What Joe Biden Didn’t Say in His Tara Reade Denial

The presumptive Democratic nominee dismissed his former staff assistant’s assault allegations in an interview this morning, but he tiptoed around answers that could paint him as a hypocrite.

Leigh Vogel / Getty

“I’m saying unequivocally: It never, never happened.”

In an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe today, former Vice President Joe Biden firmly denied allegations from a former Senate aide, Tara Reade, that he sexually assaulted her in 1993. In the month since Reade made her allegation in a podcast interview, the press has slowly begun to cover the story. Most recently, Business Insider interviewed Reade’s former neighbor, who says Reade told her about the alleged attack in the mid-’90s. Although Biden’s aides have aggressively challenged Reade’s claims, today was the first time Biden has responded directly to them.

Biden’s strategy is clear. He maintains that the assault never happened. He is also openly inviting reporters to investigate Reade’s claims, clearly betting that the media will cast doubt on her story and provide supporting evidence for his denial. In the interview and in a statement today, Biden called on the National Archives to find and release any complaint that Reade made against him in 1993. Although Reade said she filed a complaint with the Senate, Biden does not believe such a complaint exists: “I’m confident there is nothing,” he told Morning Joe’s Mika Brzezinski. “No one ever brought it to the attention of me 27 years ago,” and the staff who worked in his Senate office at the time also never saw it, he added. “If it’s there, put it out, but I have never seen it. No one has that I’m aware of.”

Reade’s allegations put Biden in a bind. His past behavior, including undercutting Anita Hill’s claims against then–Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991, and his habit of touching and kissing women in ways that make them feel uncomfortable, has dogged his campaign for president. Partly in response, Biden has sold himself as a champion of women, pointing to his work on the Violence Against Women Act in the Senate and the Obama administration. When Christine Blasey Ford alleged that then–Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh had assaulted her at a party in high school and the Senate subsequently held hearings on her claims, Biden expressed enthusiastic support for Ford. “It takes enormous courage for a woman to come forward, under the bright lights of millions of people watching, and relive something that happened to her,” he said. She “should be given the benefit of the doubt.”

Now that he’s facing sexual-assault allegations of his own, Biden’s approach has changed. Throughout the Morning Joe interview, Biden pointed to The New York Times’ investigation into Reade’s account as evidence that it never happened. He’s right that the reporters Sydney Ember and Lisa Lerer wrote that no Biden staff members had corroborated Reade’s claims, no other allegations had surfaced, and no “pattern of sexual misconduct” was evident. But they did not come to a conclusion about whether the assault happened.

Biden cannot go on the attack against Reade without seeming like a hypocrite. He needs the media—especially an outlet with the kind of credibility and authority that the Times has—to do the work of exonerating him if he’s going to have any hope of leaving these allegations behind.

Here is the transcript of Biden’s interview with Brzezinski, including annotations.

Mika Brzezinski: Mr. Vice President, thank you for coming on the show this morning. We have a lot of questions to ask you.

Joe Biden: Thank you for having me.

Brzezinski: We’ll ask you questions about how you would handle this pandemic, the campaign, and other news of the day. For the start, it is just you and me. I want to get right to the allegation made against you by Tara Reade. So the former Senate aide accuses you of sexual assault. To our viewers, please excuse the graphic nature of this, but we want to make sure there is no question about what we are talking about. She says in 1993, Mr. Vice President, you pinned her against a wall and reached under her clothing and penetrated her with your fingers.

Would you please go on the record with the American people? Did you sexually assault Tara Reade?

Biden: No. It is not true. I’m saying unequivocally: It never, never happened. And it didn’t. It never happened.

Brzezinski: Do you remember her? Do you remember any types of complaints she might have made?

Biden: I don’t remember any type of complaint she may have made. It was 27 years ago. I don’t remember, nor does anyone else that I’m aware of. And the fact is that I don’t remember. I don’t remember any complaint ever having been made.

Brzezinski: Have you or your campaign—have you reached out to her?

Biden: No. I have not reached out to her. It was 27 years ago. It never happened. When she first made the claim [in March], we made it clear that it never happened. And that’s as simple as that.

