Indeed, it’s a difficult and important question for me, as someone who not only expressed alarm about Ford’s allegations at the time but also wrote a book that concluded she was telling the truth, and that the flawed, rushed investigation meant Kavanaugh’s tenure “will forever have an asterisk attached.”
This column represents a good-faith effort to grapple with the seriousness of, and flaws in, the Reade allegations. My conclusion is that while Ford’s allegations are on balance stronger, those who took Ford’s complaints seriously cannot simply dismiss Reade’s claims out of hand. I don’t think what Reade claimed happened, yet the evidence is murky.
And it’s important to acknowledge: We all suffer from the inclination, whether knowing or unknowing, to assess evidence through the lens of preexisting biases. Liberals have faced — and failed — this test before, when they minimized the significance of President Bill Clinton’s predatory behavior with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Writing in Vanity Fair, Marjorie Williams skewered “the writers, lawyers, activists, officeholders, and academics who call themselves feminists” who had been outraged by the sexual harassment allegations against Justice Clarence Thomas but “were either silent or dismissive this time.”
We should all keep her admonition in mind today. Outrage over misbehavior only by those with whom we have ideological differences is not righteous — it is hypocritical. Skepticism about accusations only when they are made against someone with whom we are ideologically aligned is not high-minded — it is intellectually dishonest.
And yet. Reflexive acceptance of any and all allegations of sexual misconduct against any man is not staunch feminism — it is dangerous credulity that risks doing terrible injustice to the accused. #BelieveAllWomen was a dumb hashtag and a dumber approach to inevitably complex, fact-bound situations. I have always tried to argue in favor of fact-finding first, conviction later, whether in the court of public opinion, in the Senate confirmation process or elsewhere.
That was why I questioned “whether justice was done” in the case of former Minnesota Democratic senator Al Franken, whose precipitous resignation short-circuited a Senate Ethics Committee process that could have helped determine whether Franken’s behavior merited the equivalent of a political death sentence. That was why I argued during the Kavanaugh confirmation for a serious Senate and FBI investigation, not the limited sham that was designed less to unearth the truth than to secure the necessary 50 votes to get him confirmed.
Which brings us to Reade, whose allegations present a situation at once familiar and perplexing. Unlike with Franken and Kavanaugh, there is not an easy or obvious official entity (the Senate Ethics Committee, the Senate Judiciary Committee, the FBI) that could probe her allegations. Last week, Reade filed a report with D.C. police, but it’s not clear what a criminal investigation of an allegation this old could produce for public consumption. Police investigations and grand jury material remain confidential, unless a decision is made to file charges, which seems unlikely.
Reade claims that, when she was 29 and working briefly as a staff assistant, Biden pushed her against a wall somewhere in the Capitol complex, reached under her skirt and pushed his fingers inside her. Biden strenuously asserts this never happened.
Here’s my analysis of how to assess these competing accounts:
Contemporaneous evidence: Reade says she told her mother, who has since passed away. When contacted recently, her brother initially recalled Reade telling him in 1993 that Biden had behaved inappropriately by touching her neck and shoulders; it was only several days after providing this account to The Post that the brother reached out to add that he remembered her saying Biden had reached “under her clothes.”
In perhaps the most powerful piece of corroboration, a friend of Reade’s, who had interned for another member of Congress, corroborated Reade’s account of telling her about the incident at the time, but she declined to be named. Reade says she filed a complaint with Senate officials, but she does not have a copy of it, no such record has been found, and the law would have required that any such allegations be referred to an official hearing; there is no indication such a hearing took place. Biden aides disputed her account of having complained to them, which she says was not about the sexual assault but about less problematic conduct.
Bottom line: the contemporaneous evidence is inconclusive but stronger than that in the Kavanaugh case. That comes as no surprise; in fact, Ford said she took pains not to let family and friends know about the alleged assault.
Evidence predating current allegation: Reade says she told a therapist about the alleged assault more recently, but — unlike Ford — declined to make the notes of that conversation available to reporters. A second friend said Reade told her years later that Biden had touched her arm and behaved inappropriately — although, significantly, not with specific details about an alleged sexual assault. That friend also declined to be named.
When complaints surfaced last year about Biden’s conduct in touching women in nonsexual ways, Reade reached out to reporters to say that Biden had touched her in ways that made her feel uncomfortable. She mentioned nothing then about a sexual assault.
Bottom line: Reade’s shifting account introduces a confusing element. If Biden did what she now alleges, why did she not say this a year ago? Reade says she did not feel comfortable telling her full story then, but she seems to have offered no clue that there was more to her story. Ford had similarly shared her account about Kavanaugh with friends, family and therapists; however, by contrast with Reade, her story did not change over time.
Credibility: Reade presents a confounding figure — to me, much more so than Ford, although I have the advantage of not only having watched Ford’s testimony but also having interviewed her over many hours. One fundamental difference involves the matter of motive. Ford came forward only reluctantly, and without evident ideological motivation; she told me that she worried, actually, that if Kavanaugh were forced to withdraw, a more conservative nominee might take his place. Reade supported Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I) presidential bid, and the fact that she went public with her allegations just as Biden was on the verge of cementing the Democratic nomination raises the possibility of political motivation, although Reade denies this.
Other red flags emerge as well. Reade has been inconsistent in her attitude toward Biden. She repeatedly praised him on Twitter, including specifically for his work on combating violence against women — an odd position for someone who now claims Biden sexually assaulted her. She has given conflicting descriptions of her reasons for leaving the Biden office after just nine months — she received a job offer, she was tired of “the reckless imperialism of America” and, more recently, she was “forced to resign.” She has both criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin and, more recently, lavished him with bizarre praise: “an alluring combination of strength with gentleness,” “intoxicating to American women,” “I like President Putin…a lot, his shirt on or shirt off.”
Bottom line: The credibility question is the biggest hurdle for me with Reade. Ford did not strike me as a person who was coming forward because of political motivations or because she wanted publicity — anything but. Reade seems a much different and less reliable figure.
Pattern evidence: There’s no doubt that Biden has a history of touching women in ways that they say made them feel uncomfortable. There is also no other evidence that his handsiness ever crossed the line into any kind of sexual assault. Much like those who know and work with Kavanaugh, Biden aides say they cannot imagine him engaging in such misconduct.
Bottom line: The Kavanaugh chapter produced evidence, albeit inconclusive, of other incidents, when he was young, of problematic behavior toward women. The absence of a pattern in Biden’s case does not disprove Reade’s allegations. Still, it seems unlikely that behavior this egregious would be a one-time incident.
The likelihood of definitive proof one way or another seems frustratingly low. My gut says that what Reade alleges did not happen. My head instructs that it is within the realm of possibility, and fairness requires acknowledging that. And there is another point to bear in mind: Double standards work in both directions. Those who disbelieved and diminished Christine Blasey Ford face the challenge of explaining why they seem so much more eager to credit Tara Reade’s account.
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