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Biden disputes assault claim, but some on both sides still want all records released

This video framegrab image from MSNBC's Morning Joe, shows Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaking to co-host Mika Brzezinski, Friday, May 1, 2020. (MSNBC's Morning Joe via AP)
This video framegrab image from MSNBC's Morning Joe, shows Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaking to co-host Mika Brzezinski, Friday, May 1, 2020. (MSNBC's Morning Joe via AP)
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Former Vice President Joe Biden “unequivocally” denied sexual assault allegations Friday, but his resistance to release records held at the University of Delaware that some believe could shed light on the incident is raising new questions, even as supporters insist the documents in his personal archives are irrelevant.

The likely Democratic presidential nominee personally addressed the allegations, which have been gaining growing attention in the press for weeks, for the first time in a statement posted to Medium and then in a lengthy interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

“It is not true. I’m saying unequivocally, it never, never happened,” Biden told host Mika Brzezinski, calling on the National Archives to release any records of a complaint, if it exists.

“If it’s there, put it out, but I’ve never seen it,” Biden said. “No one has that I’m aware of.”

Tara Reade, who worked as an assistant in Biden’s Senate office in the early 1990s, was one of several women who came forward last year and accused him of touching them in ways that made them uncomfortable. In March, she went further, alleging that he sexually assaulted her one night in 1993.

Reade claimed she filed a complaint with the Senate, but no record of that has yet been found. Several former Biden Senate staffers have issued statements denying any knowledge of the allegation or a complaint.

“I’m confident there’s nothing. Nobody brought it to the attention of me 27 years ago,” Biden said.

However, despite declaring “this is an open book,” he continued to reject calls to unseal additional records from his Senate years stored at the University of Delaware. He stressed that they would not include personnel records but they do contain sensitive, confidential material that he does not want to be made public while he is pursuing public office.

"The idea that they would all be made public while I was running for public office, they could really be taken out of contextFor all of that to be fodder in a campaign, at this time, I don’t know of anybody who’s done anything like that," Biden said, though he added he would be comfortable with releasing any complaints filed against him and he is unaware of any documented claims of sexual misconduct.

The university has said thousands of boxes of Biden’s files are still being curated and that process will not be complete until 2021. A spokesperson said the plan was always to keep Biden’s papers private until two years after he retired from public life.

Those answers are unlikely to ease political pressure for Biden to open up the files. Many in the media were still demanding their release Friday, and Republicans have already seized on the issue to allege a “cover-up.”

“What does Joe Biden have to hide in his Delaware documents?” the Republican National Committee asked, pointing to reports that campaign staffers had accessed his files in the last year.

After the 20-minute interview, though, some Democrats insist the matter should be settled.

“The story has been heard and vetted. No staffer remembers it. No complaint found. Move on,” said former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

Biden supporters fear releasing a trove of records will give reporters and opposition researchers endless ammunition for attacks, much like the ongoing release of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emails hounded her throughout the 2016 campaign. They also question why Biden should hold himself to a higher standard of transparency when President Trump has not released tax returns and other records candidates typically make public.

“This will be an unpopular opinion, but there is no reason Biden should make any of his records public when Trump won’t release his tax returns, respond to subpoenas, etc. As long as Trump is president, that is the norm, and there can’t be different standards for his challenger,” former Obama Department of Justice spokesman Matthew Miller said on Twitter.

However, Arnie Arnesen, a progressive radio host who urged Biden not to run for the nomination in part because of his “historical baggage,” said she has been frustrated by his campaign’s slow and incomplete response to Reade’s claims.

“Donald Trump is in a world of his own,” she said. “He’s not my standard. He will never be my standard. But I do have a high standard, and I want my party to meet that standard.”

Arnesen pointed to a Business Insider report questioning whether a complaint, if filed, would be in the National Archives at all and whether Senate employment records that are typically sealed for 50 years could be released. She also emphasized that the public does not know what is or is not in the University of Delaware files, and she doubts Biden’s stance is sustainable.

“As someone who wants everyone to be heard, who wants transparency, who wants openness... I think we’re going to have to go to his records,” she said.

The assault allegation has stirred controversy among progressives weeks after Biden became the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee, potentially derailing his efforts to unite the party and court supporters of his former opponents. Though Sen. Bernie Sanders has endorsed Biden, several of his staffers continue to circulate Reade’s claims on social media and demand Biden withdraw from the race.

“If you're a journalist, you shouldn’t be scandalizing the idea of a taxpayer-funded public university allowing the public to view government documents,” former Sanders adviser David Sirota tweeted Thursday. “I don’t care about the politics. This is the most basic transparency/FOIA issue. How can you not understand that?”

Biden and his allies have also faced blowback over what conservatives say is blatant hypocrisy for casting doubt on Reade after lending credibility to allegations against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearings in 2018.

“Democratic politicians who attacked Kavanaugh are as hypocritical as their media allies. During the Kavanaugh confirmation hearing, Democrats denied him any semblance of due process, conducting the proceeding like a kangaroo court,” Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., wrote in a Fox News op-ed Thursday.

