I started reporting on Tara Reade’s story a year ago. Here’s what I found, and where I’m stuck.
In April 2019, a woman named Tara Reade reached out to me with a clear, consistent story to tell about her experience as a staffer in Joe Biden’s Senate office in 1993. I spent hours on the phone with her, and many more tracking down possible witnesses and documents, trying to confirm her account.
Reade told me that a senior aide told her Biden liked her legs and that he wanted her to serve cocktails at a fundraiser for him, a request she found demeaning and declined. When she later complained to others in the office that Biden would put his hands on her shoulder, neck, and hair during meetings in ways that made her uncomfortable, she says she was blamed and told to dress more conservatively. Within a few months, she said, her responsibilities had been stripped and she felt she was being pushed out of the job. She went back home to California deflated.
Reade told me that she wanted me to think of this story as being about abuse of power, “but not sexual misconduct.” Her emphasis was on how she was treated in Biden’s office by Senate aides, who she said retaliated against her for complaining about how Biden touched her in meetings. “I don’t know if [Biden] knew why I left,” she said. “He barely knew us by name.”
She sent me an email that evening with an essay she’d written. Her local paper in California, the Union, published a similar version a few weeks later with a line she’d sent to me, too: “This is not a story about sexual misconduct; it is a story about abuse of power. It is a story about when a member of Congress allows staff to threaten or belittle or bully on their behalf unchecked to maintain power rather than modify the behavior.”
Last year, Reade encouraged me to speak with a friend of hers who counseled her through her time in Biden’s office in 1992 and 1993. The friend was clear about what happened, and what hadn’t.
“On the scale of other things we heard, and I feel ashamed, but it wasn’t that bad. [Biden] never tried to kiss her directly. He never went for one of those touches. It was one of those, ‘sorry you took it that way.’ I know that is very hard to explain,” the friend told me. She went on: “What was creepy was that it was always in front of people.”
I wanted to break this story. Badly. About half a dozen women had stepped forward around the time I spoke with Reade to say they were bothered by how Biden had touched them at events. I wrote a column praising them for staring down the political media that had given him a pass for all those years. Reade’s story took these complaints further — showing how even lower-grade inappropriate conduct can have real consequences for a woman’s career, an important subject that we still don’t talk about nearly enough.
I knew I wasn’t the only reporter Reade was talking to. The New York Times had three reporters on the story, she told me. On April 3, the day after we first spoke, she texted me four times. She wanted to know when I planned to publish, and she warned me that other outlets were getting ready to do so.
That day, the Union published an article with her story. This happens sometimes. It’s happened to me, many times. You fight for a story that would be explosive if you could prove it, but you can’t. I continued reporting on her story for a few more weeks after the story broke, but I didn’t get enough. Vox did not publish anything about Reade in 2019. Neither did the major outlets that I know were pursuing the story, including the Times, the Washington Post, and the Associated Press.
In March 2020, Reade resurfaced with a new allegation, which she told on The Katie Halper Show. In addition to her account of her experience with office staff, Reade said that in 1993, Biden forced an unwanted sexual encounter on her. She said Biden pushed her against a wall on the Capitol grounds, kissed her, and then digitally penetrated her — all against her will.
Biden’s campaign did not respond publicly to Reade’s claims in 2019. On May 1, Biden answered questions about the allegations for the first time on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. He denied all of Reade’s claims and underscored his denial of the sexual assault allegation. “I’m saying unequivocally, it never, never happened,” he told host Mika Brzezinski.
Three aides whom Reade said she approached about her complaints in 1993 told the New York Times that they also dispute her account. “I never once witnessed, or heard of, or received, any reports of inappropriate conduct, period — not from Ms. Reade, not from anyone,” said Marianne Baker, Biden’s longtime executive assistant. “I have absolutely no knowledge or memory of Ms. Reade’s accounting of events, which would have left a searing impression on me as a woman professional, and as a manager.”
