A woman accuses Joe Biden of sexual assault, and all hell breaks loose online. Here's what we know

Alexandra Tara Reade accused Biden of sexual assault. Salon untangles fact from fiction in the politicized fall-out

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published March 31, 2020 12:00PM (EDT)

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

This story has been update to clarify Time's Up's mission and process as they pertain to requests for assistance.

Last week, podcaster Katie Halper, an avid fan of presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, released an episode of her podcast containing a shocking accusation: In an interview, Alexandra Tara Reade, who briefly worked for former Vice President Joe Biden when he was in the U.S. Senate, said that Biden had sexually assaulted her in 1993, pinning her up against a wall and digitally penetrating her during an encounter on Capitol Hill. At the same time, Ryan Grim of The Intercept — a publication which has been strongly supportive of Sanders and critical of Biden — published a story insinuating that the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund had rejected Reade's case out of political loyalty to Biden. 

These twin stories are currently tearing up social media, with competing conspiracy theories flying from both pro-Biden and pro-Sanders camps in response. Biden supporters are accusing Reade of being a Russian agent, or at least a kook with suspicious intentions who's in love with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Sanders supporters are accusing the mainstream media and Time's Up of covering up Reade's accusations to protect Biden. (To be clear: Neither candidate's campaign has engaged with these conspiracy theories in any way.)

Reade says there were no witnesses to the alleged 1993 assault, which is of course extremely common in such cases. She said in her interview with Halper that she told her brother and a friend about the assault at the time, which Halper says she confirmed. That's the most common method of establishing credibility when reporting on allegations of sexual harassment or assault. The audio of the interview is compelling, as Reade speaks with a lot of emotion about the alleged assault. The same was true in her interviews with Salon. 

Yet it is also true that outside of a handful of aggregated stories, there has been almost no high-profile media coverage of a story as explosive as this — an accusation that a former vice president and near-certain Democratic presidential nominee committed an act of sexual violence against a woman who worked for him. Why?

After reaching out to Reade, representatives from Time's Up, a lawyer who spoke with Reade, the Biden campaign, Reade's former bosses and the journalists who first broke the story, Salon hopes this story will offer clarity about what is and isn't true in the bizarre narratives swirling around Reade and her story. That clarity may also help answer the question of why the mainstream media has largely steered clear of this messy situation.  

1. Is the mainstream media burying Reade's story out of loyalty to Biden and/or hatred of Sanders? That's unlikely. Here's why.

There's a reason why mainstream journalists such as Ronan Farrow of the New Yorker and Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey of the New York Times — all Pulitzer Prize winners for their meticulous coverage of the 2017 Harvey Weinstein investigation — are so careful when reporting allegations of sexual harassment and assault. (Salon is not addressing any individual outlet's choice not to cover this specific story, but the general considerations typically involved in such a decision.) It's not just about fairness to the accused, but also to the accusers. Women who tell these stories inevitably get blasted by skeptics who pick their stories apart, so it's critical to their safety that the reporting holds up under close scrutiny. That's only going to be more true when the story has major political implications or confusing twists that could be interpreted as red flags — or both, like this one does.

Reade's story of what happened during her tenure working for Biden has changed over time. In April of 2019, Reade spoke to a local Nevada County paper, claiming Biden "would touch me on the shoulder or hold his hand on my shoulder running his index finger up my neck during a meeting."

She also recounted an incident where she says she was told by staff that she had to serve drinks at a Biden event because he "liked my legs." She told Salon she rejected this request and complained directly to supervisors Marianne Baker and Dennis Toner. Reade says that her complaints led to being sidelined and pushed out of Biden's office. Both Baker and Toner denied to Salon ever having such a conversation with Reade.

Reade's April 2019 account of why she left Biden's office also conflicts with earlier things she has written. In a December 2018 Medium post she's since deleted, Reade wrote that she quit working for Biden to pursue a vocation in the arts and because she loves "Russia with all my heart" and rejected "the reckless imperialism of America" and what she saw as an anti-Russian view on Capitol Hill. 

Before 2019, Reade lived under another name — she changed it for many years to escape an abusive husband, and provided the paperwork demonstrating this to Salon — and her public statements about Biden were entirely positive. After making her April 2019 allegations that Biden had touched her inappropriately, Reade spent months tweeting that story, dozens of times, at various figures — politicians, celebrities, media outlets, even Donald Trump — to no response.

Under both her current and prior name, Reade has expressed public support for a variety of Democratic politicians in the past, ranging from Sen. Cory Booker and Sen. Elizabeth Warren to Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and Marianne Williamson. Then, over the past few months, Reade began heavily retweeting pro-Sanders accounts and regularly engaging with prominent Sanders supporters like Halper. It was during this time that Reade started to hint publicly that what happened with Biden had been far more serious than her 2019 story detailed. Such hinting led — as Reade told Salon, which Halper confirmed — to an anonymous woman suggesting that Reade seek Halper out to tell her full story. 

