2020 elections

Biden sexual assault allegation roils #MeToo movement

Some worry about inadvertently advancing the political fortunes of a president who has been accused of sexual assault himself.

Joe Biden

In 2017, actress Alyssa Milano became one of the early advocates for the #MeToo movement when she tweeted, “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted, write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” Legions of women went public with their stories in response.

Two-and-a-half years later, Milano took to Twitter again — this time, to explain her self-described “silence” over sexual assault allegations against presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden made by ex-Senate aide Tara Reade.

“I just don’t feel comfortable throwing away a decent man that I’ve known for 15 years in this time of complete chaos without there being a thorough investigation,” Milano said in an interview to which she linked. The backlash was swift: Progressives and feminists accused Milano of being a hypocrite and turning her back on Reade because she supported Biden.

After making it more socially acceptable for sexual assault survivors to come forward and helping bring down dozens of powerful men, the #MeToo movement is facing a new challenge: how to grapple with the allegations against Biden without tearing itself apart. Celebrity #MeToo activists have publicly fought over Reade’s claims.

Supporters of President Donald Trump, who has been accused of sexual assault and misconduct by multiple women, have seized on Biden and other Democrats’ past comments about believing women’s accusations as proof of hypocrisy. And victims fear that what they see as the botched handling of Reade’s allegations by fellow activists, the media and politicians has threatened one of the movement’s hardest-fought gains.

The debate is complicated by another factor: Some worry about the prospect of inadvertently advancing the political fortunes of a president who has been accused of assault himself, and is deeply loathed by feminists and Democrats.

“The disgusting behavior that Christine Blasey Ford had to deal with from the right is the disgusting behavior that Tara Reade is having to deal with from many on the left,” said Sarah Ann Masse, one of the numerous women who accused Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual misconduct. “Survivors in the world watch this, and those who have not come forward publicly, those who have not shared it with their family or gone to the police or sought out mental health support, they see this and it silences them.”

Reade’s allegations against Biden, which he adamantly denies, have even led to scrutiny of the TIME'S UP Legal Defense Fund, which was founded in 2018 to help victims of sexual harassment and assault. The group said it helped connect Reade to attorneys, but determined it could not fund a lawyer or public relations for her because Biden is a candidate for federal office and it believed its nonprofit status could therefore be threatened.

“It really bothers me,” said former actress Louisette Geiss, another woman who accused Weinstein of harassment, of its decision not to help Reade financially. “What we're saying here in the #MeToo movement is that's it, time's up, if you will. You cannot engage in this behavior anymore no matter who you are — Trump, Biden, Harvey.”

Uma Iyer, a spokeswoman for TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund, said "funding for legal representation or public relations is not a given part of our process, and in this situation, we had to make a decision that abides by the strict 501(c)(3) rules and regulations that necessarily govern our status."

According to Reade, Biden “penetrated me with his fingers” in 1993 after she delivered a gym bag to him in a Senate building. She was a staff assistant in Biden’s office at the time.

"When I pulled away, the anger kind of emanated from him," Reade said in an interview with POLITICO. "He pointed his finger in my face and said, 'You're nothing to me. You're nothing.'"

Reade said she told four Biden aides, including Dennis Toner, a senior staffer, and then-chief of staff Ted Kaufman, about inappropriate behavior by Biden but not the alleged digital penetration. Afterward, she said, she was stripped of most of her duties, and later given a month to find another job at the instruction of Kaufman, who denies her account, along with Toner and two others in the office. No other Biden staffers have corroborated the assault and harassment allegations to the media.

“She did not come to me. I would have remembered her if she had. And I do not remember her,” Kaufman said.

Kaufman was appointed to Biden’s Senate seat in January 2009, after Biden was elected vice president, and served until November 2010.

Toner, who worked for 30 years for Biden, said, “I can’t believe there’s any truth to this whatsoever. It’s out of character. It was never alleged. It makes no sense. And if anyone says I had any conversation about this whatsoever, it’s false. That never happened.”

Reade initially went public with the claims on a podcast in March with progressive Katie Halper and has since spoken with various news organizations about the allegations. Previously, in 2019, Reade told reporters that Biden had touched her inappropriately, including on her neck and shoulder, but did not discuss an alleged assault.

A friend of Reade’s, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said she met Reade while interning in Ted Kennedy’s Senate office. She said Reade told her she was subjected to unwanted and frequent comments about her looks by Biden and complained to a supervisor, but it was “in one ear, out the other. The response I heard at the time was, ‘Well, if you’re not happy here, there are 99 other Senate offices to choose from. Pick one of them.’”

Then, the friend said, Reade told her that she was physically assaulted by Biden. The friend said she told Reade not to report the sexual assault to the police because it would have ruined her career. After the story broke, Reade filed a police report.

