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As Tara Reade’s Evidence Against Joe Biden Builds, All the Chickens Come Home to Roost
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As Tara Reade’s Evidence Against Joe Biden Builds, All the Chickens Come Home to Roost

When everyone abandons norms, who is left to trust?

I’m not generally a person given to schadenfreude. I try to be empathetic and sympathetic. I really do. But there are times when the consequences of terrible ideas become so plain, and the partisan boxes we build become so confining, that it’s hard not to take at least a degree of pleasure in the sudden public realization that old standards of fairness, due process, and personal character just might have some merit. 

Exactly two weeks ago, I wrote a rather lengthy assessment of the Tara Reade’s case against Joe Biden and the conservative case for media hypocrisy in the coverage of Reade’s claims. My verdict was simple. Reade’s claims were shaky. The claims against key media outlets were strong. They did, in fact, apply different reporting standards to claims against Brett Kavanaugh and Biden. 

Regarding the claims against Biden, here was my summary:

At the end of the day, however, we’re left with a 27-year-old claim with a single anonymous corroboration that’s inconsistent with the claimant’s own previous accounts and is (so far) unsupported by any other claim of similar behavior. I’m troubled but unconvinced. Based on the current state of the evidence, I don’t think it’s likely that Biden assaulted Reade.

Since I published the newsletter, however, the evidence against Biden has grown stronger. Last week we learned that Reade’s mother apparently called in to the Larry King show in 1993 and made the following, rather vague claim:

“Yes, hello. I’m wondering what a staffer would do besides go to the press in Washington?” she asks. “My daughter has just left there after working for a prominent senator, and could not get through with her problems at all, and the only thing she could have done was go to the press, and she chose not to do it out of respect for him.

It’s not proof of sexual assault by any means, but it’s at least evidence that Reade told her mother that something untoward had happened. Then, Business Insiderupped the ante, locating two additional sources who substantiated Reade’s claims:

Now two more sources have come forward to corroborate certain details about Reade’s claims. One of them — a former neighbor of Reade’s — has told Insider for the first time, on the record, that Reade disclosed details about the alleged assault to her in the mid-1990s.

“This happened, and I know it did because I remember talking about it,” Lynda LaCasse, who lived next door to Reade in the mid-’90s, told Insider.

The other source, Lorraine Sanchez, who worked with Reade in the office of a California state senator in the mid-’90s, told Insider that she recalls Reade complaining at the time that her former boss in Washington, DC, had sexually harassed her, and that she had been fired after raising concerns.

The New York Times’s Michelle Goldberg summed up the effect of these new disclosures nicely:

What a nightmare indeed, for everyone. Every single side of this story is now living with the consequences of dreadful mistakes. Joe Biden is now confronting the “believe women” movement he helped build. Key media outlets and multiple media figures are now face-to-face with their own, post-Kavanaugh double standards. And, finally, the GOP is left without an arrow in its quiver against the Democratic nominee because of its own profound moral compromise.

Let’s start with Biden’s dilemma. There’s of course the easy contrast with the statements he made during the Kavanaugh controversy, when he said a woman’s claims should begin with a presumption of truth:

“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, whether or not it’s been made worse or better over time. But nobody fails to understand that this is like jumping into a cauldron.”

But lest you think this is a one-quote gotcha, we can’t forget that Biden was an advocate for Obama administration policies that systematically dismantled due process protections for college students accused of sexual misconduct. It’s a brutal story—one that I’ve covered time and time again.

To make a long story short, in 2011 the Obama Department of Education published a “Dear Colleague letter” that dramatically reduced due process protections for accused students at campuses from coast-to-coast. The administration mandated a low burden of proof (preponderance of the evidence), expanded the definition of sexual misconduct, and failed to preserve for the accused even the most basic right to confront their accuser with cross-examination. 

The result was a legal disaster. Hundreds of accused students have sued their schools, courts all over the country have overturned sexual misconduct findings and struck down deficient campus procedures. The system was so broken in California that its progressive judiciary halted proceedings in more than 70 sexual misconduct cases to fix the broken process. 

Yet as Emily Yoffe wrote last year in Politico, Biden repeatedly spoke about the campus sexual assault controversy in crude caricatures, supported the administration’s Title IX reforms, and then directly attacked proposed Trump administration reforms that restored traditional due process protections in campus adjudications, including the right of cross examination.

To put it another way, the Obama administration broke campus due process to favor sexual assault accusers, Biden championed that effort, and he opposed the restoration of the most basic due process rights. And now he’s in the crosshairs of a serious complaint.