Brzezinski: In the past 30 minutes or so, you released a statement on Medium, and, among other things, you write this: “There is only one place a complaint of this kind could be, the National Archives. I am requesting that the secretary of state”—the Senate—“ask the Archives to identify any record of the complaint she alleges she filed … If there was [ever] any such complaint, the record will be there.” Are you preparing us for a complaint that might be revealed in some way? Are you confident there is nothing?

Biden: I’m confident there is nothing. No one ever brought it to the attention of me 27 years ago … No one that I’m aware of in my campaign—excuse me, in my Senate office at the time—is aware of any such request. And—or of any such complaint. And so I’m not worried about it at all. If there is a complaint, that’s where it would be, and that’s where it would be filed. And if it’s there, put it out, but I have never seen it. No one has that I’m aware of.

Brzezinski: The New York Times has investigated this exhaustively. They didn’t find any of your staff were able to corroborate the details of this allegation. She did file a police report a few weeks ago with the D.C. police. But since you want to set the record straight, why limit this only to Tara Reade? Why not release any complaints that had been made against you during your Senate career?

Biden: I’m prepared to do that. To the best of my knowledge there have been no complaints made against me in my Senate career or my office, or anything I ran. Look, this is an open book. There is nothing for me to hide. Nothing at all.

Brzezinski: You were unequivocal in 2018 during the Kavanaugh controversy and hearings that women should be believed. You said this: “For a woman to come forward in the glaring lights, the focus nationally, you’ve got to start off with the presumption that at least the essence of what she is talking about is real. Whether or not she forgets the facts, whether or not it has been made worse or better over time.” [Reade is] going to be going on national television on Sunday. Tara Reade is coming forward in the glaring lights, to use your words—should we not start off with the presumption that the essence of what she’s talking about is real? She says you sexually assaulted her.

Biden: Look, from the beginning, I’ve said believing a woman means taking the woman’s claim seriously when she steps forward. 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.

Biden’s answer here is a little disingenuous: During the Kavanaugh hearings, he stated clearly a number of times that he believed Christine Blasey Ford’s account should essentially be treated as true. Biden said she “gave courageous, credible and powerful testimony,” according to the Associated Press. He told the Today show that she “should be given the benefit of the doubt,” in part because “it takes enormous courage for a woman to come forward, under the bright lights of millions of people watching, and relive something that happened to her.” And he told reporters that “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.”

Biden went so far as to call for an FBI investigation regarding Ford’s claims, which he has not called for here.

Brzezinski: Is it possible that the truth is contained in [a nondisclosure agreement]? Do you have any NDAs that have been signed by women employed by you?

Biden: There is no NDA signed. I’ve never asked anyone to sign an NDA. There are no NDAs, period, in my case. None.

Brzezinski: Your Senate documents at the University of Delaware were supposed to go public and then resealed. The access was changed. I know that you are saying any HR complaints would be in the National Archives. But why not reveal your Senate documents that are being held in Delaware? I know there’s 1,800-plus boxes. But if she believes and she alleges the complaints may be hidden there, why not strive for complete transparency? Why was the access to those documents sealed up when they were supposed to be revealed?

Biden: Well, they weren’t supposed to be revealed. I gave them to the university. The university said it was going to take time to go through all the boxes. And they said it wouldn’t be before 2020 that that occurred, or 2021—I can’t remember what year they said. But look, a record like this can only be at one place. It would be—it would not be at the University of Delaware. My archives do not contain personnel files; my archives contain documents … They are public records. My speeches, my papers, my position papers. And if that document existed, it would be stored in the National Archives, where documents from the office she claimed to have filed a complaint with are stored. That’s where they are stored. The Senate controls those archives. I’m asking the secretary of the Senate today to identify whether any such document exists. If it does, make it public.

Biden donated his papers to the University of Delaware in 2012. At the time, the agreement was that the materials would not be accessible to the public until two years after he leaves public office—a fairly standard arrangement for public officials who share their papers with independent archives. Although Biden is portraying himself as totally open to investigation, he was resistant throughout the interview to opening his papers to searches for matters relating to Tara Reade.