When asked why her story had changed so much in the past year, Reade told Salon that she had considered describing the assault to the original reporter from the Nevada County paper, but the "way he asked the questions" had "shut me down." (That reporter did not respond to Salon's request for comment.) She also said she felt intimidated by social media attacks and threats in the aftermath of her original accusations, and therefore stayed silent.

The timeline shows that Reade's involvement in the online world of Bernie fandom coincided with her escalation of accusations against Biden. To be clear, this does not mean she's lying. But taken along with the other discrepancies in Reade's accounts — which are also, on their own, not reasons to discredit her — it's enough to make publications take a slow and careful approach to amplifying this story. 

"Other outlets, for good reason, do their own reporting on stories like this," Grim told Salon. "As they do, I expect we'll see more coverage."

Salon asked Grim and Halper about their reporting process, but got few answers. Halper confirmed Reade had been connected to her through a woman on Twitter. Grim confirmed that he and Reade have been in contact since early March. (Grim has relevant experience here: He broke the story about Christine Blasey Ford writing to Sen. Dianne Feinstein with her accusation that Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh had attempted to rape her in high school.) 

Grim and Halper have both publicly said that they spoke to Reade's brother and friend, who both confirmed that Reade had told them about the alleged assault when it happened. Attempts to reach the brother and the friend — key steps in reporting a story like this independently — have proven fruitless for Salon. Reade did not respond to Salon's request for her friend's identity, and Reade's brother has not responded to Salon's requests to talk. 

In light of these details, Salon concludes that mainstream outlets who are being criticized for not writing about Reade's allegations probably aren't making that choice because they're covering up for Joe Biden. What's more likely driving the silence — so far — is a genuine reluctance to dive into a story that contains such a high number of complicating factors and proves difficult to pin down, especially with the coronavirus emergency dominating the news cycle. 

2. Did Time's Up refuse to help Reade as a political favor to Biden? Almost certainly not. 

As Reade herself said when she was interviewed by pro-Sanders pundit Krystal Ball, Time's Up offered her considerable help when she first reached out to the organization. In its partnership with the National Women's Law Center, Time's Up connected Reade with a number of lawyers who interviewed her to see if she had a case worth pursuing. None of those lawyers took Reade on as a client. 

It's important to understand here that Time's Up Legal Defense Fund only provides support beyond these referrals — such as PR assistance — if a client obtains a lawyer and moves to take legal action on workplace harassment. But Reade told Salon she wasn't interested in suing Biden. Instead, she was angry "about the smears about being a Russian agent" from Biden supporters and was hoping a lawyer could find a way to stop them. 

One law firm Reade spoke with confirmed that they would not take a case with the ambiguous goal of trying to shut down people on social media who were speculating about an accuser being a "Russian agent."

Carrie Goldberg runs a firm dedicated to defending women against sexual abuse. Time's Up helped Reade set up a meeting with her. Goldberg told Salon that she would not "comment on who reaches out to our firm for help" but said that "our firm never hesitates to take on powerful adversaries." She said her firm is not, however, in the business of threatening "to sue conspiracy theorists for potentially protected speech."

Salon's discussions with Reade indicated that she was less interested in legal action and more in public relations representation — for "protection" and to handle "being inundated" by phone calls from reporters. After this interview, Reade continued to send messages to Salon indicating her anger over not getting help with PR. (To clarify: That doesn't rule out Reade retaining legal counsel for matters related to her allegations, but at press time she had not done so.) It's important to understand here that the mission of Time's Up Legal Defense Fund is providing support for clients taking action on workplace harassment, who have secured a lawyer, and the PR services are in support of that.

In a written statement to Salon, Uma Iyer of the National Women's Law Center confirmed what Grim reported in The Intercept — their status as a nonprofit comes with "a strict and absolute prohibition on participating in electioneering or political campaign activity." Considering Reade's active presence on Bernie Twitter and her enthusiasm for the Sanders campaign, the concerns that any involvement with her allegations during a presidential primary could be perceived as electioneering don't seem unfounded. 

SKDKnickerbocker, the firm that Time's Up hires to do PR support for their legal cases, was founded by Anita Dunn, who is an adviser to Joe Biden. This fact has attracted the attention of many pro-Sanders people on social media who are eager to sense an "establishment" conspiracy, which is understandable. But considering the reasons that Time's Up had to decline to fund Reade's media assistance before involving the PR firm — she hadn't secured legal representation, and even if she did, the whole story could potentially be interpreted as electioneering — there's no reason to believe that Dunn ran interference to quell Reade's story.

3. Is Reade a Russian agent? That's also highly doubtful, and here's why.

Back in April 2019, when Reade accused Biden of inappropriate touching and his office of sidelining her for complaints, Biden supporters and journalists like Edward Isaac-Dovere of the Atlantic attempted to discredit Reade by noting that she had written essays expressing her affection for Vladimir Putin. Biden supporters have pulled this narrative back into play in the wake of Reade's interview with Halper.

