A sexual assault allegation against Joe Biden has ignited a firestorm of controversy

Last year, several women came forward publicly to say Joe Biden had kissed or touched them in ways that made them uncomfortable.

One of them was Tara Reade, who said Biden used to “put his hand on my shoulder and run his finger up my neck” when she worked in his Senate office in 1993.

Reade now says there was more to her experience with Biden. In an interview with podcast host Katie Halper, which aired Wednesday, Reade says Biden sexually assaulted her, pushing her against a wall and penetrating her with his fingers. When she pulled away, she says, he said he thought she “liked” him.

“It was like an earthquake,” Reade told Vox. “I was so excited about this job,” she said. “I thought this was my future, and so when that happened I felt, it’s like someone pulling the rug out.”

Biden’s campaign on Friday denied Reade’s allegation. “Women have a right to tell their story, and reporters have an obligation to rigorously vet those claims,” deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield said in a statement. “We encourage them to do so, because these accusations are false.”

Last year, a few days after women began coming forward with reports of inappropriate touching by him, the former vice president issued a statement saying that “social norms have begun to change” around people’s personal space and that he would be more mindful of boundaries in the future.

Reade says she did not speak publicly about her allegation of sexual assault before in part because no one else witnessed the incident, while she says others saw Biden harassing her. She also says she faced online harassment after coming forward last year. As Ryan Grim reports at the Intercept, journalists and others questioned her credibility, pointing out favorable comments she had made about Vladimir Putin in a 2018 Medium post, perhaps implying that she was a Russian plant.

Reade’s allegation initially received little coverage outside of left-wing media (and some media outlets on the right). But the hashtags #IBelieveTara and #TimesUpBiden started to pick up steam on Twitter earlier this week, as many wondered why it was not getting more attention.

The allegation has also inflamed tensions between supporters of Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders. Reade told Vox she initially supported Sen. Elizabeth Warren for president (and also supported Marianne Williamson) but now supports Sanders. And her report has led to allegations by some that she or her supporters are simply trying to throw the election to Sanders — or even to President Donald Trump.

Reade acknowledges the concern that her allegation could benefit Trump in the general election, since Biden is likely to be the Democratic nominee. Trump himself has been accused of sexual harassment, assault, or other misconduct by more than 20 women, and is being sued for defamation by two of them.

“I don’t want Trump to be president,” Reade told Vox. But, she said, she won’t be voting for Biden. “If he’s my president, I just can’t fathom it.”

Multiple women have said Biden touched them in ways that made them uncomfortable

Reports of “creepy” behavior by Biden, like standing too close to women for photo opportunities, have circulated for years, treated by some as little more than a joke. But those reports received more serious attention after Lucy Flores, a former candidate for lieutenant governor of Nevada, wrote in a March 2019 essay at The Cut that Biden had kissed her on the back of the head at a campaign event in 2014.

“I couldn’t move and I couldn’t say anything,” Flores wrote. “I wanted nothing more than to get Biden away from me.”

After that, other women spoke out to report similar experiences. Amy Lappos, for example, said that at a 2009 fundraiser, Biden touched her face and rubbed noses with her. And in April, Reade told the Union, a California newspaper, that Biden touched her several times in ways that made her feel uncomfortable, and that her duties in his Senate office were reduced after she refused to serve drinks at an event. She said he wanted her there because he liked her legs.

Biden did not specifically respond to Reade’s allegation, but in a video statement in early April, he said, “I shake hands, I hug people, I grab men and women by the shoulders and say, ‘You can do this.’” However, he also said that “the boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset” and pledged to change his behavior.

Since then, the allegations by women have not come up much on the debate stage or campaign trail, and Biden is likely to be the Democratic nominee for president this year.

But on Tuesday, Reade’s allegation came to the fore again when Grim reported on its general outline in the Intercept. Then, on Wednesday, Halper released her interview on her podcast, The Katie Halper Show. In it, Reade says that in 1993, when she was in her 20s and working for Biden, another staffer asked her to bring him a gym bag at the US Capitol.

When she did, she says, he pushed her up against a wall in a secluded area, began kissing her, and reached under her skirt to penetrate her with his fingers. After she pulled away, she says he responded with something along the lines of, “Come on, man, I heard you liked me.” Reade said Biden also said something that sticks with her today: “You’re nothing to me.”

Those words affected her “almost more than the assault,” she said, because she had respected him so much before.