Brzezinski: Right, but there are claims and concerns and reports in Business Insider, and she claims that possibly a complaint or some sort of record of this might be at the University of Delaware. So for complete transparency, why not push for the release of any documents with Tara Reade’s name on them? Whether it’s at the University of Delaware or the National Archives.

Biden: First of all, let’s get this straight. There are no personnel documents. You can’t do that. For example, if you worked with me or I worked for you and you had my income-tax returns or whatever, they are private documents. They don’t get put out in the public. So they are not part of the public record that in fact, that any senator or vice president or president has in their documents. Look, there is one place she could file the complaint. And the complaint, and that office at the time was—all those records from that office—are in the Archives, and they’re controlled by the Senate. That’s where personnel records would be if they exist. That’s where complaints would be if they exist.

Brzezinski: Given the fact that you have said in the past if a woman goes under the lights and talks about something like this, we have to consider that the essence of this is real, is the essence of what she is saying real? Why do you think she’s doing this?

Biden: I’m not going to question her motive. I’m not going to get into that at all. I don’t know why she’s saying this. I don’t know why after 27 years this gets raised. I don’t understand it. But I’m not going to go in and question her motive. I’m not going to attack her. She has a right to say whatever she says. But I have a right to say, “Look at the facts, check it out. Find out whether any of what she says or asserted is true.” And based on the investigations that have taken place so far and by the best of my knowledge by two major papers that interviewed dozens of my staff members—not just senior staff, but staff members that I’m told, at least that’s what they said. And nobody, this was not the atmosphere in my office at all. No one has ever said anything like this.

This moment in the interview offers the best look at Biden’s strategy for handling these claims. These comments indicate that his former staff and campaign have been cooperating with investigations into Reade’s claims, including the story by The New York Times. Biden is betting that these investigations will clear his name and cast doubt on Reade’s claims.

Brzezinski: But Mr. Vice President, as it pertained to Dr. Ford, high-level Democrats said she should be believed; that they believed it happened. You said if someone like Dr. Ford would come out, the essence of what she is saying has to be believed and has to be real. Why? Why is it real for Dr. Ford but not for Tara Reade?

Biden: Look, because the facts are—Look. I’m not suggesting she had no right to come forward. And I never—I’m not saying any woman—they should come forward, they should be heard, and then it should be investigated. It should be investigated. And if there is anything that is consistent with what is being said and she makes the case or the case is made, then it should be believed. But ultimately, the truth matters. The truth matters. Period. I fought my entire life to change the whole notion—to change the law and the notion around sexual assault. I fought to strengthen and protect the process for survivors. We have come a long way, and have a long way to go until we are in the position of a fair and unbiased view, but at the end of the day, it has to be looked at. These claims are not true. They are not true. There’s no—they’re—they’re not true.

Brzezinski: Mr. Vice President—

Biden: I don’t know what else I can say to you.

Brzezinski: Well, I’m going to try to ask many different ways. Stacey Abrams said during the Kavanaugh hearings, “I believe women. I believe women. I believe survivors of assault should be supported, voices should be heard.” Kirsten Gillibrand tweeted, “Do we believe women? Do we give them the opportunity to tell their story? We must be a country that says yes every time.” They now both support you. Nancy Pelosi falls into this category too, as well as many other leaders in the Democratic Party. Are women to be believed unless it pertains to you?

Biden: Look, women are to be believed, to be given the benefit of the doubt. If they come forward and say something that they said happened to them, they should start off with the presumption that they are telling the truth. Then you have to look at the circumstances and the facts. And the facts in this case do not exist. They never happened. And there are so many inconsistencies in what has been said in this case. So yes, look at the facts. And I assure you it did not happen, period, period.

Several of the most vocal Democratic advocates against sexual assault have come forward to support Biden, providing him with cover against these allegations. This includes Kirsten Gillibrand, who ran against Biden in the primary and was the first Democrat in the U.S. Senate to call for Al Franken’s resignation after assault allegations were made against him. She told reporters: “[Reade] has come forward, she has spoken, and they have done an investigation in several outlets. Those investigations, Vice President Biden has called for himself. Vice President Biden has vehemently denied these allegations, and I support Vice President Biden.”

Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia gubernatorial candidate, who is campaigning aggressively to become Biden’s running mate, has also voiced her support: “The New York Times did a deep investigation, and they found that the accusation was not credible. I believe Joe Biden.”

Brzezinski: But why is it different now? Do you regret what you said during the Kavanaugh hearings?

Biden: What I said during the Kavanaugh hearings was that she had a right to be heard. And the fact that she came forward—the presumption would be that she was telling the truth, unless it is proved she wasn’t telling the truth. Or not “proved” … I’m sorry.

Brzezinski: Go ahead. As we await the records from the National Archives, are you absolutely certain, are you absolutely positive there is no record of any complaint by Tara Reade against you?

Biden: I am absolutely positive that no one I am aware of was ever made aware of any complaint, a formal complaint made by … Tara Reade against me at the time this allegedly happened 27 years ago or until I announced [I was running] for president—I guess it was in April or May of this year. I know of no one who is aware that any complaint was made.

Brzezinski: I’ve got two more questions. The first about the University of Delaware records. Do you agree with the reporting that those records were supposed to be opened to the public and then they were resealed for a longer period of time until after you leave “public life”? If you agree with that, if that’s what happened, why did that happen?

Biden: The fact is, there’s a lot of speeches I’ve made, positions I’ve taken, interviews that I did overseas with people—all of those things related to my job. And the idea that they would all be made public … while I was running for public office, they could really be taken out of context. The papers are position papers. They are documents that existed that, for example, when I met with Putin or when I met with whomever. And all of that could be fodder in a campaign at this time, and I don’t know of anyone who has ever done anything like that. And the National Archives is the only place that would have anything to do with personnel records. There are no personnel records in the Biden papers at the university.

Brzezinski: Personnel records aside, are you certain there was nothing about Tara Reade in those records?

Biden: I am absolutely certain.

Brzezinski: If so, why not approve a search of her name in those records?

Biden: Approve a search of her name?

Brzezinski: Yes, and reveal anything that might be related to Tara Reade in the University of Delaware records.

Biden: There is nothing. They are not there. And I don’t understand the point you are trying to make. There are no personnel records by definition.

Brzezinski: The point I’m trying to make is that you are approving and calling for a search of the National Archive records—

Biden: Yes.

Brzezinski: Of anything pertaining to Tara Reade. I’m asking why not do the same in the University of Delaware records, which have raised questions because they were supposed to be revealed to the public and then they were sealed for a longer period of time. Why not do it for both sets of records?

Biden: Because the material in the University of Delaware has no personnel files, but it does have a lot of confidential conversations I had with the president about a particular issue, that I had with heads of states of other places, that that would be something that would not be revealed while I was in public office, or while I was seeking public office. It just stands to reason. To the best of my knowledge, no one else has done that either.

Brzezinski: I’m just talking about her name, not anybody else in those records, a search for that. Nothing classified about the president or anybody else. I’m just asking why not do a search for Tara Reade’s name in the University of Delaware records?

Biden: I mean, look, who does that search?

Brzezinski: The University of Delaware? Perhaps you set up a commission that can do it? I don’t know. Whatever is the fairest way to create the most transparency.

Biden: Well, this is—Look, Mika, she said she filed a report. She still has her employment records still. She said she refiled a report with the only office that would have a report in the United States Senate at the time. If the report was ever filed, it was filed there, period.

Brzezinski: If you could speak directly to Tara Reade about her claims or anything, what would you say?

Biden: I would—this never, ever happened. I don’t know what is motivating her. I don’t know what is behind any of it, but it is irrelevant. It never happened. It never happened, period. I’m not going to start questioning her motive. I’m not going to get into that. I’m not going to start. I’m not going to go after Tara Reade for saying these things. It’s simple. What are the facts? Do any of the things she said, do they add up? It never happened.

It’s notable that Biden does not take Brzezinski’s invitation to address Reade. He is still speaking about her, in third person, as he does throughout the interview. He is not willing, at least in this forum, to speak directly to his accuser.