Joe Biden and his team are making it clear to supporters and donors that they are moving forward with plans for a possible 2020 presidential run, insisting the former vice president is undeterred by allegations that he made some women feel uncomfortable in his interactions with them.
People close to Biden say he and his team are taking seriously the experiences the women are sharing, and his aides are cognizant that the way Biden interacts with voters on the campaign trail will continue to be examined if he runs for president. And his advisers are also aware that his rivals – both Democratic candidates and President Donald Trump – could also fan the flames surrounding the allegations.
One source in Biden’s orbit says the current debate unfolding about Biden’s conduct has heightened his awareness of the criticism he may face on a number of issues – including his handling of Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony – if he enters the presidential race and that he is prepared for what’s ahead. An announcement of his plans is expected to come as soon as this month, potentially after the Easter holiday, sources familiar with the discussions said. A source close to Biden said the former vice president hasn’t made a final decision on his plans.
Biden’s camp dove into damage control mode Friday after Lucy Flores, a former Nevada assemblywoman, penned an essay detailing a 2014 encounter where the former vice president made her feel “uneasy, gross and confused” when he came up from behind her and kissed the back of her head. After a series of carefully-worded statements attributed to his spokesman, Biden released a statement of his own addressing the allegation on Sunday.
“In my many years on the campaign trail and in public life, I have offered countless handshakes, hugs, expressions of affection, support and comfort,” Biden said in a statement that was released shortly before Flores appeared in her first television interview. “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 added, “I may not recall these moments the same way, and I may be surprised at what I hear. But we have arrived at an important time when women feel they can and should relate their experiences, and men should pay attention. And I will.”
For now, Biden, a self-described “tactile politician,” has signaled no immediate plans to further address the allegations in any way, such as an interview. Although people close to him say this could always change. When a second woman came forward claiming Biden made her feel uncomfortable at a 2009 Connecticut fundraiser, his team pointed to his response from Sunday. Biden’s team again pointed to that statement when two more women told the New York Times that Biden made them feel uncomfortable by the way he touched them.
The next public event currently on Biden’s schedule is a panel on the opioid epidemic at the University of Pennsylvania next Thursday.
Some voters, who were attending a forum with several Democratic presidential candidates on Monday told CNN they wanted to hear more from Biden.
“I think it’s perfectly OK to have complex feelings towards people like Joe Biden and I continue to have complex feelings,” said Kattie Mettle of Maryland, who is passionate about the environment and winning back the White House and is among voters weighing both as they consider new allegations against Biden.
Aside from his initial statement, much of the Biden camp’s response to the fallout has fallen to female surrogates, including former staffers in his Senate and White House offices, former administration officials and friends.
“I saw him at his best and his worst, in quiet moments and on the world’s largest stages. Through it all, in big ways and in the small ways that sometimes matter even more, he was, is and always has been a champion for women and equality,” Elizabeth Alexander, Biden’s former press secretary at the White House, wrote in a USA Today, op-ed.
“Joe Biden is one of the truly decent and compassionate men in all of American politics. He has helped me through my fathers diagnosis, treatment and ultimate passing more than anyone of my fathers friends combined. I wish there was more empathy from our politicians not less,” Meghan McCain, a co-host of the View and daughter of the late Sen. John McCain, tweeted.
“I had the honor of working with Joe Biden every single day for eight years. And I have an enormous amount of respect for him,” Valerie Jarrett, former senior adviser to President Obama, said on NPR’s All Things Considered. “But I think he got it right over the weekend when he said it’s important that men listen.”
Aides to Biden said the former vice president was “heartened” by the former female staffers and friends who have rallied to his side since late Friday, noting that many volunteered to share their personal experiences with Biden.
But some are also encouraging the former vice president to re-examine how he interacts with others. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the highest ranking female politician in the country, said the allegations against Biden aren’t “disqualifying” but added the former vice president needs to be more aware of how his actions make others feel.
“He has to understand in the world that we’re in now that people’s space is important to them and what’s important is how they receive it, not necessarily how you intended it,” Pelosi said at a Politico event Tuesday, adding that he should join the “straight arm club,” suggesting she keeps people at a distance.
Even if this moment of political turbulence passes for Biden, the allegations will almost certainly be litigated again and again during the Democratic primary fight as candidates are asked to respond to questions. How he responds will be central to whether he can fully move beyond the controversy.
While Biden has run for president twice before and served on the Democratic ticket in 2008 and 2012, the 2020 campaign represents a new era in a post Me Too world. Potential rivals have said they believe Flores’ story and respect her right to tell it, even while showing an air of exasperation by it all.
“I have been through a lot of this in the last year, questions about other male politicians,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., told CNN. “If we spend our whole time talking about what men have done or maybe they didn’t do or could do, we’re never going to talk about what women can do. We have some extraordinary women running for president right now.”
Those in Biden’s orbit have long been aware his physical interactions with voters, which have played out in the public eye for years, could be the subject of scrutiny. But they chalk up those touchy, sometimes affectionate moments with both men and women to a politician looking to connect with people through gestures of support and comfort.
One such moment of comfort was detailed this week by Stephanie Carter, the wife of former Defense Secretary Ash Carter. She is at the center of viral photo, which shows Biden grasping her shoulders and whispering in her ear, an image Carter says was “misleadingly extracted” from video of the day.
“The Joe Biden in my picture is a close friend helping someone get through a big day, for which I will always be grateful,” Carter wrote in a Medium blog post. “As the sole owner of my story, it is high time that I reclaim it — from strangers, Twitter, the pundits and the late-night hosts.”
Biden’s team has been troubled by “smears and forgeries” that exist on the Internet, including images that are photoshopped to show the former vice president in potentially compromising situations.
Biden’s spokesman Bill Russo said Biden has made clear he “believes that women who have experience any such discomfort, regardless of intention, should speak and be heard, and that he will be among those who listen,” but added “the important conversation about these issues are not advanced, nor are any criticisms of Vice President Biden validated, by the continued misrepresentation of the Carter and Coons moments, or a failure to be vigilant about a cottage industry of lies.”