Carlos Barria / Reuters

Breaking more than a month of silence about sexual-assault accusations against him, the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, flatly rejected claims by his former Senate staffer Tara Reade this morning.

“They aren’t true,” he said in a statement. “This never happened.”

Biden did not delve into the details of Reade’s allegations, but said that he remembers no inappropriate encounter or complaint. He called on the secretary of the Senate to ask the National Archives to produce any record of a complaint by Reade. He expanded on that statement in an interview with MSNBC’s Morning Joe, telling Mika Brzezinski that he would be happy to open any public records about allegations.

“To the best of my knowledge, there’s been no complaints made against me,” he said. “Look, this is an open book. There’s nothing for me to hide. Nothing at all.”

Reade said in March that in 1993, while she was working on Biden’s Senate staff, he pinned her against a wall, penetrated her with his fingers, and forcibly kissed her. Several acquaintances say she spoke about an assault at the time it allegedly occurred. Reade had previously said, in 2019, that Biden had made her uncomfortable by touching her shoulders and neck. Biden’s defenders have pointed to the evolution of Reade’s account to question it. She says she filed a complaint about harassment, which Biden said would be in the National Archives documents he wants opened if it exists.

But Biden’s remarks showed why, despite the many ambiguities of Reade’s claim, the story has been, and will be, so hard for him to put behind him. Today, he tried to walk a fine line: He wants to quell the furor over the accusations, while also affirming a principle the Democratic Party has embraced in recent years: that women’s accounts of abuse should be believed.

“While the details of these allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault are complicated, two things are not complicated,” Biden said in his statement. “One is that women deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and when they step forward they should be heard, not silenced. The second is that their stories should be subject to appropriate inquiry and scrutiny.”

This is perhaps a defensible standard: It’s clear that women have been discouraged from bringing complaints of sexual assault and harassment against powerful men, and have been demonized when they do so, yet no one wants to see false accusations triumph. The balance Biden laid out today is one that most Americans might even endorse.

Yet it’s also a different standard than the simple “Believe women” expounded by many liberal activists in recent years, especially around the allegations of attempted rape lodged by Christine Blasey Ford against now–Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. And some Democrats, having adopted that standard, will now struggle to explain why they are adopting a different one when it pertains to their party’s presumptive presidential nominee.

Many of the top women leaders in the party, who endorsed Ford’s account, have now said they stand with Biden, pointing in part to ambiguities in Reade’s story—though Ford’s account was, at times, ambiguous as well.

Moreover, Biden finds himself in the same bind. At the time of Ford’s allegations, he told The Washington Post, “I thought she was telling the truth at the beginning. I really did.”

And while not using the Believe women phrase, he offered this standard for assessing claims: “For a woman to come forward in the glaring lights of focus, nationally, you’ve got to start off with the presumption that at least the essence of what she’s talking about is real, whether or not she forgets facts, whether or not it’s been made worse or better over time.”

That’s a bit convoluted—the presumption that at least the essence is real. But today, Biden offered a subtly but importantly different standard. “Start off with the presumption they’re telling the truth”—but only as a starting point for investigation, rather than an endpoint.

“From the beginning, I’ve said believing a woman means taking the woman’s claim seriously when she steps forward,” Biden said. “And then vet it. Look into it. That’s true in this case as well. Women have a right to be heard and the press should investigate claims they make. I will always uphold that principle. But in the end, in every case, the truth is what matters. In this case, the truth is the claims are false.”

Again, that’s a standard many Americans might support: Who is against the truth? It’s also much closer to the view propounded by some Republicans during the Kavanaugh hearings. (Others rejected Ford’s account outright, while still others contorted themselves into odd positions, such as saying they believed Ford’s account but believed the perpetrator was not Kavanaugh.)

But Democrats who argue that the evolution of Reade’s account undermines it will have to explain why their own standard seems to evolve according to the accused. Women who were cheered by the left’s embrace of the “Believe women” standard will be infuriated by the apparent double standard, while some voters who are willing to take Biden’s word on the assault itself may also chafe at the same double standard.

Biden, having avoided the allegations for as long as he possibly could, sought to stifle the story with a simple, flat denial. He said today that he had never had any staffer sign a nondisclosure agreement. But he also pushed back hard against the idea of opening up his personal archives at the University of Delaware. He repeatedly told Brzezinski that there would be no relevant documents in the files they hold. Under repeated questioning, Biden suggested that his concern there was not personnel files but in fact the danger that his political foes might manage to shape potent attacks out of the long paper trail on Senate business in those archives—apparently wary of the sort of attacks that helped sink Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Biden also implicitly pointed reporters toward questions about Reade’s reasons for coming forward now, even while saying he would not. “I’m not going to question her motive,” he said. “I’m not going to attack her.”

More than anything, Biden seemed at a loss for how to go beyond his flat denial and fresh standard.

“I don’t know what else I can say to you,” he said.

That’s a problem he apparently shares with much of the Democratic Party.

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