POLITICS

Sexual Assault Advocates Expected More From Joe Biden

He has long positioned himself as a champion of women. But organizers say he was dismissive of Tara Reade’s sexual assault accusation in his interview about it.

The hashtags “I Believe Biden” and “I Believe Joe” were trending online Friday morning following Joe Biden’s first public denial of Tara Reade’s sexual assault allegation against him. The former vice president released a statement and later appeared on “Morning Joe” in a combative interview with Mika Brzezinski.

“It is not true,” Biden told Brzezinski of Reade’s accusation that she sexually assaulted her in 1993 when she worked for him as a Senate aide, which his presidential campaign had denied previously. “I’m saying unequivocally it never, never happened.”

In his written statement (which felt a bit more measured than his tense interview), Biden requested that the National Archives release any records from the Office of Fair Employment Practices that relate to Reade’s claim. 

Many anti-sexual violence advocates and organizers, however, expected more out of Biden ― a politician who helped draft the Violence Against Women Act, created the anti-sexual violence organization It’s On Us and has largely championed women’s rights throughout his career.

Some are encouraged by his response and hope he will take the next step in calling for an investigation. But most were disappointed, saying he lacked accountability and seemed to erase Reade’s story. 

“Survivors deserve better than this,” Shaunna Thomas, the co-founder of anti-sexual violence organization UltraViolet, tweeted on Friday.

Thomas added that sexual assault victims deserve “the presumption of truth” and a fair process when they come forward with their stories. “Biden has more to do and it’s appropriate to push him,” she wrote. “Survivors and all Americans 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. It’s a new model of leadership that we deserve.”

Survivors deserve better than this ... Biden has more to do and it’s appropriate to push him. Shaunna Thomas, UltraViolet co-founder

Heather Drevna, RAINN’s vice president of communications, told HuffPost the organization was happy to see Biden finally address Reade’s accusation but hoped he would also call for a thorough investigation.

“These allegations deserve a rigorous investigation, and we urge Vice President Biden to release any and all records that may be relevant, including those housed at the University of Delaware, in addition to any Senate records housed at the National Archives,” Drevna said. “We urge him, his campaign, and any former staff to cooperate fully and provide complete transparency.”

Enough is Enough Voter Project, an organization making violence against women a voting priority, called earlier this week for the Democratic National Committee to open an independent investigation into the accusation against Biden. 

“Joe Biden deserves due process. Due process is not deference, nor is it reliance on character evidence,” Michele Dauber, chair of the organization and a Stanford University professor, told HuffPost. “If the charge is not substantiated, then we can move on to November. If the charge is substantiated he should step aside so that we Democrats can select another candidate.”

Dauber, who also led the recall against Brock Turner judge Aaron Persky, said she is a high-dollar Democratic fundraiser who says she raised over $2 million in the last two election cycles. She vowed that she won’t raise money for Biden unless there is an independent investigation and he is cleared. 

One advocate, who runs an organization supporting sexual assault survivors and is not being named because she is not authorized to publicly comment, told HuffPost she’s frustrated with Biden’s response. If Reade’s allegation is truly false, she said, Biden himself should call for a fair and impartial investigation. Calling for records to be released is not going to cut it. So many survivors know how unreliable it is to depend on records to find justice ― just look at the backlog in rape kits and bias found in police reports

The advocate added that she’s worried Reade will be used as a pawn by bad-faith actors who don’t actually care about progress for sexual assault victims — and that Reade may turn to President Donald Trump’s campaign if the Democratic Party keeps dismissing her story. The organizer said she often envisions a presidential debate in which Biden invites all of Trump’s accusers and Trump shows up with Reade. In 2016, Trump brought the women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct to a presidential debate against Hillary Clinton. 

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event at Tougaloo College on March
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event at Tougaloo College on March 08, 2020 in Tougaloo, Mississippi.

Many of the advocates HuffPost spoke with pointed out how disappointed they were that Biden had put his rumored shortlist of vice presidential candidates ― all of whom are women ― and other female lawmakers in such a tough spot. A significant part of a vice presidential candidate’s job is to defend and support the presidential nominee, which means whomever Biden chooses will have to repeatedly defend him from Reade’s accusation.

One organizer said that an important step Biden could take is to make a statement guaranteeing that no woman, including his running mate, will have to speak for his alleged actions. 

Another organizer for sexual assault survivors, who is not being named because they are not able to comment publicly, told HuffPost that Biden needs to show some accountability. The only way forward is to truly listen to Reade and acknowledge her story ― even if Biden continues to deny the assault allegation. Recognizing Reade as a person and affording her dignity is key. 

But Biden told Brzezinski on Friday that he has not reached out to Reade to start a conversation. “It was 27 years ago,” he said. “This never happened. When she first made the claim, we made it clear it never happened. And that’s as simple as that.” 

The Biden campaign denied the allegation in March. “Women have a right to tell their story, and reporters have an obligation to rigorously vet those claims,” the campaign told HuffPost at the time. “We encourage them to do so, because these accusations are false.”

Biden has not really acknowledged Reade or her story, even as he has been asked to address her accusation head-on ― similar to how he has never truly acknowledged Anita Hill or her allegation that Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her.

As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden presided over Thomas’ Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1991. He has been widely criticized for not doing enough to ensure Hill’s allegations were given full consideration. And although he has had many opportunities to apologize for — or at the very least, explain — his mishandling of Hill’s allegations, many feel Biden never took responsibility for how his actions dismissed Hill’s sexual harassment claim.

“I cannot be satisfied by simply saying I’m sorry for what happened to you,” Hill said in an interview with The New York Times that was published the day Biden announced his 2020 presidential bid. “I will be satisfied when I know there is real change and real accountability and real purpose.”

Biden has not really acknowledged Reade or her story, even as he has been asked to address her accusation head-on ― similar to how he has never truly acknowledged Anita Hill or her allegation that Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her.

During one particularly tense moment Friday morning, Brzezinski asked the former vice president if people are supposed to believe women “unless it pertains to you.” Biden let out a sigh and appeared to become slightly agitated. 

“Look, women are to be believed [and] given the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “If they come forward and say something that they said happened to them, they should start off with the presumption they’re telling the truth. And then you have to look at the circumstances and the facts. And the facts of this case do not exist. They never happened.”

An attorney with the Sexual Violence Law Center, an organization that offers free legal services to survivors, told HuffPost she was not surprised by Biden’s interview. Many people only want to support survivors when it’s convenient. It’s frustrating and disappointing, she said, that one woman’s story still does not seem to be enough to spark tangible action.

If Biden does win the Democratic nomination and later the presidency, one organizer said at least one thing needs to change: “He does not get to use survivors’ stories to move himself forward ever again.”