Tara Reade allegations rattle Biden’s VP search

The job description for Joe Biden’s running mate has suddenly become more complicated: The Democratic vice presidential nominee must now defend him against sexual assault accusations without looking hypocritical.

It’s a particularly vexing problem for Biden’s potential picks, many of whom played lead roles in opposing the Senate Supreme Court confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh in 2018. Democrats vigorously applied a “believe all women” standard as they rallied to support his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, leaving a trail of unambiguous statements at sharp odds with the role they’ll need to play for Biden in a general election.

“The job of being the vice presidential candidate is always hard and now it’s just harder because of this. But they don’t really have a choice,” said Susannah Randolph, a top Florida progressive activist and former congressional candidate.

“The fact is, to be a running mate, you have to be a team player and step up where your team is weak or fill that role where they need you,” she said. “This comes with the job.”

Advisers to four of the potential candidates who spoke to POLITICO — none of whom would go on record — expressed what they described as a sense of frustration that accusations against Biden are being examined more intensely than the more numerous allegations against President Donald Trump.

The advisers all said they hoped Biden would speak out soon, but conceded there’s no way he — or those in contention to be his running mate — can continue to avoid the subject as they run for office or jockey to be on the Democratic ticket.

“‘Believe the woman’ didn’t mean believe all women, all the time. But this is an era of slogans and we’re paying the price for that,” said an adviser to one of the women under consideration, noting Reade’s story changed over the time.

“The #MeToo movement was an over-correction to decades of ignoring women and not believing them. And what we’re seeing now is a result of that over-correction,” the adviser said. “It’s not ideal. It’s not what we want to be talking about.”

That means for many of the top veep prospects — all of whom are women — the job will entail squaring their earlier stances with the allegation against Biden. Since former Biden staffer Tara Reade accused Biden of assault last month, their reactions have been markedly different than during the Kavanaugh hearings: they’ve either stood with the former vice president or said nothing.

Few are in a more potentially awkward position than California Sen. Kamala Harris, who used the hearings as a springboard to her own presidential campaign and made clear she believed Ford’s accusations in 2018.

Harris later told reporters that after the Kavanaugh hearings, her “biggest fear is that there will be a group of people who retreat, right? That’s my biggest fear, that there will be people who will decide that if they speak out it doesn’t matter, and will feel deflated by what happened in a way that causes them to recede.”

Earlier this month, however, Harris stuck with Biden.

“The Joe Biden I know is somebody who really has fought for women and empowerment of women and for women’s equality and rights,” Harris told the San Francisco Chronicle, though she made sure to say Reade “has a right to tell her story. And I believe that and I believe Joe Biden believes that, too.”

Harris’ defense of Biden has been joined in recent weeks by many of the top veep contenders — among them Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020, for the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. (AP Photo/ Jacquelyn Martin)
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020, for the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. (AP Photo/ Jacquelyn Martin)

Whitmer, a sexual assault survivor who tweeted in 2017 that “I’m saying #MeToo in hopes that future generations won't have to” and a year later tweeted “I believe Dr. Ford”, avoided voicing clear support for Reade’s allegations.

“I think women should be able to tell their stories,” she told NPR earlier this month. “I think that it is important that these allegations are vetted, from the media to beyond. And I think that, you know, it is something that no one takes lightly. But it is also something that is, you know, personal. And so it's hard to give you greater insight than that, not knowing more about the situation.”

Other prospects on Biden’s shortlist have chosen silence. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who similarly believed Ford, hasn’t spoken out about Reade. Nor has Florida Rep. Val Demings, who in 2018 wore black to Trump’s State of the Union speech to stand in solidarity with harassment and abuse victims. She, too, supported Ford.

“As a law enforcement officer, I saw how hard it is to come forward after a sexual assault. I am so proud of everyone who is sharing their stories today about #WhyIDidntReport. I believe you, and I stand with you,” Demings tweeted in September 2018.

So far, Biden has refused to comment on Reade’s allegations, declining media interviews or granting those where he was not asked about Reade’s accusations.

He had a chance to address the issue Wednesday night during a Florida virtual fundraiser where an activist wanted him to comment on sexual assault in the military.

“Look, we have to change the culture of abuse in this country,” Biden said, sticking tightly to the issue of assault in the military. One donor on the Zoom meeting told POLITICO he thought Biden was going to talk about Reade because “I thought the question was put on the list with that in mind.”

A Senate Democrat who supports Biden said the allegations have not affected the vice presidential search and that Biden is not seeking people who can defend him.

“That’s not Joe,” the senator said. “This has been thoroughly, deeply researched by The Washington Post, New York Times, AP. If in several weeks of having several reporters each on it they’ve concluded there’s nothing to suggest there’s a case here? That certainly satisfies me.”

The Biden campaign more than a week ago gave surrogates talking points revolving around deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield’s denials of the charges and a false characterization claiming the Times found “this incident did not happen” — a determination the paper never made.

Former Georgia 2018 gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams also repeated the campaign’s talking points on CNN Tuesday and gave the clearest statement about where she stands: “I believe Joe Biden.”

For now, the campaign is relying on a formula that has worked since he announced his candidacy: don’t rush, don’t overreact and don’t try to get ahead of a crisis that might be consuming activists and the news media on Twitter but that voters aren’t talking about.

Biden also doesn’t want to appear to demonize Reade because it would hurt the broader cause of supporting women who are accusers, said an adviser to the former vice president. But the campaign expects he’ll eventually discuss the issue publicly.

The reaction by Biden’s campaign and surrogates to the accusations from Reade have disappointed some women’s rights activists and others.

Denise Krepp, a former U.S. Maritime Administration chief counsel who said she was pressured to quit her job in 2012 during the Obama administration because she called for an independent investigation of sexual assault allegations at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, tweeted Wednesday that she wouldn’t participate in an “Obama Alumni” fundraiser Friday for Biden until he spoke about Reade. Krepp said the potential running mates for Biden also need to be more vocal, although she understands that could be complicated.

“They could end up being in the situation I ended up in, where you’re accused of being disloyal. But disloyal to whom?” she said. “Your job is not to be quiet. Your job is to answer these questions.”

Burgess Everett contributed to this report.