When Reade’s story reemerged in a new form, I went through my reporting notes and interview transcripts from a year ago. I spoke with Reade last week for several hours over the course of multiple interviews. Reade and I have a good rapport. She’s optimistic and idealistic, even, as one friend told me, to a fault. When she tells her account, she becomes emotional. She seems sincere.
If I were an old friend of Reade’s and she told me this same story privately over the course of a year, I doubt I would question her account. The brain processes traumatic experiences differently, making it difficult for some survivors to share them as a linear narrative. And the personal nature of a sexual assault can saddle victims with feelings of shame and doubt. It’s not easy to talk about. Many sexual assault survivors never speak of the experience at all.
But I’m not an old friend. I’m a journalist. Reade came to me because she wanted to share her story with the world, not just with me. It was clear in our conversations that she understood the difference. I listened to her, I interviewed relevant sources, and I returned to her many times in an attempt to get more information to help me find more corroboration.
Reade’s latest allegation is far more serious and comes in a far more fraught political context. The story that both she and her corroborating witnesses are telling has changed dramatically. This leaves me — all of us — in an agonizing place. I’ve written many articles through the Me Too era. It’s unrealistic to demand “perfect” victims. And, like most who come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct or assault, Reade has suffered for speaking out. In several exchanges this year and last year, she’s shown me disturbing messages she’s received online.
As my colleague Anna North writes, there has long been an ambiguity in the Me Too movement. The rallying cry has been to “believe women.” But the acts of journalism that have driven the movement forward have been built on extraordinary amounts of evidence: They usually include not just consistent corroboration but oftentimes multiple stories, stacked on top of each other. Taking on powerful men over these issues was unthinkable just a few years ago. It’s required herculean effort.
Holding powerful men accountable takes a mountain of evidence
Reporters who’ve succeeded in forcing powerful men to be held to account relied on an incredible amount of reporting to do it.
For example, Irin Carmon, who, along with Amy Brittain exposed Charlie Rose for an alleged decades-long pattern of sexual harassment, had pursued the story for years. When their exposé appeared in the Washington Post, it was built on accusations from eight women, three on the record. Carmon and Brittain found consistency across the women’s stories and strong corroboration of each account:
There are striking commonalities in the accounts of the women, each of whom described their interactions with Rose in multiple interviews with The Post. For all of the women, reporters interviewed friends, colleagues or family members who said the women had confided in them about aspects of the incidents.
Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein fell in 2017 after Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey of the New York Times published the accounts of dozens of women who said Weinstein had assaulted or harassed them over the previous 30 years. Ronan Farrow published another story shortly after in the New Yorker, an account that included 13 accusations of sexual assault, three of them rape. All three reporters have gone on to write books about the incredible lengths they went to in order to get the story.
Eight women have now said they’ve been made uncomfortable by Biden in public settings. Reade is the lone woman to accuse him of sexual assault. This is a situation out of her control, but it means that reporters can’t build a story about Biden around a pattern of behavior, where multiple accusers boost one another’s story. Instead, reporters are looking at Reade’s account in isolation — and that account has changed.
When we spoke a year ago, Reade told me the only named sources she could give me were her deceased mother and the friend I spoke to. A recently uncovered tape of her mom on Larry King Live appears to corroborate Reade’s claim that she was struggling in Biden’s office in 1993, but does not include an assault allegation. When I reconnected with the friend I spoke to last year, who had previously told me Biden had not assaulted Reade, she told me a version of the story that matched Reade’s latest account.
This year, Reade said to Halper that she also told her brother about the alleged assault and harassment. He later told the Washington Post in an interview that he remembers his sister was upset in 1993 about Biden touching her neck and shoulders. He followed up with a Post reporter a few days later over text message to say Reade also said Biden “put his hands under her clothes.”
