Woman Accuses Biden Of Unwanted Touching; He Didn't Intend To Be Inappropriate : The NPR Politics Podcast Former Vice President Joe Biden on Sunday responded to allegations that he acted inappropriately when he kissed the back of a former Nevada Democratic assemblywoman's head at a campaign event in 2014, saying his behavior has been affectionate but never unseemly. This episode: White House correspondent Tamara Keith, political reporter Danielle Kurtzleben, and national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Email the show at nprpolitics@npr.org. Find and support your local public radio station at npr.org/stations.
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Woman Accuses Biden Of Unwanted Touching; He Didn't Intend To Be Inappropriate

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Woman Accuses Biden Of Unwanted Touching; He Didn't Intend To Be Inappropriate

Woman Accuses Biden Of Unwanted Touching; He Didn't Intend To Be Inappropriate

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/708862076/708871265" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hey, Tam. Guess what?

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

What, Scott?

DETROW: Big news. We're doing another live podcast on the road. We're going to be in Philadelphia.

KEITH: In fact, we are going to be there on April 26 to record a live podcast onstage all about the 2020 election.

DETROW: We just did this in Atlanta. It was great. But here is the catch. We need your help to make sure it's the best podcast possible.

KEITH: And the way to do that is to head over to nprpresents.org and grab a ticket to be in the audience.

DETROW: That's Friday, April 26 in Philadelphia. We'll see you there.

JOE: Hi. I'm Joe.

SARA: And I'm Sara.

JOE: And we're from Chicago.

SARA: But right now we're in Stonewall, Texas, where we're at the gravesite of the 36th president of the United States, Lyndon Baines Johnson, which also happens to be the 34th presidential gravesite we've visited on our quest to see them all.

JOE: And tomorrow, we're going to College Station to see our 35th, the gravesite of George Herbert Walker Bush.

SARA: This podcast was recorded at...

KEITH: 1:50 p.m. on Monday, April 1.

SARA: Things may have changed by the time you hear this, but we'll probably still have four presidents to go. OK. Here's the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

KEITH: That is so nerdy and yet so very cool.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Very on-brand, listeners. Good job.

KEITH: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

KURTZLEBEN: And I'm Danielle Kurtzleben, political reporter.

KEITH: And Danielle, tell us where you are right now because you have some noise behind you, and you are actively out reporting. Is that right?

KURTZLEBEN: (Laughter). Yes. I am on a stairwell to the basement of the Warner Theater in downtown Washington, D.C., which is the best place to both get a mix of quiet but also some sort of a signal. So that's what we're doing because - yeah. This is an event called the We The People Summit where you have a bunch of groups, including unions, Planned Parenthood, other groups who are having a sort of cattle call of a bunch of candidates here talking. I believe we have eight candidates today.

KEITH: Eight Democratic candidates. Now, one candidate who isn't yet a candidate is in the news, and that is what we're here to talk about. That is Joe Biden, who is considering a run for president. On Friday, New York Magazine published an essay written by Lucy Flores, a Democratic former assemblywoman from Nevada who says that then-Vice President Joe Biden did something in 2014 that made her feel embarrassed and powerless. She was running for lieutenant governor at the time, and Biden came to campaign for her and others in the state. And here's what she told NPR happened backstage at that event in 2014.

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LUCY FLORES: Eva Longoria was in front of me. Joe Biden was behind me. And, you know, I just, all of a sudden, feel his hands, and I feel him get up really close to me. And I'm just, you know, at that point processing and I'm thinking, OK, this is really weird. But then he leans in, and then he, like, inhales. And then he proceeds to plant this long kiss on the top of my head. And the entire time, I'm just kind of like, what is happening?

KEITH: What was Biden's response to this allegation?

LIASSON: Biden issued a statement where he said, quote, "in my many years on the campaign trail and in public life, I've offered countless handshakes, hugs, expressions of affection, support and comfort. And not once, never, did I believe I acted inappropriately. If it is suggested I did so I will listen respectfully, but it was never my intention." He goes on to say, we've arrived at an important time when women feel they can and should relate their experiences. Men should pay attention. I will pay attention. And then he says, I remain the strongest advocate I can be for the rights of women. I've done - and he talks about the work he's done in his career to end violence against women, ensure equality, et cetera, et cetera.

KEITH: And because this is modern technology, Biden's statement came out on Sunday, and then Flores did an interview with NPR, did interviews with a number of people, and she actually responded to Biden's response.

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FLORES: I need the vice president, and all men and all people who are in positions of power to understand that in that setting, in that situation, that kind of behavior is absolutely inappropriate.

LIASSON: But she did say she did not consider it sexual assault.

KEITH: Or harassment.

LIASSON: Or harassment.

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FLORES: A big part of the reason why I'm also speaking out now is because he has a history of this. This is not an unknown issue. There have been stories. There are pictures. There are videos. I think that there is a very severe disconnect and lack of empathy for what the women on the receiving end are feeling.

