Sitting down with PEOPLE to talk about her upcoming book with daughter Chelsea Clinton, Hillary Clinton could hardly contain her thoughts on another topic: how former Vice President Joe Biden interacts with women and girls.
Multiple women have said Biden’s boundary-blurring physical affection toward them over the years, including back touches and kisses on the head, was disrespectful and uncomfortable.
Some of his comments on the campaign trail — such as calling an event moderator who was asking questions about his voting record “lovely” and a “real sweetheart” and telling a teenage girl’s brothers to “keep the guys away” — have also raised eyebrows in a race with multiple women running for president. (By contrast, Sen. Elizabeth Warren tells girls at her events that she is running for president because “that’s what girls do.”)
“For goodness’ sake, I’m sorry, I have to jump in because I’ve heard a little bit about that,” Clinton told PEOPLE in a joint interview with her daughter last week, after they were asked if some female voters would be less than enthusiastic about Biden as the Democratic nominee, given his behavior.
“I mean, I don’t think that the Twitterverse is the American electorate, but there are lots of vocal voices that say all kinds of things,” said Clinton, 71.
She said that Biden, 76, who is a leading contender to challenge President Donald Trump in next year’s election, “is a thoroughly decent human being who has served our country honorably and well for decades.”
“You could take any person who sticks their little head above the parapet and says, ‘I’m going to run for president,’ and find something that … a little annoying habit or other kind of behavior that people are going to pick apart and disagree with,” she continued.
In her view, such debate was a distraction from the larger goal of all Democrats and those who oppose Trump: voting him out of office in 2020.
If she sounded somewhat dismissive of Biden’s past behavior around women — and she is not alone in defending him; he has female supporters, colleagues and aides who have spoken positively of their own experiences around him — it was because she wanted to focus on the president. (Trump has been accused of sexual assault or misconduct by more than a dozen women; he has adamantly denied their accounts, though he was notoriously recorded bragging about touching women’s genitals.)
“This man must be defeated,” Clinton told PEOPLE. “People who are putting themselves forward, which believe me, is a really difficult process to undergo, should be judged on the totality of their lives and their service.”
“We can pick apart anybody. I mean, that’s a great spectator sport. But this man who’s there in the Oval Office right now poses a clear and present danger to the future of the United States. So get over it,” Clinton said. “Look at the candidates, look at what they’ve accomplished, look at what they have fought for — and vote for anybody to get rid of Donald Trump.”
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Clinton also said that, though not “easily or quickly,” she had come to the conclusion that Trump should be impeached. (House Democrats are investigating him after he lobbied Ukraine’s president to investigate Biden and Biden’s family.)
President Trump, Clinton said, “is a corrupt human tornado who cares only about himself.”
His continued place in power, she felt, was an affront to the nation’s core values.
“Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. The American people are being fooled if they go along with the kind of abuses that are being committed every single day,” she said.
Biden launched his 2020 presidential bid in late April in the the shadow of several women’s stories about what they said was his inappropriate physical behavior toward them.
Former Nevada lawmaker Lucy Flores, the first woman to come forward, said in March that Biden came up behind her at an event in 2014, put his hands on her shoulders and “proceeded to plant a big slow kiss on the back of my head.”
“I’m not suggesting that Biden broke any laws, but the transgressions that society deems minor (or doesn’t even see as transgressions) often feel considerable to the person on the receiving end,” Flores wrote in a March essay about the experience.
“That imbalance of power and attention is the whole point — and the whole problem,” she wrote.
In a statement, Biden quickly said that through the years he had “offered countless handshakes, hugs, expressions of affection, support and comfort. And not once — never — did I believe I acted inappropriately. 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.”
“The boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset. I get it. I get it. I hear what they’re saying, and I understand it,” he said in a video days after Flores and others spoke out. “I’ll be much more mindful. That’s my responsibility, and I’ll meet it.”
A former White House intern while Biden was in office, who said he called her a “pretty girl” and touched their foreheads together in 2013, reacted to his video statement this way: “To me this is not mainly about whether Joe Biden has adequate respect for personal space. It’s about women deserving equal respect in the workplace.”
Speaking with PEOPLE, however, Clinton framed her support of Biden in the context of his larger political career — and in the context of what she viewed as the far more pressing danger.
“We are in a crisis,” she said.
“If the American people don’t understand that [Trump] is whittling away at our institutions, our rule of law, he is sowing mistrust among the American people toward one another, he is violating every norm of our values and our common humanity, he is making us a laughingstock and endangering our security around the world — if people don’t understand that,” she continued, “then we are in for a very, very rocky ride as a country.”