Saturday, my favorite political site Electoral Vote published a question from one of their readers asking about Tara Reade’s accusation of sexual assault against Joe Biden. Here’s the question and their answer:
Q: I was wondering if you might comment on the recent failed anti-Biden propaganda push related to sexual assault. Whoever is pushing the story is currently failing to get oxygen because of COVID-19 news, but they do successfully inundate Twitter and Reddit and Facebook every night. Do you think this indicates a pre-scheduled propaganda schedule? If so, did they have to go through with it, even though they knew they wouldn’t get traction? Or are Republicans just trying to get this into the news so they can start pretending it’s real? Is the current failure an instruction that the best way to deal with obvious Republican propaganda is to just ignore it? I would love to hear your thoughts. M.A., Washington, DC
A: Just so everyone is on the same page, the story being referenced is Tara Reade’s claim that she was sexually assaulted by Joe Biden back in 1993, while she was working for him. Here is the key portion of her narrative:
“He just had me up against the wall. I was wearing like a skirt, a business skirt. I wasn’t wearing stockings. It was kind of a hot day that day, and I was wearing heels…I remember I was wearing a blouse, and he just had me up against the wall. And the wall was cold. It happened all at once…his hands were on me and underneath my clothes. Yeah, and he went down my skirt but then up inside it, and he penetrated me with his fingers, and he was kissing me at the same time, and he was saying something to me. He said several things. I can’t remember everything he said.“
Biden, of course, has denied this.
It does not appear to be centrally coordinated; in fact, it started on one end of the political spectrum and then jumped to the other. You’re right that the story definitely did not gain traction, despite the fact that many mainstream outlets took a look at it. Here are some guesses as to why:
The “#MeToo Moment” Has Passed: There was a period of time there, right after the Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby stories broke, that the mere whiff of sexual impropriety was career-ending. Perhaps the most obvious person caught up in this was former senator Al Franken, who was compelled to resign his office before an investigation could be conducted. It is the case that sexual assault claims are taken much more seriously these days than they used to be, as well they should. But we seem to have exited the time in which a mere accusation was seen as proof of guilt.
Is Reade Trustworthy?: The general progression of events does not increase confidence in Reade’s account. The first problem is that she didn’t tell anyone at the time that she was assaulted, and she did not come forward with the story until a quarter-century had passed. Second, she came forward previously, and was one of the women who accused Biden of inappropriate hugging/touching, but didn’t mention anything beyond that. Third, she has been an outspoken anti-Biden and pro-Sanders voice on social media (and, in fact, when she made the assault allegations, she did so to a staunchly left-leaning website, The Intercept). None of this proves she is lying, but it certainly does raise some concerns about her veracity and her motivations.
Out of Character for Biden: There is no question that Biden grew up with a 1950s/1960s sense of boundaries, a sense out of step with where we’re at today. But, unlike Bill Clinton, Brett Kavanaugh, Anthony Wiener, and other plausibly accused alleged perpetrators of sexual assault, Biden’s never been associated with any misconduct beyond that. There is a huge chasm between “inappropriate hug” and “violent sexual assault.” It’s highly unusual for someone to jump over that chasm with no intermediate/gateway steps. It’s even more unusual for it to happen exactly one time. And thus far, nobody else has come forward with claims like Reade’s.
Right Wing Framing: After The Intercept ran the story, right-wing media grabbed it and ran with it. Interestingly, most of them had a headline or a lede that included the formulation “Joe Biden Said He Believes All Women. Does He Believe Tara Reade?” That’s a very unusual framing, one that downplays the more serious crime of sexual assault, and plays up Biden’s alleged hypocrisy (which is, of course, not a crime). Framing things in that way certainly makes it seem like even the right-wingers don’t really think Biden assaulted Reade, and instead they’re trying to use this as a “gotcha.”
Going to the Well Too Many Times: Shamefully, a number of folks (most commonly hacky right-wing operatives) have tried to use 100% fabricated claims of sexual misconduct to smear political opponents. The most notable case of this is probably the comically inept Jacob Wohl, who tried to smear special counsel Robert Mueller in this manner, and then tried it again with Pete Buttigieg. This has undoubtedly put the idea in people’s minds that when a sexual assault claim seems like in might fail the smell test, it might just be a political hit job.
Anyhow, these are our guesses. We think it’s instructive that Donald Trump has yet to deploy this against Biden. If there was any chance it could stick, and was going to become an element of the 2020 campaign, surely the President would have tossed it out there already.
And yes, propaganda is best ignored.
This is an issue I have quite a bit of interest in. I am extremely happy that (finally!) people are now taking accusations of sexual harassment seriously, but that doesn’t mean that all accusations are automatically true. They must be investigated and vetted.
I strongly agreed with their answer to the question, including that Biden had an overly touchy feely behavior toward women in the past, but that is a far cry from sexual assault. However, I had a couple of comments, so I wrote a response to them for use in their Sunday mailbag, and they published it. Here’s my response:
I.K. from Olympia, WA, writes: I really appreciate you answering the question about Tara Reade and the anti-Biden propaganda push. You make excellent points, but I have two comments.
First, You left out what happened with the Time’s Up fund, who declined to fund legal and PR fees for Reade because the appearance of them being political would threaten their 501(c)(3) status. In response, some sites have cried “coverup”. However, Time’s Up could have safely helped Tara Reade (despite Joe Biden being a presidential candidate) as long as they used their normal procedure to decide whether to help. Doesn’t it make more sense that they used their normal procedure to evaluate Reade’s claims, and (they, like you) found them unconvincing?
Second, you say that this story did not gain traction, and you also say that it is instructive that Trump has not deployed this against Biden, but you ignore something important. Does Trump know a better way to harm Biden with this than using it against him directly (and appearing to be the pot calling the kettle black).
In the last week, I have been inundated with messages from my relatives and friends who are Sanders supporters, all of them saying exactly the same thing: that because of this one accusation of sexual assault, they refuse to vote for Biden for president. So this is splintering the Democrats, which can only help Trump. I have no idea who is spreading this, but it seems to be working, and there are plenty of actors (Republicans, Sanders supporters, Russians, etc.) who would benefit. Plus, this is eerily similar to the way that fear, uncertainty, and doubt was used against Clinton during the 2016 election.
(My only regret is that I didn’t add some cute snark, and say “the despot calling the kettle black”).