Since then, a former neighbor of Reade’s, Lynda LaCasse, has come forward in an interview with Business Insider. She said Reade spoke about the harassment and assault claims in 1995. I asked Reade why she hadn’t mentioned LaCasse to me a year ago, or to Halper, or to the first few reporters she told about her assault allegation, including the New York Times, which was working on a deep dive into her story at the same time. She said LaCasse hadn’t seemed like a relevant source because she’d talked to her two years after the alleged incident took place. Reade added that she told reporters about two other anonymous friends later who hadn’t seemed relevant to her either. When asked a similar question by the Associated Press, which had been working on the story, too, Reade didn’t respond.
If Reade had told a consistent story and shared all of her corroborating sources with reporters, if those sources had told a consistent story, if the Union piece had shaken loose other cases like hers, or if there were “smoking gun” evidence in Biden’s papers, her account might have been reported on differently in mainstream media a year ago. It is not fair to an individual survivor that their claims require an extraordinary level of confirmation, but it’s what reporters have found is necessary for their stories to hold up to public scrutiny and successfully hold powerful men accountable. So we are here.
The media took Reade seriously. She wanted more.
When Halper asked Reade why she didn’t mention the assault allegation originally, she responded by blaming the media:
Well, I was going to tell the whole thing … the whole history with Biden. … But the way I was being questioned, it made me so uncomfortable that I didn’t trust it. And no offense to the reporters out there, it’s just maybe that’s something that can be learned, how to talk to somebody who got. … Because I just really got shut down. … And the narrative [they] really wanted it to be was that it wasn’t a sexual thing. Like don’t say it’s sexual. And so I was like, okay, I guess I can’t really say the whole story. …
But that wasn’t the narrative I wanted. I wanted the truth. And I certainly had no qualms about the accusations being of sexual misconduct. Reporters at many outlets, including the reporters Reade spoke to, have not shied away from reporting on detailed sexual assault allegations. In the Me Too era, reporters have been aggressive in uncovering stories of powerful men who, for far too long, have abused and assaulted women with no consequences.
In the interview with Halper and in her most recent conversations with me, Reade was critical of how major outlets treated her story. For example, in the interview with Halper, Reade said she contacted “someone at the Washington Post and then they never really followed up.”
The Washington Post says that it interviewed Reade “on multiple occasions — both this year and last — as well as people she says she told of the assault claim and more than a half-dozen former staffers of Biden’s Senate office,” a fact Reade conceded to me in an interview.
In a recent conversation, I asked Reade why she would say the media was shutting her down when she was initially so adamant with me (and other outlets) that this wasn’t a misconduct story. The only answer she gave was that she was speaking about the response to her claims “collectively.” And in her opinion, the added details still fit her construct that “this is not a story about sexual misconduct,” because, she told me, sexual assault itself is about power.
I spoke with Reade’s friend again this week. She said that Reade had told her about the alleged assault the week it happened in 1993. I asked the friend why, then, did she volunteer so explicitly that Biden “never tried to kiss her” or touch her inappropriately. “It just organically rolled out that way,” the friend said. “[Reade] and I had many conversations a year ago about what her degree of comfort was. She wanted to leave a layer there, and I did not want to betray that. It just wasn’t my place.”
The missing complaint
Reade told me last year that she gave a supervisor a written statement voicing her complaints about how she’d been treated in the office. The complaint was limited to the harassment allegation, not the misconduct allegation, she told me this year.
I helped Reade in 2019 request documents from a few offices to try to find the record. (Personnel files wouldn’t be released to a third party, like a reporter.) First, she put in a request with the Senate secretary’s office, which maintains some employment records. That office provided a copy of her payroll history, which confirmed her dates of employment and salary.
We next tried the Office of Personnel Management, which maintains federal records of employment, but the office was not able to track down a file in its electronic system. I then checked with a source who worked in a warehouse across the country where it would most likely have ended up to see if there was a physical file stashed there. He couldn’t find one.
