Current Affairs - April 10, 2020

The recent allegation that Joe Biden once sexually assaulted one of his senate staffers has not gotten as much attention as one might expect, given the seriousness of the crime. The staffer, Tara Reade, has described the assault in vivid and disturbing detail. Her allegation is credible enough to have received an in-depth article inNewsweek, but so far has gone completely unmentioned by the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, and MSNBC, and when Biden has done interviews he hasn’t even been asked about Reade’s claim. (Reason and the Guardian have published articles questioning the media silence.) Prominent champions of the “MeToo” movement, including many who loudly defended Christine Blasey Ford when she went public about being sexually assaulted by Brett Kavanaugh during high school, have been noticeably silent about defending Reade. 

Reade herself says she has been trying for months to get journalists and activists to pay attention to her story, but nobody has been interested in listening. According to a report by the Intercept, in January of this year Reade approached Time’s Up, a project of the National Women’s Law Center designed to provide legal and public relations assistance to sexually abused women. Time’s Up declined to help Reade, and (as Time’s Up told the Intercept) this was not because it doubted her veracity but because Reade was accusing Biden in particular, and the “political” nature of the accusation could jeopardize Time’s Up’s nonprofit status. Notably, the PR firm that Time’s Up uses to help publicize women’s stories, SKDKnickerbocker, is run by Anita Dunne, a senior adviser to Joe Biden. 

Now, before we engage in any speculation on the reasons for the quiet response to Reade, let us just note something that is indisputably true: If Tara Reade’s allegation were to be widely publicized, Joe Biden might be significantly damaged politically. And given the current state of the Democratic primary, in which Biden is the only candidate still campaigning, a scandal like this could throw the Democratic Party into utter chaos. With Biden the presumptive nominee, if something were to undermine Joe Biden, it would therefore hurt the Democratic Party’s prospects of defeating Donald Trump. It would therefore be quite understandable for there to be many in the party who want to do everything possible to keep Biden from being damaged, in order to preserve their chances against Trump. If Biden went down in flames, the only plausible alternative—running Bernie Sanders, who is still on the ballot despite having suspended his campaign—is, for many, completely unthinkable. Senior figures in the party have made it clear before that they see Bernie Sanders as an existential threat to the party. They thus have a strong incentive to do whatever it takes to ensure Biden is in fact nominated.

I do not allege here that senior Democrats would deliberately bury or ignore a serious accusation of sexual assault against their favored candidate in order to make sure Joe Biden successfully clinched the nomination against Bernie Sanders. This would be monstrous. I do note, however, as a matter of pure fact, that at this stage in the primary, those who see Biden as the nominee and Sanders as disastrous/unthinkable have a strong incentive to ignore such an accusation. I am sure they are good people who will resist being influenced by this incentive. Surely they care about truth and morality more than Biden’s career. But the existence of the incentive to ignore it is indisputable.

If Democrats and large parts of the mainstream press are not ignoring Reade’s accusation because it is politically inconvenient, why are they ignoring it? One quite obvious factor is coronavirus: The global pandemic has bumped all other news to the back pages for the moment, and things that would be incredibly significant in ordinary times are now being set aside. But Reade’s accusation is not even on the back pages. A major party presidential candidate being accused of having committed a heinous sex crime against an employee is a major news story. If it’s true, Joe Biden should not be the Democratic nominee. If it’s true, it is going to have significant ramifications for the November election—Donald Trump is politically savvy enough not to bring it up now while Democrats could still replace Biden, but you bet he will in the general election. And the November election is going to affect the future of our democracy, so this story is important no matter what way you look at it.

The main defense for not paying attention to Tara Reade, then, is that she is not “credible,” which means that she is either a malicious liar or completely delusional. Anyone who has listened to Reade’s interview with Katie Halper—and I encourage everyone who can stomach it to do so—knows that if this were the case, Reade would have to be very malicious or very delusional. Her story is so detailed and emotional that it is extremely hard, listening to her tell it, to believe that she is not telling the truth.

But some people have suggested that they do think Reade might be lying or delusional, and that her lack of “credibility” is sufficient grounds for burying her story. Amanda Marcotte, writing in Salon, dismisses the idea that those ignoring the story are doing so because they are uncomfortable elevating an allegation that could be politically devastating for Democrats. Instead, she says, there are genuine reasons to doubt Tara—“a lot of red flags”—and therefore to not report on her story. An article in Jezebel by Emily Alford suggests that Reade’s accusation has been improperly vetted, i.e., that there is not enough reason to trust her, and she should not be listened to until her account has been bolstered. If these perspectives are right, they provide a legitimate, non-political explanation for ignoring Reade.

