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Joe Biden’s affectionate, physical style with women comes under scrutiny

The misconduct allegation against former vice president Joe Biden is the latest in Democrats' complicated reckoning with the Me Too movement in the Trump era. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

In some of the photos, Joe Biden is behind the women, his hands on their shoulders, as he whispers in their ears. He embraces Hillary Clinton, his hands around her torso. He kisses a young girl’s head, his fingers framing her face, as she looks blankly toward the camera.

This affectionate and sometimes intimate physical style is one of the former vice president’s trademarks, a defining feature of the warm and upbeat persona he has built during more than four decades in the national spotlight. But the appropriateness of Biden’s physical behavior toward women is now being questioned, after a female Democratic politician penned a viral Internet piece describing an alleged 2014 encounter that left her offended and uncomfortable.

As Biden prepares to announce whether he will run for president in 2020, the episode has raised questions about whether the older, self-described “fingertip politician” is well-suited for the White House in the wake of the #MeToo movement and at a moment of rapidly shifting social norms. Biden, an outspoken critic of domestic violence who led efforts to pass the Violence Against Women Act in 1994, has also faced sharp criticism from women over his handling of the Anita Hill hearings in 1991 and his subsequent comments about the topic.

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“He’s absolutely been an amazing ally on the policy level and on campus sexual assault,” said Terri Poore, policy director of the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence. “But at the same time, nobody gets a pass. Everyone’s behavior is up for conversation.”

After a Nevada Democrat accused former vice president Joe Biden of unwanted touching and kissing in 2014, he said he doesn't believe he acted inappropriately. (Video: Reuters)

The allegations from Lucy Flores, a former Nevada state legislator, have made Biden his party’s highest-ranking official to face claims of physically inappropriate behavior toward women since the #MeToo movement gained national prominence in 2017. Flores’s article triggered a reconsideration of dozens of well-known photos from Biden’s career where he is pictured kissing, embracing or touching women for prolonged periods in public situations.

Biden, 76, declined an interview request but said Sunday in a statement that he would “pay attention” as women talk about their experiences. He is still believed to be leaning toward entering the presidential race in late April.

“Not once — never — did I believe I acted inappropriately,” Biden stated, referring to the “expressions of affection, support and comfort” he has offered throughout his political career. “If it is suggested I did so, I will listen respectfully. But it was never my intention.”

“I may not recall these moments the same way, and I may be surprised at what I hear,” Biden stated. “But we have arrived at an important time when women feel they can and should relate their experiences, and men should pay attention. And I will.”

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Supporters describe Biden’s physical style — which they say he uses with men and women — as a holdover from a different time. The former senator from Delaware acknowledged its potential drawbacks as recently as this month as he teased a possible presidential run.

“I’m a tactile politician,” Biden said March 16 during a speech in Dover, Del. “That gets me in trouble, as well, because I think I can feel and taste what is going on.”

Though photos attesting to this behavior abound on the Internet, they were often framed in past news accounts as harmless and sometimes entertaining — a sign of “Biden being Biden.”

Then controversy erupted this weekend after Flores, the former Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor of Nevada, described Biden placing his hands on her shoulders, leaning in to smell her hair and kissing the back of her head as she prepared to speak at a 2014 campaign rally.

“I had never experienced anything so blatantly inappropriate and unnerving before,” Flores wrote for The Cut, a blog published by New York magazine. “The vice-president of the United States of America had just touched me in an intimate way reserved for close friends, family, or romantic partners — and I felt powerless to do anything about it.”

During an interview Saturday, Flores said that she did not feel a sexual overtone in Biden’s alleged behavior toward her, but that this should not lead people to discount its seriousness.

“My piece is not about insinuating that I was someone who was a traumatized victim of sexual harassment or sexual assault,” Flores said. “What I did feel was an invasion of my bodily autonomy, an invasion of my space. . . . You don’t expect to be touched and kissed and caressed by the vice president of the United States. In no circumstance is that appropriate.”

Jennifer Lawless, a University of Virginia professor focused on gender and politics, said it is fortunate for Biden that the alleged encounter with Flores took place in 2014, before the #MeToo movement. Any such behavior now, she said, would create an even bigger backlash.

