In Depth

Joe Biden: the sexual assault claim dividing Democrats

Democratic Party split over allegations against presumptive presidential nominee

Fault lines are emerging in the Democratic Party over a sexual assault claim made against presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden by a former aide.

With the US election just seven months away, Biden’s campaign has been hit by allegations that he sexually assaulted Tara Reade nearly 30 years ago while a US senator.

Reade, who worked briefly in Biden’s office, claims that the veteran Democratic senator assaulted her while she was working for him. 

Biden, 77, has denied the claim, saying that it “absolutely did not happen”. However, the leading light of the young Democratic left, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has said that it is “legitimate” to discuss the claim, says The Times.

What is the allegation against Biden?

Reade, now 56, described the allegation in an interview with podcast host Katie Halper in March.

She said that she was asked to deliver a gym bag to the senator in the spring of 1993 and found herself alone with Biden.

“There was no exchange, really, he just had me up against the wall,” she said. “I remember it happened all at once… his hands were on me and underneath my clothes.” 

She claims that Biden then penetrated her with his fingers.

“I remember him saying, first, as he was doing it ‘Do you want to go somewhere else?’ and then him saying to me, when I pulled away… he said ‘Come on man, I heard you liked me,’” she said. “That phrase stayed with me.”

According to the BBC, Reade filed a criminal complaint on 9 April this year in which she said she was a victim of sexual assault, but did not name Biden. She said in a tweet that she filed the complaint “for safety reasons”, as the statute of limitations for her claim has expired.

Reade was one of eight women who came forward last year to accuse Biden of inappropriate touching, hugging or kissing, though, at the time, none of the women described his actions as sexual assault. 

Biden denies the claim of sexual assault, and pledged to be “more mindful” in his interactions regarding the other inappropriate behaviour.

The New York Times also spoke to “several people” who worked for Biden at the same time as Reade. All said they could not recall the incident.

How has the claim split the party?

Ocasio-Cortez, a popular figure among the party’s left-wing supporters, said that “silencing of all dissent is a form of gaslighting” when asked about the claim.

As a prominent Bernie Sanders supporter, her intervention could potentially harm Biden’s efforts to unite the party before the presidential election in November.

Ocasio-Cortez expressed concern when asked about the allegation in an online event with the Wing, a women’s networking organisation, where another attendee suggested that Biden is the only alternative to Trump in the election, despite a “really long history of being creepy to women”.

Ocasio-Cortez replied: “What you’re voicing is so legitimate and real. That’s why I find this kind of silencing of all dissent to be a form of gaslighting.

“I think it’s legitimate to talk about these things. And if we again want to have integrity, you can’t say, you know, both believe women, support all of this until it inconveniences you.”

Reade has said that she was “very humbled and honoured” by the comments, adding that Ocasio-Cortez was “the only politician that has spoken up on my behalf”.

Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s campaign communications director, said last month: “Women have a right to tell their story, and reporters have an obligation to rigorously vet those claims. We encourage them to do so, because these accusations are false.”

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Will the allegation harm Biden’s election chances?

According to BBC World News presenter Katty Kay, “it seems unlikely”.

“Americans already know about the ‘touchy feely-ness’ of the former Vice President and they factored that in as they chose him to be their nominee,” Kay writes. 

“He put out a video saying he’d learned from #metoo that times have changed and that his history of rubbing women’s shoulders, kissing their heads etc was not appropriate. Evidently, that was seen as apology enough by most primary voters.”

However, The Guardian columnist Arwa Mahdawi notes that the allegations have been “gleefully seized upon” by right-wing media in the US. 

“It is hugely frustrating to see conservatives, who couldn’t give a damn about the multiple sexual assault allegations against Donald Trump, weaponize the accusations against Biden,” Mahdawi writes. “However, it’s also frustrating to see so many liberals turning a blind eye.”

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