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Democrats react to Biden assault allegation with pleas for explanation — or with silence

Former vice president Joe Biden speaks during the Democratic debate in Washington on March 15. (Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS)

Joe Biden faced growing calls from Democrats on Tuesday to address claims made by Tara Reade, a former aide in his Senate office who has accused Biden of sexually assaulting her in the early 1990s.

The pressure grew after Business Insider reported that two women had corroborated key elements of the accusations against Biden. According to the story, one woman said Reade had told her decades ago that Biden assaulted her, and another woman backed up elements of Reade’s prior statement that Biden had harassed her when she worked for him.

Biden has not addressed the accusations and has not been asked about them in any of the several television interviews he has done since Reade’s accusations gained significant public attention.

Biden has declined a request for an interview. He also has declined to release his Senate papers, which are being held at the University of Delaware and could shed light on personnel issues. His campaign has forcefully denied Reade’s claims.

How politicians react to such charges often appears to reflect who is being accused. Democrats are quick to jump on allegations about Republicans. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

The escalating accounts have squeezed Democrats between two competing goals: to support all women accusing powerful men of misconduct and to defend Biden, the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, from what they say are unfounded accusations.

Some Democrats on Tuesday said his campaign’s denials were insufficient given the explosiveness of the assault accusation and the uncertainties about events dating back more than two decades.

“I don’t want to minimize what happened to her. I’ve spent too many years doing this work to do that,” said Gilda Cobb-Hunter, president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators and a veteran South Carolina Democrat who plans to support Biden. “I think he needs to say something forceful so that we can try to put it behind us.”

She said the past few days have convinced her that there is more credibility to Reade’s claims, and she pointed to other revelations about public officials to warn about being too certain.

“I think people ought to be careful being too declarative about what did or did not happen if they were not there,” she said. “The campaign needs to be careful about being definitive in saying it didn’t happen.”

The national organizing director for Sen. Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign said the revelations were disqualifying.

“There is simply no moral justification for Biden to continue as the presumptive nominee,” Claire Sandberg wrote on Twitter. “Out of respect for survivors and for the good of the country, he should withdraw from the race.”

Biden’s supporters, meantime, were more muted on Tuesday, with most refusing to comment when asked about the claims and signaling with their silence the fraught nature of the accusations. The Washington Post reached out to numerous Biden supporters, top endorsers and potential running mates. Many chose neither to defend him nor to call on him to further explain.

One major exception was Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who issued a strong defense of Biden. Gillibrand was the first senator to call for Sen. Al Franken to resign two years ago after the Minnesota Democrat was accused of touching and kissing several women without their permission. He strongly denied the allegations.

“Vice President Biden has vehemently denied these allegations, and I support Vice President Biden,” Gillibrand said, apparently referring to his campaign’s denial.

A number of prominent women whom Biden has said he would consider as a running mate declined to comment Tuesday, including Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Kamala D. Harris (Calif.). Aides to Klobuchar and Harris pointed to prior comments in which they said they respect Reade’s right to tell her story but also defended Biden as a strong advocate for women’s rights.

One of the few potential running mates to respond was former Georgia gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams.

“I believe women deserve to be heard, and I believe that has happened here,” Abrams said in a statement. “The allegations have been heard and looked into, and for too many women, often, that is not the case.”

She referred to newspaper articles about Reade’s accusations and said none of them “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.”

Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), asked about the allegations in a Tuesday interview, said, “I have no idea what anybody else experienced with Joe Biden” but reiterated that the reasons he endorsed Biden have not changed.

“I know Joe. We know Joe. But most importantly, Joe knows us,” he said. “I didn’t get there without long, extensive background with Joe Biden, without a long experience with Joe Biden. My late wife to whom I was married for 58 years loved Joe Biden. And more importantly, she respected Joe Biden.”

Far more common, however, was the ambivalence evident in a statement by another prominent Biden supporter, actor and activist Alyssa Milano.

Milano, who has been at the forefront of the #MeToo movement, on Tuesday acknowledged the new developments.

“I want Tara, like every other survivor, to have the space to be heard and seen without being used as fodder,” she tweeted. “I hear and see you, Tara. #MeToo.”

Milano has been criticized for defending Biden and suggesting that he is not the type of person who would do such a thing.

“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,” she told radio host Andy Cohen in a recent interview.

Milano did not respond to a request for additional comment.

Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the party’s most prominent interest groups, spoke of the conflicting concerns. “Democrats . . . always want to make sure that a woman is respected. But you also want to make sure that people have due process,” she said.

Asked whether she wanted to hear from Biden, she said, “No doubt, if this continues to be a story, there will be some response. But I assume that when the campaign is speaking, they are speaking for him.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has been among the few high-profile Democrats to fully support Reade and say that she was open to hearing more from her.

“I think it’s legitimate to talk about these things,” she said shortly after the allegations gained prominence. “You can’t say, you know — both believe women, support all of this, until it inconveniences you, until it inconveniences us.”

Biden’s defenders have generally pointed toward his long record in public life. While several women have said he was overly affectionate in a way that made them uncomfortable, there have been no allegations of sexual assault apart from Reade’s.

Reade, who worked for Biden for nine months, said last year that she had felt uncomfortable when Biden had put his hands on her shoulders and neck. Not until last month did she allege that in 1993, Biden pushed her against a wall, then put his hand up her skirt and his fingers inside her. The Post published an in-depth examination of her account two weeks ago.

Biden allies have pointed to stories in The Post and other media outlets, which did not definitively establish whether the incident occurred, as evidence that Reade’s allegation is unfounded. Biden’s team has issued talking points to some backers, urging them to refer to media investigations into Reade’s allegations. A Biden aide said that was in line with campaigns’ typical actions when their candidates are in the news.

“There’s no one they’ve been able to find who confirms these allegations,” Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) told The Post last week. “I think this issue has been thoroughly handled in the press as, you know, allegations should be. And so I think it’s been put to rest.”

In an interview published by Business Insider on Monday, Lynda LaCasse, a former acquaintance of Reade, said Reade had told her of the alleged assault when they lived in the same California housing complex in the mid-1990s. Another woman, Lorraine Sanchez, told the news outlet that Reade had told her she “had been sexually harassed by her former boss while she was in DC and as a result of her voicing her concerns to her supervisors, she was let go, fired.”

Neither LaCasse nor Sanchez responded to requests for comment from The Post.

A 1993 call to Larry King’s CNN talk show also has surfaced in recent days. In the clip, a woman whom Reade identified as her ­now-deceased mother called to report unspecified “problems” her daughter was having with her employer, whom she called “a prominent senator.” The caller said her daughter did not want to go public with her account “out of respect for” the unnamed senator.

Reade has said she complained to senior Biden aides about feeling uncomfortable in the office, but not about sexual assault. She also said she filed a complaint with a congressional human resources or personnel office, which could have triggered an alert to Biden’s office.

She was removed from her position overseeing a group of interns — which Reade has attributed to her complaint.

Biden’s campaign has not yet made available any records related to Reade’s employment, which could include any complaints she may have filed. His Senate papers, originally slated to be released two years after he left the vice presidency, now will not be available until two years after he “retires from public life,” according to new terms the University of Delaware posted on its website shortly before he began running for president.