Sexual Assault Allegation Against Joe Biden Presents MeToo Challenge

May 20, 2020
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The pandemic and the U.S. response to it has, of course, dominated the presidential campaign. Although, there are other topics, such as a sexual assault allegation against Democrat Joe Biden, an allegation he denies. Journalists are vetting this allegation. Voters have it to consider. How it's resolved could affect more than the campaign. It could shape the future of the #MeToo movement. Here's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Tara Reade's allegation that Joe Biden assaulted her in a Senate hallway 27 years ago has presented a real challenge to the #MeToo movement. Jen Palmieri, who was communications director for the Clinton campaign in 2016, wrote a soul-searching essay recently about what she calls the complex discomfort of Tara Reade's allegation. To Palmieri, it was a kind of #MeToo trap.

JEN PALMIERI: A lot of us Democrats that know Joe Biden had this collective vertigo, which was reconciling the post-#MeToo standard of defaulting to believing women with the fact that we know Joe Biden and don't believe that he would be capable of that kind of assault.

LIASSON: No prominent Democrat has broken with Biden over the allegations. Democrats say they're satisfied with the way Biden has responded. Unlike Donald Trump, who's actually admitted on tape to what Reade accuses Biden of doing, and has called the more than 20 women accusing him of sexual misconduct liars or not good looking enough to make a pass at, Biden has said Reade's motives should not be questioned even as he emphatically denies the allegations. As for women who believe Reade and are struggling with their vote, Biden told MSNBC this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BIDEN: If they believe Tara Reade, they probably shouldn't vote for me. I wouldn't vote for me if I believed Tara Reade.

LIASSON: Biden and the women who support him say all women should be heard and respected and their stories vetted. And that infuriates Republicans who say, in the past, Democrats applied a different standard - believe all women to the accusers of Republicans, like Trump or Brett Kavanaugh.

ERIN PERRINE: When actually faced with it themselves, they're saying, oh, well, yes. Now due process matters. When before it was just, Kavanaugh is not qualified anymore - boom, done, and over with.

LIASSON: Erin Perrine is the deputy communications director of the Trump campaign. She says Democrats are hypocrites.

PERRINE: They pretend to be champions for the American people and for women and for the #MeToo movement. And then they only believe all women when it fits their political purposes. You know, as a woman myself, I think that this shows what we've known all along, that Democrats, when faced with it themselves, could not stand by their previous standards.

LIASSON: Republicans have been aggressive, accusing Democratic Senate and congressional candidates of a double standard. But Republican strategist Sara Fagen isn't sure that the Reade allegations will make much of a difference in the presidential race. There's no polling yet that suggests it's moving any votes. And Biden still has a big advantage with women.

SARA FAGEN: There's so many issues related to coronavirus, China, you know, global trade, immigration that are likely to take the focus when we get to November. It's not that this isn't in the backdrop, because I think many Trump surrogates will remind conservatives of the hypocrisy that we see around this issue. But it's just a base motivator, unfortunately.

LIASSON: Another reason the allegations may not loom large is Trump himself, who has reacted to Biden's difficulties in a very un-Trumpian fashion. Instead of weaponizing the charges, adding them to his branding of Biden as senile and a socialist, Trump has suggested that the charges could be false, just like what he told podcast host Dan Bongino what happened to him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And all of a sudden, you become a wealthy guy. You're a famous guy. Then you become president. And people just - people that you've never seen, that you've never heard of make charges. So you know, I guess in a way you could say I'm sticking up for him.

LIASSON: To Jen Palmieri, this was a surprising show of empathy because Donald Trump usually tries to turn the tables on his own vulnerabilities. After the Access Hollywood tapes surfaced, for instance, he showed up at the presidential debate with a group of women who'd accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct. But this time, Trump seems to identify with Biden.

PALMIERI: Well, he usually sits on the double standard and says that the other person is worse. And this time, he showed some vulnerability on it. Instead, he's - like, he did not go for the jugular. He acted like a normal politician. If you're a normal politician and your opponent did something that you are vulnerable on, you would not attack that, the other politician.

LIASSON: So at least for the moment, there may be a weird kind of truce in the politicization of sexual misconduct. And that may mean some progress for the #MeToo movement, which has struggled to come up with a standard that's more nuanced than simply believe all women, a standard where women are heard, not disparaged or dismissed, where allegations are taken seriously and investigated independently, and where there is due process for the accused. It may be too much to ask for in the heat of a super-polarized presidential campaign. But that's what men and women in both parties say they want.

Mara Liasson, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KUPLA'S "ROOTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.