So is there anything to the argument that Tara Reade is not credible?

No, I don’t think so. I have talked to Tara Reade extensively myself, and she has been completely consistent and frank. I have talked to her brother, who confirms that Tara told him about the assault at the time. I have also talked to her friend Sarah*, a fellow Capitol Hill staffer Tara spoke to about the assault in 1993 as well as over the years afterward. The Intercept talked to both of them as well, and Reade’s brother Collin Moulton said: “Woefully, I did not encourage her to follow up… I wasn’t one of her better advocates. I said let it go, move on, guys are idiots.” When I asked Sarah if the account Tara has given to the press is consistent with what she said in 1993, Sarah said that it was. She confirmed that Tara had called her on the phone shortly after the incident happened and was very distraught about it. Sarah says the news left her in “absolute shock” at the time. She added:

“I have not enjoyed knowing this about someone [Biden] who for eight years was in the news as VP. Even in this campaign… every time I see him… I can’t… I mean I wasn’t in the hallway but I still can’t look at him without thinking of that… She should have been safe. She should never have had anything close to this even happen.

I also asked Sarah about a comment Tara’s brother made to me. He said that the incident had changed Tara’s personality, sapping her confidence. Sarah agreed, saying Tara began to “second guess” herself afterwards, the effects of Biden’s attack on Tara were severe and lasting. “It’s never left her,” she said. “What I wouldn’t give to go back in time and to pull her out of that hallway. Say ‘Run! Go!’ But no one can make time go back.”

That is more corroboration than Christine Blasey Ford had—she hadn’t told anyone at the time of her assault, yet her accusation was front-page news. But I also think that the particular reasons Marcotte and Jezebel have for casting doubt on Tara Reade do not hold up, and I would like to go through all the current criticisms of Reade and show why they are so weak. In fact, I think they are totally indefensible. Those who make them are casting doubt on a victim for no good reason, and suggesting that women who come forward should be disbelieved on spurious grounds. Ultimately, those who have criticized and ignored Tara Reade are doing serious damage to the MeToo movement by suggesting that women like Reade may well simply be delusional or lying; and, until they can prove that they are not delusional or lying, their claims can be set aside. 

Salon’s Attack on Reade’s Credibility

Amanda Marcotte’s Salon article is particularly insidious, and I want to carefully explain why, because it may not be obvious on a casual reading. Marcotte is an established feminist writer, and the article is presented as nothing more than a fair-minded assessment of Reade’s claims, clarifying myths and fact, and setting the record straight. (“Salon hopes this story will offer clarity about what is and isn’t true.”) Marcotte says that both Reade’s critics and her supporters are mistaken, thereby positioning herself as a mere neutral arbiter of fact, debunking both pro and anti-Reade talking points. The “anti-Reade” talking points that Marcotte debunks are obviously ludicrous—Marcotte magnanimously defends Reade against charges of being a woman who once appeared on Dr. Phil to say that Vladimir Putin was her boyfriend. She also says it’s “highly doubtful” that Reade is a “Russian agent” because “anyone actually working for Russian intelligence would have done a better job covering her tracks.” But while Marcotte presents herself as being fair to Reade, and, as a feminist, inclined to be sympathetic, one of her central conclusions is deeply hostile to Reade: She suggests that there is good reason not to listen to Reade because her accusation may well be “political” and has “red flags.” The central “pro-Reade” talking point she attacks is that Reade is credible enough to warrant her story being heard in the mainstream media. 

There’s something quite ugly in the way Marcotte weighs Reade’s allegation. Even though she talked to Reade, she does not give Tara space to tell her story in her own words. Instead, here are some excerpts from Marcotte’s section on why the media hasn’t covered the story: 

