Tara Reade's Dubious Claims and Shifting Stories Show the Limits of #BelieveWomen

Tara Reade's Dubious Claims and Shifting Stories Show the Limits of #BelieveWomen

Cathy Young
Cathy Young
26 min read

In March, a 56-year-old California woman named Tara Reade publicly accused Joe Biden of sexually assaulting her in 1993. The issue caused an awkward rift among Democrats, one that has only widened since Biden became the party’s presumptive presidential nominee. Many Democrats fear the accusation will weaken their chances of removing Donald Trump from the White House, while others are more worried that dismissing the accusations outright might alienate the party’s base. In April, a number of notable female Democrats and feminist progressives who usually align themselves with the #BelieveWomen camp declared their support for Biden, and explained that “believe women” actually means “listen to both sides.”

Last week, this theater of the absurd got slightly more surreal when a prominent feminist wrote in the New York Times that she thinks Biden is a rapist, but will vote for him anyway. Linda Hirshman, a retired professor of women’s studies and philosophy, and a prolific author (most recently of Reckoning: The Epic Battle Against Sexual Abuse and Harassment), explained to Times readers that she believes Reade, but also believes that “the cost of dismissing Tara Reade—and, worse, weakening the voices of future survivors” is justified on purely utilitarian grounds, since (as she sees it) Trump is the greater evil. Hirshman argued that the Democrats’ current strategy of defending Biden’s innocence is both cowardly (since it avoids the “hard work of moral analysis”) and harmful, since it means “casting a reasonably credible complainant as a liar.”

I don’t know if replacing Biden on the Democratic ticket at this stage would be as “suicidal” as Hirshman claims. But to argue, in effect, vote for the rapist—at least he’s our rapist seems like a dismal pitch to voters unversed in the finer points of “moral analysis.” What’s worse, Hirshman suggests that Biden’s female supporters, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, are merely pretending to believe Biden’s vehement denial of Reade’s allegations. By casting the Democratic leadership as dishonest and cynical, Hirshman is kneecapping the party she says she supports.

And she is doing it quite needlessly, because the totality of evidence suggests that Reade is in no way a “credible complainant.” Her credibility is further undermined by court documents that contradict her account of an entirely separate 1996 episode involving her ex-husband. In an ironic twist, these documents, part of Reade’s 1996–1997 California divorce files, were uncovered not through a dirt-digging expedition, but by researchers seeking evidence corroborating her allegations against Biden.

I am an unlikely Biden defender, though I find the prospect of a Biden presidency preferable to that of a second term for Trump or a first for Bernie Sanders. I have been a long-time critic of his much-lauded crusades on behalf of women’s issues, which have comprised an odd mix of radical feminist rhetoric and paternalistic chivalry. In 1990, Biden spearheaded the Violence Against Women Act, which included some worthwhile measures on domestic violence and sexual assault, but also gave a major policy role, and millions in funding, to ideologically motivated advocacy groups. (At a public hearing on the bill, Biden weirdly bragged that he’d been absolutely prohibited from hitting his sister when they were children, while she had “absolute impunity”—and added that he had “the bruises to prove it.”) Twenty years later, he led the Obama administration’s campaign against college sexual assault, which relied on wildly inflated rape statistics, and produced a system in which accused men often are presumed guilty. Even liberal feminist law professors have voiced concern about the lack of due process. Yet for years, Biden derided such critics as “cultural Neanderthals” and gave smug speeches about the importance of educating clueless young men about respect for women.

In this regard, Biden’s downfall as an unmasked sexual predator would be satisfyingly ironic—like the plot twist in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, in which the moralistic magistrate who demands draconian punishments for sexual misconduct is caught trying to extort sex from a nun. However, in this real-life case, the moralistic crusader is almost certainly an innocent man. For Hirshman and other progressives trying to salvage both #MeToo and the Democrats’ chances in November, the challenge is to beat Trump while signaling their belief in Reade. My own dilemma is different: While I believe Biden deserves support because he is wrongly accused, supporting him would mean siding with a man who has consistently worked to deny justice to others who’ve been targeted with equally dubious allegations.

* * *

Even leaving aside general questions about Reade’s credibility, some of which are discussed below, her specific story about Biden never made much sense. Reade has offered several iterations of what happened to her in 1993, when she was a staff assistant in then-Senator Biden’s office. According to the most recent and damning version, first made public less than two months ago, Biden pushed her against a wall, kissed her, got his hand under her skirt and jammed his fingers inside her—all this in a public space in the Russell Senate Office Building, in a hallway where she had seen him talking to someone else moments earlier. (She claims that Biden steered her to a “side area,” but no one has been able to find an alcove or other space in the building’s hallways that would offer the required level of privacy.)

