LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
A woman who worked in Joe Biden's Senate office in the early 1990s has been sharing her story of an alleged sexual assault by the man who is now the presumptive Democratic nominee for president. The woman's name is Tara Reade. Biden's campaign has denied her allegation, and other former staffers dispute Reade's story. Biden has not personally responded.
NPR political correspondent Asma Khalid has been reporting on this allegation, including conversations that she's had with Tara Reade. She joins us now.
ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: This allegation was made several weeks ago, and it's been reported on by other outlets. And it's something that you and others at NPR have been looking into for a while now, right?
KHALID: That's right. And this is a very serious allegation against the man who is now the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party. And you know, Lulu, we felt that we owed it to our listeners to sift through the facts and walk people through what we know and also what we don't know.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: We should also warn our listeners that this story will have descriptions that are disturbing, that are graphic. What does Reade say happened to her?
KHALID: So Reade and I spoke multiple times over multiple days, and she says at some point in the spring of 1993, she was asked by her then-supervisor to deliver a duffle bag to Biden as he was heading toward the Capitol. When Reade met the then-senator, she said this happened.
TARA READE: He put me up against the wall, and his hands went underneath my clothing. And he was touching me in my private areas and without my consent.
KHALID: She says that he penetrated her vagina with his fingers.
READE: After - immediately after the assault, when I had pulled away, he looked at me, pointed his finger and he said, you're nothing to me - nothing. And I must have looked emotional. He then took me by the shoulders and just kind of - just said, you're OK. You're fine. You're OK. And then he adjusted his clothing and grabbed his bag and walked away.
KHALID: Reade cannot recall where exactly this took place. She says she told three people about the alleged assault at the time - her brother, her mother and a friend. Her mother has since passed away. NPR did speak with the friend who corroborated Reade's account. Her brother did not respond to our initial request for comment, but late last night, he sent me a text message saying that he recalled Reade telling him of an incident where she says she brought Biden a gym bag, and he put his hands under her clothes.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: How is Biden's campaign responding?
KHALID: Well, his deputy campaign manager put out a statement flatly denying this. She said that Biden believes women have a right to be heard respectfully, but such claims should also be diligently reviewed by the press. And what's clear about this claim, she says, is, quote, "it is untrue. It absolutely did not happen."
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You've also been speaking to former staffers in Biden's office from that time period. What have they been telling you?
KHALID: That's right. I spoke to multiple people from this time period, and nobody could confirm Reade's account. She told me that she had complained not about an assault, but about broader sexual harassment to three of her supervisors. All three say she never did. One of those people was Dennis Toner. He's a longtime Biden aide.
DENNIS TONER: If a conversation had occurred, I would remember it. It's something that would be so out of character - how you would describe Joe Biden.
KHALID: And Toner told me that no conversation about harassment ever occurred - not with Reade, not with anyone else in the office. I also spoke to Melissa Lefko. She was a junior staffer at the time, a woman who had the same job as Reade. And she said that the position did not have the kind of regular access to Biden that Reade has described at times. Lefko also said she never heard any talk about any of this, not even office gossip. Other staffers told me that what Reade has alleged is so counter to the culture in the office. They point out that Biden had women in senior positions at a time when that was not the norm. Here's Melissa Lefko.
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MELISSA LEFKO: When you work on the Hill, you know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. And Biden was a good guy, and I mean that wholeheartedly.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So Asma, what do we know about where her claims stand now?
KHALID: Reade told me she filed a police report a little over a week ago with the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department because she was worried about her safety after receiving online harassment. We did obtain confirmation of the police report, a record of which names Biden, from a law enforcement source.
But even after our reporting out of the story, Lulu, there are still some very big questions. You know, some of Reade's details have been inconsistent, and her story has changed over time. She initially came forward in the spring of 2019 with an account of Biden touching her shoulder and neck in a way that made her feel uncomfortable, but she never mentioned sexual assault. Biden supporters also question a few specific things - her outspoken support of other Democratic candidates, these effusive online posts that she had written in the past praising the Russian leader Vladimir Putin. And they wonder why, as recently as 2017, she praised Biden online. Reade wonders why any of that matters when you're talking about an allegation of sexual assault.
READE: So this isn't a partisan issue. This is about - again, it's about power and the abuse of power and then the people around that person that enable that behavior.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to ask you about the politics of this. More than a dozen women have publicly accused President Trump of various incidents of sexual assault. Biden has never been accused of sexual assault before. How does that factor into the story?
KHALID: Well, it reminds some people of allegations that Biden faced just before he started his presidential campaign. At that time, women recounted how he would rub their shoulders, smell their hair, kiss them on the head. And Lulu, I should be very clear that while many of them described this behavior as demeaning, they said it was not sexual.
And you know, I think what's really interesting about this moment is that this is the first presidential campaign in the #MeToo era. And in the last couple of years, you know, Democrats, including Biden, have been insisting that society should believe women. It's a mantra that's been touted by the left. But I think one of the bigger takeaways from this entire story is how Democrats are grappling with what exactly that means.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR political correspondent Asma Khalid. You can find more of this reporting at npr.org.
Thank you very much.
KHALID: You're welcome.
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