Reade has since deleted the essays that positioned her as an avid Putin fan, but some screenshots and internet archives remain. In 2018, she wrote in a Medium post that Putin "has saved the world from a large conflict on more than one occasion" and "brought a chaotic and failed nation to become a vibrant, creative, economic force within a decade," crediting him with "emotional intelligence" and "an alluring combination of strength with gentleness."

In another 2018 post at Medium, she wrote, "President Putin scares the power elite in America because he is a compassionate, caring, visionary leader."

When asked about it, Reade told Salon she had been writing a novel about Russia at the time and "the blogs read political because I was kind of in that immersion of doing Russian stuff for this novel." She also told Salon that she had been influenced by Oliver Stone's pro-Putin documentary and a Russian friend who praised Putin. 

After doing "more research," she told Salon she now feels differently about Putin, although if that's true her change of heart seems to be quite recent. In February 2020, Reade scolded actor and major Sanders supporter John Cusack "not to repeat xenophobic propaganda against Russia" and lamented that "Putin in 2006 was Hollywood A listers darling now he is the evil master mind."

The fact that Reade made such a clumsy effort to clean up her fringe views in the recent past isn't a great look, but it's also not the gotcha moment that Biden supporters might think. It's critical to understand — and a lot of Biden supporters apparently don't get this — that being overly credulous about Oliver Stone documentaries, or even about foreign despots, doesn't mean that someone is lying about a sexual assault. 

Ultimately, Salon is forced to conclude that anyone actually working for Russian intelligence would have done a better job covering her tracks.

4. Is Reade that mentally ill woman who was on "Dr. Phil" claiming Putin was going to marry her? Absolutely not.

A few months ago, Dr. Phil interviewed a woman named "Jennifer" and her three adult children about "Jennifer's" delusional belief that Putin was in love with her and that they were engaged, despite having never met. 

Reade is absolutely not Jennifer, and she does not think she's engaged to Putin.

Salon tracked down the real identity of the person Dr. Phil interviewed, as well as two of her children. After speaking with the daughter of Jennifer, we can safely say that Jennifer is an entirely different person. (Salon is protecting the identities of these people so they don't get harassed by either Biden or Sanders partisans — they really, truly have nothing to do with this story.) 

The fact Salon even had to go to the lengths of tracking down this family and pestering them for information speaks to how toxic the narrative around Reade has become, with Biden fans running rampant on Twitter and spreading false rumors painting her as wildly delusional. 

5. What's the big takeaway here? There are several.

Biden's communications director, Kate Bedingfield, said the allegations are false and issued this terse statement to Salon: "Women have a right to tell their story, and reporters have an obligation to rigorously vet those claims."

The story of Reade's allegations against Biden shows what can happen when the rigorous standards espoused by mainstream publications are sidestepped for a more credulous and politicized approach. The failure to vet this story methodically and to preemptively address its odder elements opened the door to a whirlwind of conspiracy theories and misinformation. 

Some Sanders supporters are lobbing wild accusations of a cover-up by the mainstream media and Time's Up for not publicizing Reade's story. In turn, some Biden supporters are being reckless — whether by assuming Reade is lying, or by spreading ridiculous conspiracy theories about her, or both. No doubt some folks on either side of the political divide would be reacting the same way no matter what, but the situation has been made significantly worse because of the slipshod manner in which Reade's allegations were reported and released.

Organizations like Time's Up and mainstream journalists take great care with politically sensitive accusations like Reade's. That isn't because they're cowards. It's because they fear situations just like this, where piecemeal reporting and the perception of slanted coverage create a political food fight that ends up pushing what is supposed to be the central concern — resisting sexual harassment and violence — to the sidelines. 

No matter how it may be interpreted, "believe women" has never been an injunction to publish every allegation of sexual abuse without hesitation or reservation. It's about taking these stories seriously on their own terms, instead of dismissing them as women's attempts to manipulate people and public opinion. For journalists, it means we must take stories of sexual abuse seriously and treat them carefully and thoroughly; as Rebecca Traister said on Twitter in 2017, that means publishing stories that are "reported, investigated, fact checked & backed up by the outlets reporting on them." 

What can be said is that Reade's story is credible and compelling in some important ways, and also comes with a number of troubling red flags. For a variety of reasons it has not been taken seriously on a national level, but those reasons do not include a mainstream media conspiracy to protect Joe Biden. Rather than becoming the subject of serious investigation, this has instead become an occasion for die-hard supporters on both the Sanders and Biden sides to score points on one another online. Actual facts have been supplanted by reckless conspiracy theories spun by enthusiasts of both candidates. Whatever the facts of this case may be, the #MeToo movement deserves better than to be dragged into the sleaze like this. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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