Is It Fair to Compare Joe Biden to Brett Kavanaugh?

A candid conversation with the president of the National Women’s Law Center

Michael Brochstein / Barcroft Media / Getty / The Atlantic

In the fall of 2018, when Christine Blasey Ford alleged that the then–Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh assaulted her at a party during high school, feminist legal organizations quickly came to her defense. The National Women’s Law Center, a prominent D.C. advocacy organization, gave a typical response, calling on the Senate to halt its vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination and fully investigate the claim. And it was quick to condemn Kavanaugh: “If the charges are true, Kavanaugh’s behavior makes clear that he is not fit for a seat on the Supreme Court, or any court,” its president and CEO, Fatima Goss Graves, wrote in a statement.

The circumstances of Ford’s allegations are different from those surrounding Tara Reade’s allegation that former Vice President Joe Biden sexually assaulted her while she was working as an aide in his office in 1993. The Senate Judiciary Committee is charged with evaluating the fitness of Supreme Court nominees, and Ford came forward with information relevant to their assessment. The process for adjudicating such a claim in the context of a presidential race is much less clear. Still, the response from feminist organizations to the two claims has been starkly different. For the most part, these groups have stayed silent on Reade’s allegations, or talked about them in vague terms—the NWLC, for example, praised Biden for addressing the claims directly without specifying what should happen next. Condemning Biden carries a clear cost for these groups. They believe that four more years of President Donald Trump would be immensely damaging for their policy agendas and for women in general, which, in their view, means more restrictions on abortion, diminished insurance coverage of birth control, and less access to government benefits provided through programs such as Medicaid and SNAP. And yet, failing to condemn Biden could also be costly, creating the appearance that feminists and the #MeToo movement they’ve championed support justice for sexual-assault survivors only when it is politically convenient.

Graves, who also helped found the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, an organization that supports survivors of sexual assault and harassment as they pursue legal claims, bristled at any comparison between her organization’s response to Ford and its response to Reade when we spoke this week. On Biden, “I don’t think there are good answers,” she told me. She would not say what she thinks should happen next—whether Biden should suspend his campaign while the claim is pending, for example, or whether the Democratic National Committee should convene a panel to investigate its presumptive presidential nominee.

Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Emma Green: In a statement last week, you praised former Vice President Joe Biden for addressing the allegation against him “head-on,” for being clear and transparent, and for having “meaningful conversations” about the allegation. I have to admit: To me, as a journalist, that reads as pretty mushy. What do you think should actually be done to address the fact that the presumptive Democratic nominee for president has been accused of sexually assaulting an aide while he held political office?

Fatima Goss Graves: I don’t know that I would describe my statement as one of praise. I think my statement was being clear that he addressed the allegations. They are serious allegations. And last Friday was the first time he had spoken to them directly. I think that was important. Up until that point, I had seen journalists questioning women electeds and other women leaders about the allegation, but I hadn’t seen him have to respond.

That raises a bigger point: It is too easy to assume that the only people who have an interest in the question of sexual assault are women. That is entirely false. We all have a deep interest. We, the collective we, people in this country, have a deep interest in addressing and solving the problem of sexual violence. So I thought it was important that he be asked the question directly, and it will be important to have additional public voices on this issue who are not women.

Green: When Christine Blasey Ford came forward with allegations against the then–Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, the NWLC called for the Senate to halt its vote on his nomination. You called for a bipartisan committee to investigate the claim. Do you think similar steps should be taken to address the claim against former Vice President Joe Biden?

Graves: I have seen a narrative out there comparing, for some reason, the allegation that Christine Blasey Ford brought forward to the Senate with the allegation against Joe Biden. The question then was whether the Senate would actually have a more fulsome investigation. Unfortunately, we saw two things happen: From the very beginning, the Senate determined it was going to rush the nomination through. And Dr. Blasey Ford did not have an opportunity to have witnesses interviewed by the FBI, because of the rush. It was really stunning.

I’d like to compare that to what’s here. I don’t think there are good answers. One of the things that #MeToo has allowed is for these types of allegations to be considered and heard. At the same time, we don’t actually have meaningful, trusted mechanisms set up to deal with allegations against candidates, if I’m being really honest.

At the very least, we have to be thinking structurally about this: What would it look like to actually have a process that could be established that would have proper confidence; where serious claims could go, sometimes confidentially, sometimes not; and where the consideration is really seen as nonpolitical? Right now we have a highly charged and politicized environment, which is no way to actually resolve a claim in a serious way. Over the last couple of years, where there have been gaps, the media has shown up in important ways to do investigations. But that is not a long-term solution. We should be thinking in terms of building up processes that work long-term, putting mechanisms in place to ensure that they are nonpolitical, that they allow for a neutral assessment of the allegations, and that they allow for some measure of transparency.