“Reade’s story of what happened during her tenure working for Biden has changed over time… Reade’s April 2019 account of why she left Biden’s office also conflicts with earlier things she has written…. Before 2019, Reade lived under another name — she changed it for many years to escape an abusive husband, and provided the paperwork demonstrating this to Salon—and her public statements about Biden were entirely positive. After making her April 2019 allegations that Biden had touched her inappropriately, Reade spent months tweeting that story, dozens of times, at various figures—politicians, celebrities, media outlets,even Donald Trump[Marcotte chose to hyperlink this one]—to no response. Under both her current and prior name, Reade has expressed public support for a variety of Democratic politicians in the past, ranging from Sen. Cory Booker and Sen. Elizabeth Warren to Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and Marianne Williamson. Then, over the past few months, Reade began heavily retweeting pro-Sanders accounts and regularly engaging with prominent Sanders supporters like Halper. It was during this time that Reade started to hint publicly that what happened with Biden had been far more serious than her 2019 story detailed. Such hinting led—as Reade told Salon, which Halper confirmed—to an anonymous woman suggesting that Reade seek Halper out to tell her full story. When asked why her story had changed so much in the past year, Reade told Salon that she had considered describing the assault to the original reporter from the Nevada County paper, but the “way he asked the questions” had “shut me down.” (That reporter did not respond to Salon’s request for comment.) She also said she felt intimidated by social media attacks and threats in the aftermath of her original accusations, and therefore stayed silent. The timeline shows that Reade’s involvement in the online world of Bernie fandom coincided with her escalation of accusations against Biden. To be clear, this does not mean she’s lying. But taken along with the other discrepancies in Reade’s accounts—which are also, on their own, not reasons to discredit her—it’s enough to make publications take a slow and careful approach to amplifying this story.

Now, let’s note that this passage undermines Reade in about a dozen small ways, through subtle choices of what to present and how to frame things. Marcotte repeatedly makes the very serious charge that Tara Reade has “changed” her story “so much in the past year.” But this is an unfair and inaccurate way to characterize what has happened. Reade did not originally disclose the full nature of what happened to her. In April 2019, when Lucy Flores spoke out about Biden touching her inappropriately, Tara Reade came forward to confirm that Biden had also done similar acts to her. Then, later, Reade said that there was more that she had not previously disclosed, namely a serious sexual assault. To see why this is not properly characterized as “changing her story,” imagine if I asked you: “How was your relationship with your employer?” and you said “It was rocky. He sometimes gave me… funny looks, and did things that made me uncomfortable, like patting me on the head.” Then, later, when you talked to someone else at more length, you admitted that there had been more, that the employer had assaulted you. An unfair person trying to discredit you (a la Marcotte) could characterize this as “changing your story.” But that’s the kind of aggressively uncharitable framing that the lawyer for your employer would use when cross-examining you (“AND WHY DID YOU CHANGE YOUR STORY?”) rather than the kind of framing we should use if we are trying, as Marcotte says she is, merely to get to the truth. Gradually opening up about the parts of your story that are the most difficult to tell is very different from altering it. The difference should be obvious, especially to someone who understands how survivors tell stories.

The other piece of evidence for Marcotte’s assertion that Reade has changed her story a lot is that Tara Reade once wrote a blog post in which she talked about leaving her DC job, and she does not say it was because Biden sexually assaulted her. Again, someone trying to be fair to Reade, rather than trying to sow as many doubts as possible, would show an understanding of the fact that a woman who has been sexually assaulted by a prominent politician might not necessarily post about it on her public blog, and might emphasize the other reasons she left Washington. This stuff is difficult to talk about, and an honest feminist writer would be taking great pains to help people understand why things that look like they might be “changes” in a story aren’t necessarily changes at all, and might just reflect a growing level of comfort with being public about something very painful, something originally only disclosed in private to friends and family. Prof. Anthony Zenkus, an expert on sexual violence at the Columbia School of Social Work, shocked by Marcotte’s doubting of Reade’s sexual assault claim because she “changed” her story over time, explains in an op-ed why the apparent contradiction is no contradiction at all: 

In the sexual violence advocacy community, it is well understood that survivors take time to tell their full stories. At an advocacy agency where I was a director, a young girl who was sexually abused by a male relative told the police how he fondled her above her clothing. Months later, she spoke about the penetration. This is typical behavior for victims of trauma. Rarely does the story come out all at once. When Tara Reade joined other women in April of 2019 in speaking about how Biden put his hands on her and caressed her neck, she did not speak about the most horrific part of what had happened. The response from supporters of Biden was swift. Reade was criticized, her story dismissed, and her character attacked. It is clear why she wavered on coming forward with the most brutal details of her rape.

Marcotte, by failing to explain this, and instead using Tara’s gradual willingness to share more as “changing her story,” is discouraging her audience from thinking about how real world victims relay traumatic events. Prof. Zenkus notes that Tara’s story “has not changed. Details have been included now that Reade said she wasn’t comfortable including in the past.” ...
Read full report at Current Affairs