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Trump undercuts his campaign’s focus on Biden accuser by painting powerful men as victims

President Trump stops to talk to reporters as he walks to board Marine One to travel to Camp David on the South Lawn at the White House on Friday, May 01, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The White House and President Trump’s campaign are seeking to amplify an allegation of sexual assault against Joe Biden, hoping to tarnish the former vice president on an issue where the president’s own record is checkered with accusers.

But the effort could be thwarted by Trump himself, who has taken a different tack from that of his own advisers by indicating that false allegations against powerful men are the bigger issue.

“All of a sudden you become a wealthy guy, you’re a famous guy, then you become president. And people that you’ve never seen, that you’ve never heard of, make charges,” Trump said Friday in an interview with conservative radio host Dan Bongino, adding that he was “sticking up” for Biden in a way. “I would just say to Joe Biden, ‘Just go out and fight it.’ ”

Trump’s comments stood in contrast to those of officials from the campaign and the White House, who flooded the airwaves Friday to criticize Biden over his response to a former Senate aide’s sexual assault allegation, which Biden has denied. The president’s remarks underscore the challenge Republicans will have in attacking the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee on an issue that dogged Trump’s 2016 campaign and on which he remains vulnerable.

Before the president spoke, his allies tried to balance criticizing Biden on his handling of the allegation with deflecting renewed attention on the president’s long list of alleged misconduct.

After Biden gave a vigorous denial of the allegation in a Friday-morning interview on MSNBC, Trump’s campaign released a lengthy statement criticizing Biden for what it described as a lack of transparency and consistency — pushing a “double standard” argument on which Republicans have seized, and making no mention of Trump’s accusers. Trump has repeatedly denied the allegations against him.

Joe Biden denies he sexually assaulted a former Senate aide, calls on National Archives to release complaint if one exists

Kellyanne Conway, one of Trump’s 2016 campaign managers and a White House counselor, addressed Biden’s claims by trying to turn Democrats’ “believe women” mantra against the former vice president.

Asked about the women who have accused Trump of misconduct ranging from sexual harassment to rape, Conway demurred.

“Let’s not do that today,” she told reporters at the White House. “Because you’ve at least covered that six ways to Sunday.”

Conway said she wanted Tara Reade, the woman who has accused Biden of reaching under her skirt and penetrating her in 1993, to be interviewed.

Biden vigorously denied the accusation in a statement Friday, and he told MSNBC that there was no truth to it.

“I am saying unequivocally it never, never happened, and it didn’t,” he said in the televised interview.

Biden called for the National Archives to release any record of a complaint filed by Reade but declined to call for his Senate papers held at the University of Delaware to be released. He said those papers would not contain personnel files.

While Trump’s campaign and other Republican allies seized on Biden’s refusal to release his Senate papers, Trump did not likewise accuse the former vice president of a coverup. He instead turned a question about Biden’s record back to false allegations against prominent men.

“As far as records and all, I have no idea, he’d have to make up that decision,” Trump told Bongino. “I can say that I’ve been accused. You probably have, too. As soon as you’re famous, you get accused.”

The president also described himself as a “total victim” of false accusations, making no mention of the broader problem of sexual misconduct by powerful men. The issue, well documented in recent years during the #MeToo movement, has long been viewed skeptically by Trump. The president has regularly brought up the case of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, who was confirmed in 2018 despite allegations of sexual misconduct that emerged after his nomination.

While Trump’s allies have used Kavanaugh’s experience to argue that Biden should be publicly grilled over Reade’s allegation, Trump has instead said that Kavanaugh’s case proves that men deserve more due process.

“It’s his problem, but I like to get in front of it, and I just deny it,” Trump said of Biden.

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The incongruent messaging comes as some of Biden’s defenders have in recent days resurfaced claims by Trump’s accusers as Reade’s allegation has entered the public domain.

At least 16 women have publicly accused Trump of sexual misconduct over the past several decades. Though Trump has denied all the allegations, they continue to haunt his administration and his campaign. At least two women have pending lawsuits against him.

Former “Apprentice” contestant Summer Zervos sued the president for defamation in New York after accusing Trump of forcibly kissing and groping her at the Beverly Hills Hotel in December 2007. Last year, New York-based writer E. Jean Carroll accused Trump of raping her in the 1990s, saying that Trump — then a well-known real estate developer — attacked her inside a dressing room at Bergdorf Goodman, an upscale Manhattan department store. In January, she requested that Trump submit a DNA sample to determine whether his genetic material is on the black coat dress she said she was wearing during the alleged assault. Trump called Carroll a liar and said she was not his type.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany tried to dismiss accusations against Trump on Friday during her first news briefing. McEnany, a former spokeswoman for Trump’s campaign, echoed the campaign message that Trump’s victory in 2016 was proof that the American people believed the president’s denials.

“The American people had their say in the matter when they elected President Trump as president,” she said. “But, you know, leave it to the media to really take an issue about the former vice president and turn it on the president and bring up accusations from four years ago that were asked and answered in the form of the vote of the American people.”

Her response underscores a challenge that Trump’s allies face in trying to zero in on Biden while Trump’s alleged conduct remains under scrutiny and while the president appears to be disinclined to go on the attack on this issue.

The president told Bongino that he thought Reade’s claims were “credible,” but he spent far more time criticizing what he described as false accusers than he did attacking Biden.

Trump campaign aides who called for Biden to release additional records were quickly met with criticism from critics who highlighted the president’s lack of transparency.

Trump has refused to release his tax returns and has made his former employees and campaign aides sign nondisclosure agreements. His former personal lawyer Michael Cohen admitted to facilitating “hush money” payments to women who accused Trump of engaging in extramarital affairs with them.

“We can vet Biden without hearing from Trump on transparency, thank you very much,” Amanda Carpenter, a former aide to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) wrote Friday on Twitter. Carpenter, a Trump critic who wrote a book titled “Gaslighting America,” responded to a Trump campaign aide’s claim of a Democratic coverup by writing “It’s really hard for people to enforce standards they never cared about in the first place. Sit this one out.”

Whether the president will continue to take a hands-off approach to the Reade allegation against Biden is unclear. Trump has long responded to his own political scandals by accusing his critics of similar conduct.

In 2016, after The Washington Post disclosed the existence of an “Access Hollywood” tape of Trump boasting of groping women, Trump held a news event with women who had accused former president Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct.

Now, Democrats are framing the 2020 election by juxtaposing Biden’s call for transparency with Trump’s list of unresolved misconduct accusations.

Lis Smith, who was a top strategist on Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign, said on Twitter that Biden’s willingness to answer questions about sexual assault allegations shines a light on Trump’s refusal to do so.

“If the GOP wants to make this an issue, they’ll have to reckon with the fact that their President hasn’t answered any tough qs about the scores of assault allegations against him,” she wrote.