But Biden of course isn’t the only party sleeping in the beds they made. I don’t need to belabor the stunning differences in the way the New York Times, The New Yorker, and many other outlets covered the claims against Biden compared with their coverage of claims against Brett Kavanaugh. I wrote about the double standard two weeks ago:

Writing in The New Yorker, Jane Mayer and Ronan Farrow published the completely unsubstantiated claim that Kavanaugh exposed himself to a woman named Deborah Ramirez. Not only did she confess to drinking heavily and to memory gaps, she said that she only came forward “after six days of carefully assessing her memories and consulting with her attorney.”

Even worse, The New Yorker stated that the magazine “has not confirmed with other eyewitnesses that Kavanaugh was present at the party.” (Emphasis added.) That’s extraordinary. The claim never should have made it to print. Not only did it reach The New Yorker’s prestigious pages, but virtually every other prestige media outlet carried the claims immediately. 

But the negligence surrounding Ramirez’s claims is nothing compared to the widespread press negligence and outright recklessness in reporting Michael Avenatti client Julie Swetnick’s fantastical and grotesque claims that she saw Kavanaugh “waiting his turn” for gang rapes after facilitating them by spiking or drugging the punch at high school parties. The mainstream media reporting on the claim was immediate and prominent. On Twitter, journalist after journalist immediately credited her claims. 

To be perfectly clear, the care that media outlets have taken with the Biden allegations should be the standard. When a claim is made, investigate it carefully and comprehensively before rushing it to print. And in the absence of solid evidence, claims should not generate an avalanche of “I believe women” think pieces based on unrelated experiences, teen movies (Vox actually published a piece that used the John Hughes movie Sixteen Candles to bolster the rape claim against Kavanuagh)or shaky social science (like unverifiable statistics claiming very low rates of false rape allegations). 

The rush to convict Kavanaugh represented one of the most disturbing media moments of my career, and I’m hardly conservative America’s harshest media critic.

Finally, let’s talk about the GOP. What is it going to do, pray tell, with the Biden allegation besides harp on about media hypocrisy? Can it claim in any way that Reade’s allegations are material to Biden’s bid for the presidency? After all, more than a dozen women have accused Donald Trump of various forms of misconduct, there’s a tape of Trump bragging about grabbing women by the genitals, and his lawyer is currently sitting in prison for his participation in a criminal scheme to conceal hush money payments to a porn star.

Moreover, while the allegations against Trump vary in credibility, some are supported by considerable corroborating evidence. For example, former Apprentice contestant Summer Zervos accused Trump of kissing her without consent in 2007, grabbing her breast, and thrusting his genitals up against her. She filed a defamation case against Trump after he said that he never “met her in a hotel or greeted her inappropriately a decade ago.” 

She not only claims that she told “family and friends” about the incident and that she reached out to legal counsel to consider legal action as early as 2011, but discovery in the case has produced phone logs and itineraries that Zervos claims corroborate her timeline and her account of communication with Trump. And that’s but one claim. 

It is so painfully obvious that each and every error outlined above would have painful consequences. No one should think that norms of due process and presumptions of innocence that have been built up over centuries of painful human experience can be cast aside by any person or political party without soon facing their own challenge in responding to presumptions of guilt and lowered burdens of proof.

Media organizations that set irresponsible precedents when confronting a conservative judicial nominee should not be surprised when critics rightly highlight the care they take in reporting on a Democratic presidential candidate.  

Finally, a political party that thoroughly discards any meaningful character test for president—including by discarding any real concern as to whether its nominee has abused women—cannot then be surprised when the press and the public ultimately treat accusations against a political opponent with a yawn and a shrug. “Character for thee, but not for me” persuades no one. 

And so, here we are, reminded once again that presumptions of innocence are important, careful reporting is a professional necessity, and personal integrity is of paramount importance in national leaders. Yet few of our leading national institutions are well-equipped to make that case. Is it any wonder that Americans deeply distrust virtually every significant player in the American political system?

One last thing …

On Sunday, Netflix released Season 4 of one of the best shows I’ve ever watched, The Last Kingdom. If you haven’t watched it yet, you’re in for a treat. It’s outstanding, and for my Christian readers, it features some of the best and most nuanced portrayals of Christian characters (including a historical figure such as Alfred the Great) you’ll see anywhere on television. I love it, my wife loves it, and my college-age kids love it. 

To whet your appetite, here’s the Season 1 trailer. Now go binge it. You’ll be glad you did.

Photograph of Joe Biden by Photo by Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images.

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.