Reade’s brother, Collin Moulton, confirmed to other media outlets that his sister told him in real time about the assault and harassment when she said they occurred. He didn’t return calls and messages seeking comment for this story.

Biden has denied the allegations in a statement from Kate Bedingfield, his deputy campaign manager and communications director.

"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. He firmly believes that women have a right to be heard — and heard respectfully," Bedingfield said. "Such claims should also be diligently reviewed by an independent press. What is clear about this claim: it is untrue. This absolutely did not happen."

Two former interns overseen by Reade told the New York Times that Reade never told them about any inappropriate behavior, but confirmed that she abruptly stopped working with them.

Critics of Reade say that she is politically motivated because she backed Bernie Sanders, who was Biden’s primary rival when she first went public with the more serious allegations in the press. They’ve also argued that she is unreliable because her story changed over time, and noted that she made positive comments about Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Reade said she was also supportive of Marianne Williamson and Elizabeth Warren in the Democratic primary, and that she made the remarks about Putin when she was writing a book involving Russia and now feels differently after learning more about him. She said she didn’t tell the full story about Biden initially in 2019 in part because “I just didn’t have the courage” and then faced threats after she publicly alleged inappropriate touching.

Margaret Johnson, co-director of the University of Baltimore’s Center on Applied Feminism, facilitated the school’s 11th Feminist Legal Theory Conference, where Ford's attorney, Debra Katz, was a keynote speaker. Johnson said Reade’s shifting story, if true, is explicable and not uncommon for survivors of assault.

“Trauma and shame and judgment from outsiders and frustration with people not listening are reasons why people sometimes don’t tell their full story,” Johnson said.

However, Johnson said, “the context in which the allegation came up on a particular podcast with people tied to particular partisans or political people, that’s different compared to how other people’s allegations have come up.”

In a sign of some advocates’ silence about Reade’s allegations, Katz did not return messages seeking comment.

Reade said she tried to contact mainstream media reporters before she went on Halper’s podcast but did not hear back. Her supporters have also noted that she said in a post in April 2019 that “I did not even tell the whole story” about Biden. “The small portion that did come out of what Joe Biden did to me resulted in me being bullied and threatened to silence,” she said at the time.

When Milano explained this month why she had been silent about Reade’s allegations, before several traditional outlets reported on them, she said, “I’m sure that mainstream media would be jumping all over this as well if … they found more evidence.” Her remarks sparked a fight with another high-profile advocate for victims of sexual misconduct.

Actress Rose McGowan, who accused Weinstein of rape, tore into Milano on Twitter, saying, “You are a fraud. This is about holding the media accountable. You go after Trump & Kavanaugh saying Believe Victims, you are a lie. You have always been a lie. The corrupt DNC is in on the smear job of Tara Reade, so are you. SHAME.”

In a statement to POLITICO, Milano said, “I will continue to fight for the most vulnerable amongst us and for things I feel are right and just. There is no such thing as a perfect movement. Things will break. Things will get ugly. Mud will be slung. Regardless, movements evolve and grow hopefully out of a place of empathy and compassion. #MeToo should not be about believing women at the expense of a man’s innocence. The hashtag #BelieveWomen is about shifting the cultural norm away from our default being *not* to believe women. It means we should start by believing women and then investigate.”

Lucy Flores, a former Nevada lawmaker who accused Biden of inappropriately touching her in a creepy way, said she’s not surprised that his supporters, like Milano, are standing by him. She said she blocked the actress on Twitter last year for Milano’s statements of support for Biden that indicated she doubted her. Flores said she did not consider Biden’s touching of her sexual.

After Flores went public, multiple women accused Biden of invading their personal space and inappropriately touching them, but none has gone on the record accusing him of sexual assault.

Flores, who faulted the former vice president for not offering up a clear apology last year when he addressed her complaint, said she will nevertheless vote for him because Trump is orders of magnitude worse for women. But she said other women like her want to hear more from Biden.

“We shouldn’t be asking what #MeToo is saying. We should be asking what Joe Biden is saying. That is most critical here,” she said. “He has not addressed this himself. He has made one statement, possibly two, through his spokesperson.”

Activists said fear over Trump winning another term is changing how some #MeToo allies see Reade’s allegations.

“Because Trump is Trump, people feel like if they say something negative against Biden, then it could hurt his chances of winning. So I think it's completely political,” said Geiss. “I feel personally like this is a really horrible position to be put in. But I do think it's imperative that we also stand by what we're saying.”

Though #MeToo advocates said the treatment of Reade’s story is a setback, they still believe the movement will press forward. The fact that “you see people going through hell at the media’s hands,” McGowan said, could prevent women from telling their stories. But she argued “the cultural reset” over sexual assault is here to stay.

“The genie’s out of the bottle,” she said. “People are done.”

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