KEITH: All of this comes - this allegation against former Vice President Joe Biden by Lucy Flores, who was a candidate for lieutenant governor in Nevada, also later was a supporter of Bernie Sanders. But she is saying that Biden shouldn't run, and that that is part of why she came forward. And there has, Mara, been this sort of, you know, Creepy Joe or - I don't know what you want to call it, but there's been sort of a meme about Joe Biden.

LIASSON: He's very tactile. You could even say he's tactile in the extreme. Some people will say he's handsy. But yes, there are - most - I would say most all of this has occurred in public, on videotape or photographed. We haven't heard anyone say, in a private meeting with Joe Biden, he did this. So the question is, does the Democratic Party of 2019 thinks that this behavior is out of bounds?

KURTZLEBEN: A thing that the Democratic Party is going to have to grapple with going into 2020 is - OK, so Lucy Flores did not say it was assault. She did not say it was harassment, anything like that. But the Democratic Party still has to think about even if it's not illegal, the thing that the person did, is the person who has made a woman or potentially more than one woman feel uncomfortable in this way, is that the person we want heading our party, especially post #MeToo? And that's a really big question for Democrats.

KEITH: One of the sort of enduring images that has come up at any time that it's discussed that Joe Biden, former vice president, you know, may have issues of being in people's personal space, or too touchy or whatever you want to call it, is the case of Stephanie Carter. She is the wife of the former defense secretary Ash Carter. And at Carter's swearing in several years ago, Biden was photographed sort of giving her a shoulder rub of sorts. And in one image, she has a look on her face that is kind of, like, uncomfortable.

Following the Flores story coming out, Carter put up a post on Medium and said, this thing that is being perceived as my #MeToo moment wasn't a #MeToo moment but was in fact a friend - Joe Biden being a friend - trying to comfort her on a challenging day and that for her, it had none of the connotations that have been, you know, put out there on late-night TV, or in comedy routines or in various places where this picture keeps popping up.

LIASSON: You know, this is a difficult problem for Democrats. They want to be the party of zero tolerance. But zero tolerance of what? They haven't quite figured out what are the lines beyond which they feel certain behavior is disqualifying if it's not obvious sexual harassment or assault, or if somebody is alleging that. Which, so far, nobody has here. So the question is how is Biden going to deal with these as they come up, as they are pushed vigorously by - maybe by his Democratic opponents and certainly by the Republicans?

KEITH: Yeah. So, Danielle, you are out there talking to Democrats. And I'm curious, both - you know, this was, like, a really big story on cable over the weekend and elsewhere. But how is it registering with both Democratic candidates and with Democratic voters who are there at that event you're attending?

KURTZLEBEN: Right. So some have sort of tiptoed around it or at least not stepped into it too deep. For example, Amy Klobuchar, I saw that she told The New York Times, you know, this is - essentially this is a thing that Joe Biden is going to have to deal with if and when he gets in. So he's - essentially saying, that is his problem, I look forward to seeing what he says, also I have no reason not to believe this woman. Lucy Flores, that is.

LIASSON: Believe this woman? Joe Biden isn't not believing this woman. He's not saying it didn't happen the way she describes. She's talking about her feelings. This believing the woman is what you have to - is part of the he said, she said, situation. That's not what this is. There's not two different views of what happened.

KEITH: There's just two different views of how it felt.

LIASSON: Well, there's only one view of how it felt. How it felt to her. You know? And then he talks about his intention. That's something different. I think we just - this is the problem. We have to be really precise about what is the accusation and what is not the accusation.

KURTZLEBEN: Elizabeth Warren, meanwhile, seems to have taken at least a somewhat harder line. She said that Joe Biden, quote, "needs to answer" for this story from Lucy Flores. So I mean, yes, candidates have been asked. And, you know, we're just days into this particular storyline, and my particular take is that, I mean, it's just, this is going to have to be - unfortunately, we're going to have to see how big this gets. Right? Because I've been walking around this event. Like I said, lots of union members, Planned Parenthood supporters, that sort of thing. People who are pretty strong Democrats. And a lot of the majority of the people I've asked have not heard this story yet.

LIASSON: The way the candidates are answering sounds like they don't know how big this is going to be, and they don't want to get out too far out in front. This could be a situation of the Republicans and Donald Trump's various issues. Didn't matter to Republican voters. Might not matter to Democrats.

KURTZLEBEN: Donald Trump sort of definitely complicates this for Democrats. Right? I mean, Donald Trump, you could very easily make the case, was a major catalyst in making the #MeToo whole movement really gain a lot of momentum. And one woman I spoke to today, she made the sort of comparison between Trump and Biden. And she had heard the story. And she said, you know, either way, whatever Donald Trump did, the various allegations against Donald Trump are so much worse than Lucy Flores' story about Joe Biden here.

Now, that may well be true, but then again, you have a lot of Democrats who would argue, listen - as Mara said - we want to be the party of zero tolerance. The question, once again, circling back to, tolerance of what?