One place the complaint could have landed is back in the Senate office, though that wouldn’t be proper protocol. Biden is now under pressure to check files maintained by the University of Delaware. He gave the university his Senate documents in 2012 under the condition they’d remain sealed until two years after his time in office. The time frame was extended when he decided to run for president.
When asked on Morning Joe if he would have the documents reviewed, Biden said he would not, maintaining a personnel file wouldn’t be there and that the files are about his policy decision-making, speechwriting, etc.
Biden says that if a complaint exists, it would be held by the National Archives and they should release any relevant documents. He also sent a letter to the Senate secretary’s office asking for any relevant records, a request the office declined because any records that might exist are “strictly confidential.”
Reade herself says the complaint didn’t include the assault accusation, so finding the complaint — or failing to find it — would neither corroborate nor debunk the most serious allegation.
The complaint could corroborate Reade’s claims of sexual harassment, which Biden also denies. But the fact that Biden has over the years touched women in a way that some have said made them uncomfortable is well-established, and Biden has acknowledged it publicly. Whether or not one finds his apology for that adequate, it’s the assault accusation that has made Reade the center of attention. All parties agree that a complaint wouldn’t speak to that.
Where this leaves us
All of this leaves me where no reporter wants to be: mired in the miasma of uncertainty. I wanted to believe Reade when she first came to me, and I worked hard to find the evidence to make certain others would believe her, too. I couldn’t find it. None of that means Reade is lying, but it leaves us in the limbo of Me Too: a story that may be true but that we can’t prove.
There’s another issue at play, which Biden supporters and critics of Reade have pointed to in response to her allegation. A year ago, Reade went to mainstream, national outlets including the Times, the Post, and the Associated Press. It was in the middle of a competitive Democratic primary. She had no obvious connection to any candidate. And if voters or the party pushed Biden out, it was unclear who would benefit.
This year, Reade has emerged as an ardent Bernie Sanders supporter, with a much more damaging story to tell about Biden, who is now the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. She went public with the rape accusation on a podcast sympathetic to Sanders and followed up with Ryan Grim of the Intercept, an outlet that has been consistently critical of Biden.
A few weeks before Reade spoke to Halper, she replied to a tweet from Grim seeming to tease that a story was coming. Reade declined to elaborate on what she meant in the tweet, directing me to a spokesperson. Grim said he hadn’t noticed the reply when she sent it, and he didn’t speak with her for the first time until March 8, almost a week later.
Yup. Timing… wait for it….tic toc
— taratweets ( Alexandra Tara Reade) (@ReadeAlexandra) March 4, 2020
Reade’s supporters on the left see the Democratic establishment’s response to her accusation as hypocritical, particularly when compared to how party leaders rallied around Christine Blasey Ford when she testified in the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. In Ford’s case, there was near-universal support for her. Critics on the left say that Democrats should stand up for Reade, and that the “believe women” rallying cry should apply even when it’s not politically convenient.
But Democrats have largely lined up behind Biden. Top Barack Obama alumni have said that they vetted Biden fully in 2008 and found no evidence of the kind of behavior Reade describes. Rising Democratic star Stacey Abrams recently said, “I believe Joe Biden.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren penned an op-ed with Biden. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, seen as a Me Too leader for her push to oust Sen. Al Franken after he was accused of sexual misconduct, headlined an event for Biden this week.
Many liberals have said now and during the Franken saga that the party is holding itself to a ridiculous standard. Donald Trump has admitted on tape to what Reade accuses Biden of doing and still denies the accounts of more than 20 women who have accused him of sexual misconduct. And given that the goal of beating Trump is paramount this fall, some see dwelling on an accusation that has yet to be definitively proven as a damaging distraction.
To Reade, though, none of this is that complicated.
“My story never changed. I just didn’t come forward with all the details. It’s really simple,” she said to me. “I held back this story because I was afraid of a powerful man.”
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