WASHINGTON – "Believe women" was never a call to believe all women automatically.
That's what leading Democrats, including the prominent figures of the #MeToo movement, are suggesting as they stand behind former Vice President Joe Biden and his bid to unseat President Donald Trump. From House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to the female senators who ran for president and prominent Hollywood activists, they're not backing down after Biden on Friday publicly denied a former aide's accusation that he assaulted her in 1993.
“It never happened,” Biden said Friday on MSNBC's “Morning Joe.” “Believing women means taking the woman’s claim seriously when she steps forward, and then vet it, look into it. That’s true in this case as well. ... But in the end, the truth is what matters, and in this case, the truth is the claims are false.”
It was largely the denial Democrats were hoping for.
Even so, there was a clear discomfort and perhaps resentment with being on defense on the issue while campaigning against a president accused by more than two dozen women of sexual misconduct. (Trump has denied the allegations.) Especially galling to some is the charge by Republicans that Democrats are giving Biden a pass they didn't afford Justice Brett Kavanaugh when he denied Christine Blasey Ford's accusation of sexual assault when they were teenagers.
Pelosi, the nation’s highest-ranking Democrat, recognized the maw and curtly stepped around it.
“I don’t need a lecture or a speech,” she said at her weekly news conference as she cut into a reporter's question about a double standard. "With all the respect in the world for any woman who comes forward, I have the highest regard for Joe Biden. And that’s what I have to say about that.”
Others have been less succinct. Actress and leading #MeToo activist Alyssa Milano sat behind Kavanaugh during his televised confirmation hearings, a position she sought as a way to stand in “solidarity” with Blasey Ford.
But as Tara Reade's allegations swirled around Biden and a party finally uniting around him, Milano penned an essay for Deadline.com in which she acknowledged “shades of gray” and reiterated her support for the former vice president.
“Believing women was never about ‘Believe all women no matter what they say,’ it was about changing the culture of NOT believing women by default,” Milano wrote.
Karen Finney, a prominent Democratic strategist and message-maker who worked for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, rejected the Kavanaugh comparison outright.
In the context of sexual assault allegations, Finney said “believe women” doesn’t mean accepting as fact any assertion, but instead means affording women the default credibility to take claims seriously.
“If you start from the premise that this person is telling the truth, then you do the investigation and look at the facts,” she said, “and if the facts tell a different story, then that’s an important conversation to have.”
Biden's supporters in the Senate, too, have stood by him, including some who challenged him for the nomination and are now said to be on his short list for a running mate.
But a few hours after his appearance on MSNBC, Trump's campaign posted a video featuring many of them — Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Kamala Harris of California and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii — saying in the past that female accusers should be believed.
The reel begins and ends with Biden and Clinton, the 2016 Democratic nominee whose husband, Bill Clinton, was impeached in connection with his extramarital affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The Senate acquitted him, but the episode remains one of the party's fraught chapters in its advocacy for women.
Biden appeared Friday to recognize the need to reinforce his commitment.
During an evening virtual fundraiser with hundreds of veterans from the Obama administration, he addressed the matter again, repeating his assertions that Reade’s account “didn’t happen,” but explaining that his reaction doesn’t amount to hypocrisy because of how Democrats have approached the #MeToo movement.
“My knowledge that it isn’t true does nothing to shake my belief that women have to be able to be heard and that all the claims be taken seriously,” Biden said. “It isn’t enough just to simply take my word for it and dismiss it out of hand. Frankly, that shouldn’t be enough for anyone because we know that sort of approach is how the culture of abuse has been allowed to fester for so long.”
Unreleased document troves — Biden's at the the University of Delaware and other Senate files at the National Archives — have raised questions about what might be found in them.
Reade told The Associated Press in an interview Friday that she had filed a limited report at that time with a congressional personnel office that did not explicitly accuse Biden of sexual assault or harassment.
She said she described her issues with Biden but “the main word I used — and I know I didn’t use sexual harassment — I used ‘uncomfortable.’ And I remember ‘retaliation.’”
Reade says she doesn’t have a copy, and Biden said Friday that he was not aware that any complaint against him exists. He asked the Senate and the National Archives to search their records to try to locate a complaint from Reade.
A dozen times during the MSNBC appearance, Biden said he knew of no complaint Reade had filed against him and got somewhat mired in the details of where such a document might be stored.
Biden was asked if he is “absolutely certain” and "absolutely positive, that there is no record of any complaint by Tara Reade” against him.
His answer was highly qualified: “I’m absolutely positive that no one that I’m aware of, ever, was —been made aware of any complaint, a formal complaint, made by or a complaint by Tara Reade against me at the time this allegedly happened, 27 years ago," until he announced his campaign for president.
Then Biden tried again:
“I know of no one who’s aware that any complaint was made.”
Barrow reported from Atlanta.
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