LIASSON: And, you know, what's so interesting is the party of zero tolerance is exactly what Republicans want Democrats to be. If you heard Kellyanne Conway over the weekend, she was saying, Democrats don't like this. She wasn't saying, this is horrible behavior. Because that would lead you right in to grab them by the you know what. But she is - Republicans are counting on Democrats pretty much forming a circular firing squad when any of these allegations come up.

KEITH: All right. We are going to take a quick break. And when we come back, we are going to talk about how Democrats are handling this and what it all means for 2020.

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KEITH: And we're back. Is there any sense that you guys have of how this will affect the calculus as Biden decides whether to run and whether it should affect it?

KURTZLEBEN: So I personally - I can't get into Joe Biden's mind, and I'm not even going to try to. That's above my pay grade. But...

KEITH: (Laughter). All of us.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I don't know. Maybe you guys have a mind meld with him. I don't. So but what I will say is, like, this isn't - this doesn't happen in a vacuum. There are a lot of things people are thinking about when they are thinking about whether they like Joe Biden or not. And I spoke to some voters today who said, yes, I love Joe Biden. He's great. I did speak to one woman, though, who said, you know, I've heard this story. It gives me pause. But my main issue with Joe Biden is that he's too old. We need fresh blood.

Likewise, I have spoken to voters on the campaign trail who have issues with Joe Biden because of his treatment of Anita Hill, or because of the Judiciary Committee's treatment of Anita Hill when Joe Biden chaired it during the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings. All of which is to say, even if this one event doesn't make voters go, holy cow, I can't vote for Joe Biden, what it may do is add to, you know, the straws on the proverbial camel's back for some voters and make them think, hmm. Maybe I really should rethink this person.

LIASSON: Danielle makes a really important point when she brings up Anita Hill. Because I don't think Lucy Flores is the #MeToo problem that concerns Biden. I think Anita Hill is. And I have had several Democrats, a handful of them, say, why hasn't Biden tried to get right with Anita Hill? Why hasn't he had a private meeting with her? You know, he's offered a public apology for how he ran the hearings. But that is much bigger than this Lucy Flores story.

KEITH: Well, and...

LIASSON: And that's what's interesting, how he's going to handle that beyond what he's already done.

KEITH: And Anita Hill, just as a reminder, is a lawyer who accused Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas - before his confirmation or during his confirmation, accused him of prolonged sexual harassment and then actually testified in a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee that was chaired by Vice President Biden, then-Senator Biden. And it was not a pleasant experience for Hill, certainly.

LIASSON: On the other hand, Joe Biden is beloved in the party. Most conversations I have with Democrats start something like this. I love Joe Biden, but - but what? But they're worried about his age, or they're worried about his long, complicated record. But there are a lot of things that the Democrats will tell you that Joe Biden has that kind of fits this moment. He has some street cred with white, working-class voters. He could appeal to the states Democrats cannot win without, as in, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania. He is from Scranton.

So he has a lot going for him. But there are a lot of questions about him. Not just this #MeToo stuff that we've been talking about, but also, can he raise money? Can he perform? Does he have the energy level? He's in his mid-70s.

KEITH: I want to turn briefly, before we go, to this #MeToo thing and this time that we are in, which is different than four years ago, or eight years ago or 12 years ago. And you've had a number of candidates have to deal with sexual harassment among their staff or in their campaigns. You have Bernie Sanders, who has apologized for aides during his 2016 campaign who felt that there was a climate of sexual harassment, not coming from him but coming from other people on the campaign. Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand have both had issues with an aide - different aides - being accused of sexual harassment in their offices. You know, is this a problem the Democrats are having to reckon with, and how are they reckoning with it?

KURTZLEBEN: I mean, yes. It's something they're going to have to reckon with, I mean, purely because these allegations are coming out. I mean, no institution is immune from this. I mean, it's just a question. But also, Democrats, I won't say they've benefited from the #MeToo movement. But what they didn't benefit from was a backlash to Trump. And that backlash to Trump was very women-driven. And that drove a lot of women to run for and get a lot of very enthusiastic support in their runs for Congress in 2018.

I am not being cynical here and saying that believing women is a way for the Democrats to get votes. What I am saying is that very real concerns from women, including about sexual harassment, sexual misconduct across the spectrum are a thing that the Democratic Party has woken up to and really started listening to.

LIASSON: So this is something that the Democratic Party is reckoning with. I think that first and foremost, they want to beat Donald Trump. And they're going to be evaluating the candidate who can do that who also hasn't crossed a line. You know, this is - I come back to what we talked about before, zero tolerance for what? And that depends on the situation.

KEITH: There will be much more to talk about in the days and weeks to come as the primary continues. But for now, we're going to leave it there. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

LIASSON: I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

KURTZLEBEN: And I'm Danielle Kurtzleben, political reporter.

KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

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