For former Vice President Joe Biden, a virtual town hall focused on women’s issues Tuesday was a chance to try and burnish his credentials with a crucial constituency without veering into uncomfortable territory.
The carefully stage-managed Biden campaign event included an announcement of support from Hillary Clinton and pre-screened questions from female supporters. It enabled Biden to reach out to women with no risk of broaching an increasingly tough subject -- the sexual assault allegation leveled by a former aide that circulated for weeks on social media and into the mainstream press, with a forceful push from President Trump’s supporters and aides.
The accusations first surfaced publicly in late March, raised by Tara Reade, 56, a California woman who once served as an entry-level Senate staff assistant in Biden’s Washington office during a brief period in 1993. Reade alleged that Biden aides asked her to hand-deliver a gym bag to him in a senate office building. And when she did, she alleges Biden moved in close, pinned her against a wall, slipped his hand under her skirt and penetrated her with his fingers.
While Biden has not directly responded to the accusation, a senior campaign adviser swiftly and publicly denounced it.
“This absolutely did not happen,” said Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s communications director earlier this month.
Slowly, over the ensuing weeks, the allegation lingered, and with help from conservative pundits, is fast becoming a test for Biden. How he handles it holds the potential to affect the 2020 race -- the first presidential contest of the #MeToo era.
Sexual assault and misconduct allegations figured prominently into the 2016 presidential campaign for President Trump as well as the confirmation process for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. And even as both men vehemently denied allegations leveled against them, the episodes helped crystallize the anger of the #MeToo movement.
Biden, who has been accused of being inappropriately handsy with women in the past, has made outreach to female voters a priority, taking the unusual step of committing early to selecting a female running mate as he tries to contrast himself with Trump. As he attempts to mount his presidential challenge in the midst of a global pandemic, the stakes could not be higher.
As Biden himself has left the allegations un-addressed, Reade has expressed frustration that her account of an unwanted advance by her then-boss is not garnering a broader reaction.
“I don’t have an agenda with this, I don’t want to be a political football,” Reade told ABC News not long after she leveled the allegations. It’s a sentiment she reiterated in continued correspondence ever since. “It was just getting my story out. What I wanted was justice, to have that muzzle taken off my mouth.”
For Biden, a challenge
The case has presented a political and personal challenge for the presumptive Democratic nominee for president. A year earlier, Biden worked to navigate around other allegations against him, which he argued were the innocent byproduct of outdated social norms and his desire to connect with constituents.
The March 2019 allegations began when a series of women came forward to accuse Biden of physical contact that made them feel uncomfortable, such as unwanted hugs, kisses on the head, and standing uncomfortably close. Reade was among that initial group of seven accusers. None of the women, including Reade, alleged assault at that time. Biden sought to address the group of allegations in a video posted online.
“I’ve heard what these women are saying,” he said at the time. “Politics to me has always been about making connections, but I will be more mindful about respecting personal space in the future. That’s my responsibility and I will meet it.”
A year later, when Reade went public with the fresh allegations, the campaign was quick to try and separate her assertions from the others, saying in a campaign statement that Biden “firmly believes that women have a right to be heard — and heard respectfully.”
“Such claims should also be diligently reviewed by an independent press,” the Biden campaign statement said. “What is clear about this claim: It is untrue.”
These new allegations from Reade surfaced with virtually no corroboration or paper trail, as is the case with many sexual assault allegations. They appear to reflect an evolving narrative from Reade, who had earlier limited her complaints about Biden to allegations he inappropriately stroked her neck and twirled her curly hair between his fingers. Reade later told ABC she resisted stepping forward sooner with the assault claims because she feared media blowback if she did.
In early 2020, Reade felt her concerns had not been resolved. She brought her initial allegations of harassment to the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which is administered by the National Women's Law Center. The group, which advocates for victims of workplace sexual harassment, declined to get involved, citing concerns that doing so would run afoul of its non-profit tax status, according to Uma M. Iyer, spokesperson for the center.