No less remarkably, Reade says this happened after she had already talked to senior aides about being uncomfortable with Biden’s “handsy” behavior—touching her neck and hair during meetings or while passing by her desk.

Typical hallway in Russell Senate Office Building

Reade has repeatedly suggested that in those days, sexual harassment was rarely talked about, and powerful men had more or less free rein. While it is obviously true that attitudes have evolved since then, the early 1990s were, in fact, something of a high-water mark in regard to sexual-harassment awareness. Anita Hill’s testimony at Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings in 1991 had propelled the issue into the national spotlight. In late 1992, the Washington Post ran a front-page story about multiple women, mostly Capitol Hill staffers and lobbyists, with stories of harassment at the hands of Sen. Robert Packwood, a Republican from Oregon; more Packwood accusers came forward in early 1993. Packwood was under investigation at the time of Biden’s alleged assault on Reade, and he eventually resigned. Another senator—Brock Adams, a Democrat from Washington—had dropped his re-election bid in 1992 due to sexual assault allegations.

Reade, photographed in 1992.

In light of all this, Reade’s story implies suicidal political recklessness on Biden’s part. It also implies near-psychopathic predatory behavior: a sudden act of sexual aggression with no verbal or physical preliminaries. “There was no like, precept, it was just sudden and it was happening like that,” Reade said in her interview with Megyn Kelly last week. In her telling, the attack was also followed by a monstrously callous remark: “You’re nothing to me. Nothing.”

When men engage in such predation, the behavior is virtually always part of a larger pattern (see Harvey Weinstein). Yet in Biden’s case, there is not a single allegation of sexual aggression either before or after the alleged assault on Reade. We are therefore asked to believe that he committed sexual assault once over a five-decade career in public life—and did it in a setting where the risk of getting caught was high, and at a moment when sexual misconduct by politicians was under singularly intense scrutiny.

Biden’s detractors, such as feminist philosopher Kate Manne, reject the idea that Reade’s claim comes in isolation. They see a pattern of behavior in the accounts of seven other women who have accused him of touching them or “invading their personal space” in ways that made them uncomfortable, from hugs and handholding to nuzzling and forehead-to-forehead pressing. But it is quite the quantum leap from these intimate microaggressions to a scene out of a violent porn film. Moreover, none of the other seven women have claimed that the incidents they described were sexual in nature—and some had not even regarded them as unwelcome until #MeToo-era revisionism. (There is also lots of evidence, from both photos and first-person accounts, that Biden’s peculiar familiarities have been directed at men as well as women.)

There’s also an abundance of other reasons to question Reade’s credibility, including the following:

