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When a woman alleges sexual assault, presume she is telling the truth, Biden says

When a woman alleges sexual assault, presume she is telling the truth, Biden says
Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks after walking with members of Walking With The Wounded on Sept. 6. (Mary Altaffer / Associated Press)

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who was scrutinized for his handling of sexual harassment allegations made in Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' 1991 Senate confirmation hearings, said Monday night that any woman's public claims of assault should be presumed to be true.

Asked for his thoughts on the allegations of sexual assault made Sunday against federal judge Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump's nominee for the Supreme Court, Biden said the episode "brings back all of the complicated issues that were there" nearly three decades ago.

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As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden presided over the confirmation hearings for Thomas during which Anita Hill alleged the nominee had sexually harassed her while he was her boss. Biden allowed personal and probing questions of Hill from the all-male Senate panel, and though he voted not to confirm Thomas, he later apologized for his handling of the hearings.

Biden, who is considered a possible 2020 presidential candidate, was asked by reporters Monday night whether he believed Hill's claims.

"Oh, I thought she was telling the truth at the beginning," Biden said. "I really did."

Anita Hill testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Oct. 14, 1991.
Anita Hill testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Oct. 14, 1991. (CQ Roll Call)

Speaking generally, Biden added, "For a woman to come forward in the glaring lights of focus, nationally, you've got to start off with the presumption that at least the essence of what she's talking about is real, whether or not she forgets facts, whether or not it's been made worse or better over time. But nobody fails to understand that this is like jumping into a cauldron."

Biden made his comments to a handful of reporters during a reception at the residence of Irish Ambassador Dan Mulhall to celebrate the publication of the new Cambridge History of Ireland, where the former vice president gave lengthy remarks about Ireland and his family's roots there.

Biden defended Sen. Dianne Feinstein's handling of allegations against Kavanaugh. The California senator, who is the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, did make the claims public when she first learned of them. The accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, wished to remain anonymous, but eventually shared her story with the Washington Post in an article published Sunday.

"Dianne's getting beat up now for why didn't she go forward," Biden said. "The one thing that's not said is, of all the progress we've made in the country, #metoo, you still have the fundamental question of, what is the individual's right to come forward or not to come forward?"

Biden noted that Feinstein sits on the Judiciary Committee because he insisted when she was elected in 1992 that she, as well as newly elected Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill.), join what had been an all-male committee.

"Neither one wanted to be on and I campaigned for them on the condition that if they won they had to come on the committee," Biden said.

Reflecting on the Hill hearings, Biden said, "The one regret I have is I wish there had been a way I could've controlled the questions. But you can't in a committee. Remember, when they went after the last victim [Hill], I kept trying to gavel, but there was no way to say, 'You can't ask that question.' "

Biden said he convened more than 1,000 hours of hearings on domestic violence and assault as he crafted the Violence Against Women Act, one of his signature achievements in the Senate. He reflected on the emotional trauma associated with women who come forward with allegations.

"For all, it's damaging," Biden said. "For some, it's devastating."

As the questions from reporters continued, Biden's staffers grew visibly uncomfortable with his holding forth on the topic. The former vice president ignored their nudges to move along and mingle with other guests — preferably non-journalists — who had packed into Mulhall's living room to see him.

Then one question got him to cut off the impromptu gaggle. Asked whether it mattered that Ford claims the assault by Kavanaugh occurred when the judge was 17 and in high school, Biden demurred.

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"What I'm going to do is I'm not going to answer any more questions," the former vice president said, with a laugh. "I'd be happy to talk about Ireland."

Rucker writes for the Washington Post.

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