“A nationwide storytelling campaign involving a candidate for elected office, close to an election – regardless of who that candidate is – would run afoul of those strict rules and jeopardize our legal standing,” Iyer said in a statement to ABC News. “If Ms. Reade were to come back to us today for further connections to attorneys, or assistance not contingent on funding, we would happily do our best to help her.”
Reade's neighbor: 'If you need me to come forward, I will'
The situation has evolved since March 25, when Reade went public with her assault allegations during a podcast appearance. The following day, ABC News spoke with Reade. As has been the case with others who have come forward after a long silence about an alleged assault or harassment, it quickly became a question of her word against the word of the accused.
Her allegations carried many of the hallmarks of this type of complaint – the conspicuous lack of physical evidence and heavy burden of proof placed on the accuser.
Reade says she undertook an effort to find corroboration. She referred ABC News to a friend who had worked with her on Capitol Hill in 1993. The friend, who asked not to be identified, said she could not remember all the details – “enough to write a screenplay.” In three conversations over the past month, the friend said she did remember that Reade told her Biden put his hand up her skirt during an unwanted encounter -- and how angry, confused and shaken that had left her.
ABC News then spoke with Reade’s brother, Collin Moulton, who said his involvement was “relatively peripheral, because we were both adults at the time and living our own lives.” He said he remembered Reade had mentioned experiencing “harassment at work” from Biden during her brief stint in his office. Moulton said he recalled advising his sister to try and push past it, something he later regretted. Moulton initially said he only heard her account of the assault this spring.
After the initial interview in late March, Moulton texted ABC News later that day to “clarify” his account, saying he remembered his sister telling him in 1993 that Biden had “more or less cornered her against the wall” and ‘put his hands ‘up her clothes.’”
Moulton and Reade both said they remembered that she told her mother about the assault. Reade said her mother, who died in 2016, encouraged her to go to the police, but she decided against it.
In an interview with Business Insider published Monday, a former neighbor of Reade’s, Lynda LaCasse, said Reade shared a similar account when the two were neighbors in California in the mid-1990s. In an interview with ABC News Tuesday, LaCasse said that Reade had called her last month, and reminded her of that long-ago conversation. "Oh yea, I remember that," Lacasse told ABC she had said to Reade. “If you need me to come forward, I will do that."
LaCasse told ABC News, she couldn't recall all of the details, but said she remembered Reade telling her about an alleged assault by Biden. That account, LaCasse said, included several of the same details Reade came forward with recently – including the allegation Biden had put her against a wall and penetrated her with his fingers.
LaCasse, who described herself as an avid Biden supporter who plans to vote against Trump, said she remembered encouraging Reade to file a police report after their conversation in the mid-1990s. Reade did not.
"I don't know if you can prove something like this,” LaCasse told ABC News. “The only way to actually prove something is to have scientific evidence and there's not that, after this length of time. So I don't know. That said, I do believe her."
The Business Insider report also quoted another woman who identified herself as a former co-worker of Reade’s. Lorraine Sanchez said she also remembered that Reade complained at the time that a former boss had harassed her, and that she had been fired after raising concerns. In the news report, Sanchez did not recall if Reade offered any further detail about her alleged mistreatment, and did not recall Biden being named.
Reade’s supporters have also recently pointed to another data point they believe helps corroborate her account -- an August 1993 segment from “Larry King Live." For several weeks, Reade told reporters that she remembered her mother calling into the show and lamenting what allegedly occurred between the senator and her daughter. But Reade said she could not remember when the show had aired.
Then, an organization called the Media Research Center, which describes itself as “America's premier media watchdog” with a mission “to expose and neutralize the propaganda arm of the Left: the national news media” announced it believed it had found the episode. During the broadcast, a caller says her daughter had left a job where she had “problems” with her “prominent senator” boss, “could not get through” with them, and chose not to go public, “out of respect” for the senator.
The broadcast never identifies Reade or Biden. Reade told ABC she recognized the caller’s voice as her late mother's.
On April 9, as media scrutiny and social media attention grew, Reade announced she had filed a police report with the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, DC, saying she was a victim of sexual assault in 1993. The public report does not name Biden, but Reade told ABC News the report is about him.
