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Opinion

Opinion: Tara Reade’s allegation against Joe Biden won’t be resolved by the Senate

Tara Reade
Senate officials said Monday that confidentiality rules prevented them from revealing whether Tara Reade, who worked as a staff assistant in Joe Biden’s Senate office in 1993, had filed a personnel complaint against Biden.
(Max Whittaker/NYT)

File this one under “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

A key piece of Joe Biden’s rebuttal to the accusation that he sexually assaulted Tara Reade, one of his former Senate staffers, in 1993 was that Senate personnel records would undermine her claim. Reade says she reported Biden to the Senate’s personnel office, although she told the Associated Press last week that she didn’t accuse Biden of touching her in any way.

Biden’s lawyers asked the Senate to search for a record of the complaint, evidently expecting the answer to buttress Biden’s denials. But Monday, the Senate told Biden to go pound sand:

The law cited is from 1991, and it set up the process by which the Senate handles complaints by staff members. The problem for Biden is that almost every step in that process is blanketed in mandatory confidentiality. The only times information must be made public are when a hearing officer or the Senate ethics committee rules in favor of a complaining employee or when the committee overrules a decision by a hearing officer in favor of an employee. The ethics committee has the discretion to release other decisions it makes, but it can’t make public complaints that never rose to its level.

Lawmakers no doubt felt this secrecy would help protect them as well as their employees. But in Biden’s case, the confidentiality rules leave us with a “he said, she said” standoff. Reade says she doesn’t have a copy of the complaint she filed, and besides, she told the Associated Press that she didn’t raise the alleged assault because she “chickened out.” Instead, according to the AP, Reade says she reported feeling “uncomfortable” about Biden and being retaliated against. And given the Senate’s response, Reade is the only source we have of information about whatever complaint she did or did not file.

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If the trail of documents ends here, that may raise the pressure on Biden to allow his sealed Senate records at the University of Delaware to be searched for any references to Reade. Biden has refused to do so, arguing that his archives don’t contain personnel records; more pointedly, he’s argued that opening them would let his opponents take things he’d said or done years ago out of context to use against him in the presidential campaign. But the latter problem can easily be avoided; my colleagues and I on The Times editorial board suggested last week that Biden hire an independent investigator to go through the files solely for the purpose of finding any emails, notes or other material related to Reade.

Or not! Much of the energy keeping Reade’s complaint in the public eye has come from three sources: Progressives who cling to the hope that the Democratic Party won’t nominate Biden after all; Trump supporters who want to improve the president’s chances in November; and conservatives pouncing on Democrats for believing some women, not all of them.

Biden may conclude, reasonably enough, that the energy will dissipate with time, just as the previous controversies triggered by his candidacy have come and gone (e.g., his treatment of Anita Hill). And some readers will urge me and others in my industry to let that happen.


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