politics.
“How do we get to a place where a lot of you think the rest of the country doesn’t see you, or knows you? Or maybe most importantly, respects you?” he said.
“I tell all my sophisticated friends [...] You do a job. You hope that if you do it well, someone’s going to say, ‘Good job.’ It matters how we treat people. It matters how we talk to them.”
The former vice president has yet to announce his plans for the 2020 presidential election.
This has been updated throughout.