Former Vice President Joe Biden has emphatically denied allegations that he sexually assaulted an aide 27 years ago in a Capitol Hill hallway, breaking weeks of silence on a controversy that has dogged his presidential campaign.
“They aren’t true. This never happened,” the presumptive Democratic nominee said Friday.
Biden urged the news media to examine “the full and growing record of inconsistencies in her story, which has changed repeatedly in both small and big ways.” But he refused to permit public access to a trove of records from his 36 years in the Senate, complicating his effort to put the controversy behind him.
Biden released a written statement and then was interviewed on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” in his first response to allegations made in March by former aide Tara Reade that Biden, then a U.S. senator, pressed her against a wall in 1993 and thrust his hand under her skirt and his fingers inside her.
Although he flatly rejected that account, Biden acknowledged a central principle in the #MeToo movement that has been embraced by Democrats, saying, “Women deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and when they step forward they should be heard, not silenced.”
Biden had faced mounting pressure from women’s groups and other supporters to go beyond the blanket denial his campaign issued weeks ago and address the accusation himself. But his decision to hold back his Senate records spurred a new round of criticism from Republicans and anxiety among Democrats.
Republicans accused him of a coverup and demanded he allow researchers to access the sealed material, which is being curated at the University of Delaware — a call echoed by some in Biden’s own party.
Women’s rights advocates welcomed Biden’s statements but continued to emphasize the importance of transparency and of taking sexual assault claims seriously.
The dispute has put Democrats and women’s rights groups in an awkward spot.
It tests their commitment to the #MeToo movement’s drive to empower sexual assault victims to tell their stories, which was central to the fight over sexual harassment allegations that nearly derailed Brett M. Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court in 2018.
But many of those groups are loath to weaken the expected Democratic nominee against a president whom they consider a much greater threat to women’s rights.
More than a dozen women came forward during and after the 2016 campaign to accuse President Trump of sexual assault and harassment during his long business career. He has branded all of the charges false and has publicly demeaned or insulted the women.
In an interview Friday on “the Dan Bongino Show,” a podcast hosted by one of Trump’s supporters, the president said he found Reade’s allegations more convincing than the abuse allegations against Kavanaugh, but appeared somewhat sympathetic to Biden’s plight.
“It’s a terrible thing; it’s a very scary thing,” he said. “With that, Biden’s going to have to go out and fight his own battles.”
Tina Tchen, a former aide to President Obama who now heads Time’s Up, which focuses on gender inequality and sexual harassment, called for “complete transparency” into both Reade’s allegation and those against Trump.
“We have reached a pivotal moment in our nation when candidates for president are accused of sexual assault,” Tchen said.
The controversy is roiling Biden’s campaign while his political fortunes otherwise appear on the upswing.
He has been working to unify Democrats by rolling out endorsements from former rivals. Many polls are tilting in his direction while Trump is struggling under intense criticism for his response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic collapse, with more than 30 million Americans filing for unemployment.
But Biden is running his virtual campaign from his home in Wilmington, Del., where he has been pinned down since mid-March due to the public health emergency.
Trump has held near-nightly televised briefings from the White House briefing room or Rose Garden that have kept him in the spotlight. He now plans to start getting out, and will visit the Lincoln Memorial for an event Sunday and will fly Tuesday to Arizona, a crucial swing state in November.
Reade first publicly made her allegation in late March in an interview with a progressive podcaster. Major media organizations investigated her claims and did not find conclusive evidence to substantiate or refute them.
Additional reports over the last week have included possible corroborating evidence — people who recalled that Reade had told them at the time about at least some aspects of the allegation.
Biden did not directly respond — beyond an initial denial from a campaign spokeswoman — because his advisors believed the story was too shaky to get traction, according to one person familiar with the campaign’s discussions.
Women’s rights activists privately urged him to take on the allegations head-on, but not to denigrate Reade or undercut the broader cause of the #MeToo movement, which seeks to make it less intimidating for victims of sexual violence to come forward.
Asked in the MSNBC interview about Reade’s motives, Biden declined to criticize her or speculate on why she was making her allegations.
“I’m not going to attack her,” he said. “She has a right to say whatever she wants to say. But I have a right to say, ‘Look at the facts; check it out. Find out whether any of what she says or asserted is true.’”
Earlier, in his statement, Biden disputed Reade’s claim that she had complained about his behavior to her supervisor and senior staffers in his office, noting that no one had come forward to corroborate her story.
He also disputed her assertion that she had filed a formal complaint to a Senate personnel office — a complaint she told the Washington Post was about sexual harassment, not assault. But Reade had no record of the complaint.
Biden called on the secretary of the Senate to ask the National Archives to identify and release any such records if they are found. But after a spokesman for the National Archives said Friday it did not have such records, Biden released a letter to the secretary of the Senate asking her help to “establish the location” of personnel records, search for the alleged complaint and “make public the results of this search.”
“Any records of Senate personnel complaints from 1993 would have remained under the control of the Senate,” the spokesman said.
In the interview, Biden said he would not ask the University of Delaware to open its collection of his Senate records, which ran from 1973 until 2009, because they include no personnel files and thus would not be relevant to Reade’s allegations.
He also argued that releasing the documents would be inappropriate while he is running for president because they included “confidential conversations” with world leaders and position papers that might be taken out of context.
“That can be fodder in a campaign,” he said.
A spokesman for the University of Delaware said that it is curating its collection of Biden records and that the process “takes a significant amount of time. As the curating process is not complete, the papers are not yet available to the public.”
The material is supposed to be released two years after he “retires from public life.”
Pressure quickly built for Biden to allow those records to be scrutinized for any information that might be related to Reade’s allegations.
“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,” said a statement from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, one of the nation’s largest advocacy groups focused on sexual assault.
California Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Dublin) broke ranks with the Biden campaign on the issue Friday. He said on Fox News that he believed the Biden records should be searched for any evidence of a complaint by Reade.
Partisan pressure also ramped up.
“The most transparent thing Joe Biden did this morning was admit that he is hiding documents so they can’t be used against him,” a Republican National Committee spokesman said in a statement. The RNC denounced what it called a “Biden cover-up.”
But charges of hypocrisy flowed both ways given Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns, school records or other material normally disclosed by presidential candidates, and his own record of facing allegations of sexual assault.
Lis Smith, a Democratic strategist who was an advisor to former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, said on Twitter: “If the GOP wants to make this an issue, they’ll have to reckon with the fact that their President hasn’t answered any tough [questions] about the scores of assault allegations against him.”
Times staff writer Evan Halper contributed to this report from Washington.