Pressed repeatedly Friday about statements he and other top Democrats made in 2018 about the importance of believing women and presuming that the essence of their claims is true, Biden maintained his position has not changed and he does not regret his past comments.

“Are women to be believed unless it pertains to you?” Brzezinski asked.

“Women are to be believed, given the benefit of the doubt if they come forward and say something happened to them,” Biden responded. “They should start with the presumption they’re telling the truth. Then you have to look at the circumstances and the facts, and the facts, in this case, do not exist.”

According to Virginia Sapiro, dean of Arts and Sciences emerita at Boston University and author of several books on women and politics, reactions to Biden’s MSNBC appearance and his handling of the assault allegations will likely be driven by partisanship. Voters on both sides are prone to see what they want to see, regardless of reality.

“There is plenty of motivated reasoning on all sides to go around,” Sapiro said.

Despite the controversy, Biden has managed to maintain and even expand his support among female Democratic leaders. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton publicly endorsed him this week as many women’s groups held off on criticizing him while they privately pressed the campaign to do more to address Reade’s claims.

At a press conference Thursday, Pelosi brushed off suggestions of hypocrisy, maintaining she supports the #MeToo movement but there is no record substantiating the allegations against Biden and the former vice president is “a person of great integrity.”

"There is also due process. And the fact that Joe Biden is Joe Biden," Pelosi said, citing his record fighting for women’s rights.

According to The New York Times, several women’s groups drafted a letter calling on Biden to “model how to take serious allegations seriously,” but they opted not to release it as they pushed Biden’s campaign to put out a statement by the end of April, which was Sexual Assault Awareness Month. The campaign did not do so until Friday, May 1, minutes before Biden’s MSNBC interview.

“April was Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Every year, at this time, we talk about awareness, prevention, and the importance of women feeling they can step forward, say something, and be heard,” Biden said in the statement, adding that women “deserve to be treated with dignity and respect” but their stories should be scrutinized.

How all this affects Biden politically is hard to predict. The controversy has not yet dented his poll numbers—recent polls show him leading Trump nationally and in key swing states—but the facts are still developing. If voters see the charges resolved in a fair and transparent process, it could be quickly forgotten, but if questions remain unanswered, the impact might linger.

“The claims can hurt him with people – male or female – who truly see sexual harassment and assault of women as offensive and unjust if there is not a definitive resolution,” Sapiro said.

(If you are viewing on a mobile app, click here to take the poll.)

Earlier this week, Biden allies were circulating talking points highlighting another recent New York Times report delving into Reade’s allegations as proof they were investigated and found untrue. The Times issued a statement stressing it had not reported that Reade’s claims were false but reporters did not find concrete evidence or any pattern of similar behavior.

When The Times investigated, one friend who has not been publicly identified confirmed Reade told her about the alleged assault when it occurred. Another person, a former neighbor, has since claimed Reade also confided in her in the mid-1990s about what happened.

Biden did not address the apparent contemporaneous corroboration Friday, but doubts have also emerged about the changes in Reade’s account over time. She also praised Biden on social media years before she went public with her accusations. Some Democrats are still unsure what to make of it all, skeptical of Reade but not prepared to completely dismiss her.

“I am frustrated because I see her story morphing and I wonder why,” Arnesen said. “I don’t believe all women, but I hear all women because I’m one of them. I’ve been inappropriately touched.”

The political dynamics of the issue are complicated by the many claims of sexual harassment and assault leveled against President Trump, all of which he has denied. Trump also seemingly bragged about sexually assaulting women in a 2005 recording leaked a month before the 2016 election, and Republicans overwhelmingly supported him that November anyway.

“Ironically, those who have most defended Trump – the candidate who gleefully explained how he assaults women on the ‘Access Hollywood’ tapes and who has a history of treating women with contempt -- will be those up in arms against Biden no matter what the record shows,” Sapiro said.

That did not stop the Trump campaign from lashing out at Biden after the MSNBC interview Friday, accusing him of establishing a “glaring” double standard.

“The only thing Joe Biden did today was dig himself a deeper hole. He once again demonstrated that he believes he should be held to a different standard than he has set for others,” deputy communications director Erin Perrine said in a statement.

Although Trump’s campaign has highlighted the allegations repeatedly this week, the president has seemed hesitant to wade into the controversy himself when given the chance.

“I don’t know anything about it. I think he should respond. It could be false accusations. I know all about false accusations,” Trump said at a White House press conference, claiming that he and Kavanaugh also faced false charges.

In an interview with conservative commentator Dan Bongino Friday, Trump suggested Biden should “just go out and fight it.”

Biden has so far declined to take such an aggressive stance. Throughout the MSNBC interview, he sought to balance his record of support for sexual assault accusers with his denial of what this accuser is saying, declining to question Reade’s motives but noting inconsistencies in her story.

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“Women have a right to be heard and the press should vigorously investigate any claims they made. I’ll always uphold that principal, but in the end, the truth is what matters,” he said.

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