“If he demonstrates that he has learned, then okay, then I think he can stand on his record [on women’s issues]. But at some point, he can’t say, ‘Well, I was the sponsor of the Violence Against Women Act,’ and then behave in a way that makes women feel uncomfortable,” she said.

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Some people close to Biden acknowledge that he has a long history of being affectionate.

During a 2015 news conference at the White House, the vice president was photographed standing close behind Stephanie Carter, the wife of incoming Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, while holding her shoulders and whispering in her ear. The moment received significant attention online.

Stephanie Carter, in a blog post on Medium published Sunday night, said she was grateful for Biden’s gesture, describing the moment as “a close friend helping someone get through a big day.” Biden kept his hands on her shoulders “as a means of offering his support,” she wrote.

People close to Biden expressed concerns about a proliferation of photoshopped images of him and women on the Internet that make his behavior look overtly sexual. The photos have been circulated by conservative figures and websites.

Defenders have argued that Biden’s intentions are innocent, even when his behavior seems problematic. On Saturday, women who previously worked for Biden began to circulate testimonials defending his character and personal conduct, an effort meant to rebut Flores’s accusations.

Flores said good intent does not make overly intimate or familiar physical behavior appropriate.

“In my situation, there was no prior relationship,” she said. “I had no way of knowing what his intentions were. All I know is that you don’t expect someone as powerful as the vice president to invade your personal space, touch you, kiss you, smell you.”

Flores endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the 2016 presidential campaign but said she has not made an endorsement this cycle.

On the campaign trail, several Democratic presidential candidates accepted Flores’s account, though they demurred when asked whether her allegations disqualify Biden from launching a 2020 bid.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Sanders said on Sunday political television shows that they have “no reason not to believe” Flores.

Julián Castro, a former secretary of Housing and Urban Development, told reporters Saturday that Biden is “going to decide whether he’s going to run or not, and then the American people will decide whether they support him or not.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said Saturday that Biden “needs to give an answer” to Flores’s allegations. Asked whether he should run, Warren said it was “for [him] to decide.”

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Since Flores’s account was published, two people associated with the 2014 campaign event have raised questions about her story. Henry R. Muñoz III, co-founder of the Latino Victory Fund, said his group and people who attended the event “do not believe that circumstances support allegations that such an event took place.” Cristóbal Alex, the group’s former president, said he told Flores before she wrote her piece that “in no way did I question her recollection of the experience, but . . . that what she remembered did not match my recollection.” Alex has been reportedly hired by the Biden team.

Erin Maye Quade, who became a face of the political #MeToo movement after she reported experiencing sexual harassment as a Minnesota state lawmaker, said she believes Biden’s documented physical behavior is disqualifying when combined with other issues, such as his handling of the 1991 Hill hearings and how he talks about it now.

Biden said last week that he regretted that he “couldn’t come up with a way to get [Hill] the kind of hearing she deserved,” a comment that angered critics who said it portrayed Biden as having less power than he did as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“I look for people acknowledging and changing because of what they’re learning,” Maye Quade said as she discussed her thoughts on the 2020 presidential primary. “There’s nothing from him that acknowledges that ‘I’ve heard this, I’m listening, I understand.’ ”

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Biden’s encounters with women while swearing in senators in 2015 have received significant attention. In several photos, he leans toward the 13-year-old daughter of Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), who appears to react with discomfort, and whispers in her ear before kissing the side of her head.

In a phone interview Saturday, Coons said that when Biden whispered in his daughter’s ear, he was praising her composure and offering to connect her with his own daughter so that they could talk about the challenges of having fathers in the political spotlight. The Coons and Biden families are connected in several ways; Biden campaigned for Coons in each of his races, beginning with his 2000 county council bid, and Coons’s wife is close to the widow of Biden’s eldest son, Beau. Coons’s children view Biden as a grandfather figure, the senator said.

“She did not think of it as anything,” Coons said of Biden’s moment with his daughter. “All three of my kids have known Joe their whole lives.”

David Weigel, Annie Linskey and Cleve R. Wootson Jr. in Storm Lake, Iowa, and Paul Kane and Felicia Sonmez in Washington contributed to this report.