The case cannot legally be pursued -- it is well past the 3-year statute of limitations, police told ABC News, and law enforcement officials described the matter as inactive. But filing a false police report may be punishable by a fine, and up to 30 days in jail.
Biden’s team disputes account
Biden has never been asked directly about the allegations by a reporter. On Tuesday, the Huffington Post asked potential Biden running mates about the entire matter. Only one of them, Stacey Abrams, the former Democratic nominee of governor of Georgia, responded.
“I believe women deserve to be heard, and I believe that has happened here,” Abrams told HuffPost in an email. “The allegations have been heard and looked into, and for too many women, often, that is not the case. The New York Times conducted a thorough investigation, and nothing in the Times review or any other later reports suggests anything other than what I already know about Joe Biden: That he will make women proud as the next President of the United States.”
Some of those who have served alongside Biden or worked for him have gone further, saying outright they believe Reade’s account is untrue.
While Reade alleges that she shared concerns about inappropriate behavior with her supervisor in Biden’s Senate office, one of the aides she said she spoke with, Marianne Baker, refutes it. Baker said in a statement provided by the Biden campaign that she had “never once witnessed, or heard of, or received, any reports of inappropriate conduct, period - not from Ms. Reade, not from anyone.”
Others who Reade said she briefed about her allegations have also disputed her recollections. Dennis Toner, who was serving as a senate aide in Biden’s office at the time, told ABC News he considers the allegation “preposterous.”
“I just know Joe Biden and this is so far removed from his character,” Toner said. “One, I don't remember her. Two if anyone had approached me with this allegation, I would remember the day.”
Another former Biden aide who Reade said she informed was Ted Kaufman, who was Biden’s chief of staff at the time and was later appointed to Biden’s senate seat in 2009.
"She did not come to me, I would have remembered if she had, and I do not remember her," Kaufman told ABC News. "I would have well remembered her if she had come to me with this."
Reade said she had filed a written complaint about the matter. Following that, she said she had a meeting with Toner and Kaufman. Reade says she remembers the men scribbling notes during the meeting. But she says she did not retain a copy of her own complaint, and does not know what might have happened to any notes. Files from Biden’s senate papers have been donated to the University of Delaware, but under conditions of the donation, they will not be made public until two years after he “retires from public life,” according to the university’s website.
Trump campaign gets behind Reade
In the 27 years since the incident allegedly occurred, Reade has had a varied career. She has served as an aide to a Democratic state senator in California, she has advocated for survivors of domestic violence, and describes herself as an actress, writer and poet. In 2018, Reade wrote Medium posts in support of Russian President Vladimir Putin, praising his “genius” and leadership acumen. Those have since been deleted, but archives of the post remain accessible. Reade has said the writing was grist for a novel she was working on.
Beginning in April, the Trump campaign and the president’s conservative supporters have become increasingly aggressive in promoting Reade’s story in social media. The president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., tweeted this week about Monday’s Business Insider report: “Yikes! A former neighbor of Joe Biden's accuser Tara Reade has come forward to corroborate her sexual assault account,” he wrote.
Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale also took to Twitter, mocking an earlier Biden tweet in which he encouraged victims of sexual assault to speak out. “I nominate Tara Reade,” he wrote.
The subject carries added sensitivity because President Trump was accused more than a dozen times of sexual assault and misconduct during the 2016 campaign, allegations he has vehemently denied. At a low point of his campaign, Trump had to confront a video in which he boasted of grabbing women between their legs.
“I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything…Grab ’em by the p----. You can do anything,” he said in the now-infamous 2005 “Access Hollywood” recording.
Reade says she has no political agenda in coming forward with her story now. She calls herself a “hardcore Democrat,” though she told ABC News it’s hard to watch Biden on the stump now.
“Because I know what he's done," Reade said.
This report was featured in the Thursday, April 30, 2020, episode of “Start Here,” ABC News’ daily news podcast.
"Start Here" offers a straightforward look at the day's top stories in 20 minutes. Listen for free every weekday on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, the ABC News app or wherever you get your podcasts.