In addition to Bedingfield’s statement, the Biden campaign also released a statement from Marianne Baker, an executive assistant to Biden from 1982 to 2000. “In all my years working for Senator Biden, I never once witnessed, or heard of, or received, any reports of inappropriate conduct, period — not from Ms. Reade, not from anyone,” Baker said. “These clearly false allegations are in complete contradiction to both the inner workings of our Senate office and to the man I know and worked so closely with for almost two decades.”

Reade, for her part, said she did not include the assault accusation when she spoke out last year because the harassment was easier to talk about, in part because others had witnessed it.

“I wanted to share the whole thing, but at the same time I was too scared,” she said. “I just wasn’t quite ready.”

Since then, Grim has contacted Reade’s friend and brother, both of whom say she told them about the alleged sexual assault by Biden in 1993.

“Woefully, I did not encourage her to follow up,” her brother told the Intercept. “I wasn’t one of her better advocates. I said let it go, move on, guys are idiots.”

Earlier this year, though, Reade decided she wanted to speak publicly about the assault allegation. She reached out to Time’s Up, an anti-harassment organization launched as the Me Too movement rose to prominence, to see if she could get legal representation. However, Grim reports, the organization said it could not support her because Biden is a candidate for federal office and doing so could jeopardize its nonprofit status.

The Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which is administered by the National Women’s Law Center, has countered that it did offer some help to Reade. Uma Iyer, the center’s vice president of communications, said in a statement on Friday that “we helped Ms. Reade as much as we could, within the guardrails that necessarily shape our work.” The organization “provided her with the information to connect to attorneys and other resources” as it has done for many others, Iyer said; however, “we informed Ms. Reade of our inability to fund legal and PR fees for her due to our 501(c)(3) status.”

“The TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund is the first-of-its-kind entity, and above all else, we prioritize survivors and their quest to seek justice – but we cannot do that if our nonprofit status is in any way threatened,” Iyer said.

Unable to get legal help, Reade told Vox, she decided to write about her experience on Medium in January. She did not state an allegation of sexual assault then, but said that “I have not told the whole story of what occurred between Joe Biden and myself.” That led to interest from some smaller media outlets and the interview with Halper, she said. “I kind of feel like a weight was lifted off when I did that interview,” Reade said. “Now I’m ready to walk away, and now everyone wants to talk to me.”

Mainstream media initially did not cover Reade’s assault allegation

Part of the reason Reade sought legal help, she told Vox, was that she faced harassment when she initially came forward last year. She also faced scrutiny into her background. In particular, critics pointed to that now-deleted 2018 Medium post in which Reade called Putin “a compassionate, caring, visionary leader” and said, “To President Putin, I say keep your eyes to the beautiful future and maybe, just maybe America will come to see Russia as I do, with eyes of love.”

In the same post, she wrote that she left government work in her 20s in part because “I love Russia with all my heart” and “I could not stand to watch the deception and xenophobia that came from my own American government.”

Reade told Vox that when she wrote the praise of Putin, she had “watched a bunch of Noam Chomsky” and was working on a novel set in Russia. She says she no longer feels the same way about Putin since learning more about domestic violence in Russia.

But “this conversation isn’t about Russia,” she told Vox. “Joe Biden wasn’t asking me about my feelings about Russia when he had his hands where they weren’t supposed to be.”

Some have dismissed Reade’s allegation because Reade is a Sanders supporter and because it was first publicized by left-wing outlets. As of Friday morning, the story had been covered by the Intercept, Halper (a vocal Sanders supporter), and Refinery29, but not by the New York Times or Washington Post.

To that, Reade said, “Of course, if it’s a choice between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, from my perspective, I’m going to pick Bernie Sanders,” and added that Sanders supporters were kind to her when she was harassed online after coming forward last year.

This time, social media conversation may have helped bring attention to Reade’s story, with #IBelieveTara and #TimesUpBiden trending this week.

The current social media reactions to Reade’s assault allegation could be broken down into several camps: those who cite her praise of Russia and imply that she or her supporters are working on behalf of Sanders, Trump, or Putin; and those who cite the need to believe people who come forward to report sexual misconduct.

Reade’s report comes at a time when Biden is likely to face Trump in the general election. Before Trump was elected, numerous women had accused him of sexual assault and harassment, and he was caught on tape bragging about his ability to grab women “by the pussy.” He was elected anyway.

While Reade is no fan of Trump, she said she is disturbed by the fact that Biden is “running on a platform of character.”

“The Uncle Joe thing, I never saw that,” she said. “He was very strong, he was very powerful, and he knew it, and he used his power to get what he wanted.”


Update March 27: This story has been updated to include a statement from the Biden campaign received after publication time. It has also been updated to include a statement from Uma Iyer, vice president of communications for the National Women’s Law Center.