Green: I take your point that we need a system that is sustainable and fair, but in the meantime, we have an election coming up in seven months, a Democratic political convention that’s happening in three months, and an allegation that’s before us right now. Are you going to call on the Democratic National Committee to ask Biden to suspend his campaign while these allegations are under investigation? Are you going to call on the DNC to establish a nonpartisan committee to figure out whether there’s merit to these claims? These are actions your organization has called for in the past under different circumstances—

Graves: One of the things I’ve been worried about is the media making false comparisons to the work that has happened in the past. Again, in the nomination of Justice Kavanaugh, there was a process in place. Justice Kavanaugh was sitting before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and that body was making a determination as to whether or not it would approve his nomination to the Supreme Court. The question then was: What is the way to take a highly charged process and make it one that people trust, one that was fair, one that was thorough, one that was transparent? And the Senate failed miserably. The question for me, around the Senate, is: What would you change to be sure that this doesn’t happen in the same way in the future? Those are the types of systems changes that I actually think make a difference.

Now, sometimes, when there is no process, you have to make one up. The DNC and the RNC can investigate the allegations about both Biden and Trump, but will people think that what comes out of those bodies is fair, transparent, neutral, and nonpolitical? Having investigations that people can rely on and see as trustworthy is as important as the result of the investigation itself. If everyone assumes that an investigation has been tainted by politics, it will not be received in the way we need it to be received.

Green: As I’m sure you’re aware, the allegations against Joe Biden have raised the question of whether feminist legal organizations like yours will take Tara Reade’s claims as seriously as they would claims against a Republican. At least in terms of optics, that’s a different but equally important test of fairness, transparency, and neutrality.

Graves: I find it sort of astonishing that in the face of very serious allegations, people are pointing fingers at feminist organizations. It is deeply worrisome, because these critiques seem to be motivated by a search for hypocrisy, rather than actually playing attention to what we have been asking for.

When you think of an issue as really serious, that means you’re going to hear people out. It means you think allegations are as important as other very serious issues areas. You would look deeply into them, and you would have laws and policies that reflected their importance. And you would have systems in place allowing people to get justice, and to have pathways to healing. The work of this movement has been about correcting generations of disregard for survivors, and generations of pushing this issue into the shadows. I reject the idea that feminist organizations are in any way responsible for solving the problem of sexual violence, and more importantly, that feminist organizations are not living up to their clear values. That is a false trope about feminist organizations, and one that is entirely unhelpful.

Green: Business Insider reported that Tara Reade had told a neighbor about the alleged assault around the time that it’s alleged to have happened. That’s one of the standards that you and others have pointed to as a way to verify claims like this. Do you think this kind of corroborating evidence warrants Biden ending his candidacy, or requires the Democrats to at least discuss choosing a different candidate?

Graves: That’s not a process. I actually think that’s been part of the problem: The drib-drab of media reporting is going to be dissatisfying to everyone and is not going to lead to fair and reflective determinations. When there is no process, this is what happens. You have whiplash as one piece of information comes out after another, with groups of people saying, “I believe her” or “I believe him.” That is not a process I would endorse, and that is not a process that gives confidence that we as a country know how to handle this issue.

Green: You helped found the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which supports survivors of sexual assault and harassment as they pursue legal claims. As has been reported, Tara Reade reached out to Time’s Up for help with her allegation, but your organization declined. Could you tell me why?

Graves: We were able to provide her with connections to lawyers and resources and information in the way that we do anyone. But we were not able to provide funding assistance for public-relations efforts. That’s because we are a 501(c)(3). The tax code prohibits those types of nonprofits from interfering with elections.

Green: You’re describing a hard and sad situation, especially for people who really care about helping survivors of sexual assault. We don’t have good systems in place to adjudicate these claims in regular people’s lives, let alone allegations against public figures or candidates for office. Organizations that support people who come forward with claims are limited in their ability to help. And our courts of law often cannot offer justice to survivors. So with respect to the Biden claim, where should we go from here?

Graves: I’ve been thinking a lot about it. I think this particular claim really highlights our need to have a serious system in place. We are not going to be in a situation where there are no more claims of sexual violence against candidates. It may not always be at the presidential level, but we will have this type of problem again and again, and if we don’t have a serious mechanism to address it, it will be worse for everyone. I hope all of the folks who are engaged in this now, in the context of the campaign, will join the work to build that system going forward.

Around the particular allegation, like I said, I actually don’t think there are good choices. Whatever happens right now will be dissatisfying to some group of people. But here’s what it is not. It is not a feminist failure. It is not a failure of #MeToo. The fact is that politicians have failed to put something in place so far.