Former Vice President Joe Biden, shown speaking in Wilmington, Del., on March 12, is scheduled to give an interview Friday on MSNBC in which he will address allegations by a former staffer that he sexually assaulted her in the 1990s. (Matt Rourke / Associated Press)
As he prepares to claim the Democratic presidential nomination, former Vice President Joe Biden is rightly being exhorted to make a fuller and more public response to an allegation by Tara Reade, who asserts that Biden sexually assaulted her when she was on his Senate staff in the 1990s. But what Biden says about the accusation — which his campaign flatly denies — is less important than what he does. And what he should do is agree to an independent investigation of Reade’s troubling claims.
Reade’s allegation against Biden has evolved. Last year she said that Biden had touched her inappropriately and that some of her responsibilities were taken away after she refused to serve drinks at an event — allegations that seem to involve sexual harassment, not sexual assault. But in an podcast interview in March she accused Biden of pushing her against a wall, groping her and penetrating her with his fingers.
According to the New York Times, Reade said that she had complained about harassment by Biden — without mentioning sexual assault — to the senator’s executive assistant and two senior aides, all of whom say they don’t remember such a complaint. But on April 27 Business Insider reported that a former neighbor said Reade had told her about the alleged assault in the mid-1990s.
Reade is encountering skepticism not only because of the way her story has changed but because she had supported Biden’s rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and once expressed admiration of Russian President Vladimir Putin. But her allegation still needs to be taken seriously.
In a statement denying Reade’s allegation, Kate Bedingfield, a deputy Biden campaign manager, said: “Vice President Biden has dedicated his public life to changing the culture and the laws around violence against women. He authored and fought for the passage and reauthorization of the landmark Violence Against Women Act.” But Biden’s legislative efforts don’t refute Reade’s allegations. Politicians — like other human beings — don’t always practice what they preach.
Reade’s accusation comes as Biden is wrapping up the Democratic nomination for president, and Republicans unsurprisingly are eager to exploit it — never mind that President Trump has been accused by more than a dozen women of sexual assault or making unwanted advances. Trump denies the allegations.
But the fact that Trump stands accused of sexual misconduct doesn’t mean that Biden can ignore Reade’s account. Unpleasant as it must be, the former vice president must be willing to answer questions about Reade’s accusations posed by reporters or members of the public. (He is expected to speak about the allegations in a television interview on Friday.)
More important, his campaign should commission an independent investigation of Reade’s allegations by a lawyer or law firm without clear partisan leanings. Investigators should be given access to papers from his career that Biden donated to the University of Delaware, a potential source that journalists haven’t been allowed to inspect. And their report should be made public. It’s not guaranteed that such an investigation will resolve the contradictions, but it could dispel suspicions that important documents were being concealed.
The message of the #MeToo movement was that an accusation of sexual impropriety by a powerful man should be taken seriously — including by the subject of the complaint. Even as he protests his innocence, Biden needs to honor that principle.