  • When Reade first came forward last spring to accuse Biden of unwelcome touching in 1993, her story didn’t include any mention of sexual assault. And it clashed with her far more dramatic 2020 version of the story in other ways, too. At the time, she explicitly told the Washington Post that she blamed Biden’s staff more than the senator himself—for “bullying” her after she complained, and presumably for failing to convey her concerns to Biden. That would be a strange assignment of blame if Biden had digitally raped her, as she would later claim. In another interview, with the Associated Press, she said of Biden, “I wasn’t scared of him, that he was going to take me in a room or anything. It wasn’t that kind of vibe.” When Reade first made the sexual assault allegation in her interview with podcaster Katie Halper on March 25th, 2020, she blamed the media for her failure to disclose it last year: “I just really got shut down… the narrative [they] really wanted it to be was that it wasn’t a sexual thing.” When Vox reporter Laura McGann, who spent many hours digging into Reade’s story last year, pushed back on this nonsensical claim in a recent conversation with Reade, the latter’s response was weak and evasive.
  • Reade spoke warmly of Biden on Twitter as late as 2017, even sharing tweets about his campaign against sexual assault. (By then, needless to say, she was not in a position where her career might have depended on placating him.) Of course, we often are reminded that traumatized women exhibit a wide range of sometimes contradictory-seeming responses in the aftermath of a sex crime. But this tweet would have been 24 years after the fact.
  • While Reade is certainly not a Russian plant, as some Biden supporters have speculated, her various comments about Russia and Vladimir Putin have been, to put it kindly, eccentric. In 2018, for instance, she wrote bizarrely gushy blogposts about Putin, praising not only his “compassionate” and “visionary” leadership, but also his “alluring combination of strength and gentleness,” “sensuous image” and “obvious reverence for women.” Last December, she tweeted, “I worked for the Senate, I know the plan to bring Russia to its knees.” (The idea that a staff assistant in a senator’s office, with no security clearance, would have access to some nefarious secret foreign policy agenda sounds more like bad television than real life.) In March, she told Vox that “she no longer feels the same way about Putin since learning more about domestic violence in Russia”; yet she had retweeted criticism of Russian domestic violence policies two years earlier, so this explanation makes no sense.
  • Reade has variously claimed that she was fired from Biden’s office; resigned or “was forced to resign” because of sexual harassment and unresponsiveness to her complaints; quit of her own accord to move with her husband for a new job; or left politics because of her hatred of American imperialism and love for the arts. More recently, evidence has emerged that several days before she left her job, she was charged with misdemeanor check fraud in California for knowingly writing a check with no bank funds to cover it. (Whether the two are related is unknown.)
  • In 2019, Reade wrote a long blog post on Medium laying out her original claims about the negative experiences she claims to have endured in Biden’s office. She then modified it in March of this year, as an Internet sleuth determined by checking the source code for the post. The original text can still be found in an April 2019 reprint of the Union, a local news site in Nevada County, California (presumably unaltered, since Reade tweeted it out as “my story”). A comparison of that text with the edited Medium version shows that Reade tweaked the post after the fact, to align it with her new narrative of sexual assault. For instance, while the original post says, “But this is not a story about sexual misconduct,” the new version adds one crucial little word: “But this is not only a story about sexual misconduct” (my emphasis). An incident that involves Biden wanting Reade to serve drinks at an event for donors is padded with references to the donors being “older, wealthy” men. “Again, somehow me talking about what happened is my fault” is changed to, “Again, somehow me talking about what happened, what Joe Biden did to me, is my fault” (my emphasis). A line added right after that says, “And I did not even tell the whole story.”
  • Last week, Reade claimed that she was discouraged from reporting her assault by the way Hill was treated by the Senate Judiciary Committee when she testified about alleged sexual harassment by Thomas. That included Biden’s behavior: “I didn’t like the way Joe Biden dealt with her.” Yet a little over a month ago, Reade was telling Halper that the time when she started working for Biden was “a magical time” of hope and excitement, and that she “looked up to” Biden because “he was this champion of women’s rights in my eyes.”
  • In an interview with Kelly, aired on Kelly’s YouTube channel on Friday, Reade added some eyebrow-raising details she’d never previously mentioned: that Biden said “I want to fuck you” when he assaulted her, and that he violently and painfully forced her legs apart with his knee. She also stated, in response to Kelly’s queries about the logistics of the alleged assault, that she was wearing crotchless panties with no pantyhose. Obviously, a woman’s choice of clothing doesn’t excuse sexual assault; but this would be extremely unusual office-wear for Capitol Hill.
  • In her 2019 article about her experiences in Biden’s office, Reade suggested that his handsy behavior was not specific to her: “[H]e did this often to me, others, he was demonstrative.” Yet in the Kelly interview, Reade tells a very different story, one which suggests that he singled her out. When asked, “Did you ever see him behave inappropriately with someone other than you?” Reade responded, “Not really. He would sometimes put his hands on people that I thought it was just unusual—he would just move people instead of saying excuse me, I would see that once in a while.”

And, last but not least, there are the revelations from Reade’s divorce files in San Luis Obispo (California) Superior Court, which point to at another instance in which she offered a heavily fictionalized (intentionally or not) account of past events involving male abuse. (Reade did not respond to Quillette‘s request for comment.)

These divorce records first surfaced in a May 1st story in the San Luis Obispo Tribune, which offered new evidence corroborating at least part of Reade’s original harassment claims against Biden: a statement from her ex-husband Theodore Dronen indicating that Reade had confided to him in 1993 about having “a problem” with sexual harassment in Biden’s office. (The statement did not mention sexual assault, but let’s leave that aside for the moment.)

While that Tribune story provided little other information about the 1996 divorce case, it did contain several details that diverged from the account of her abusive marriage that Reade supplied in a 2009 article written under her then-primary name, “Alexandra McCabe.” (Ironically, in that same article, Reade mentioned her past work for Biden in the context of praising his efforts against domestic violence.) In the 2009 article, published by a feminist website Women’s International Perspectives, Reade claimed that she walked out on her husband—for whom she used the pseudonym “Tate”—after a particularly brutal attack. Yet according to the Tribune, the court records showed that it was Dronen who filed for divorce and that Reade accused him of abuse after the filing. Moreover, while Reade described her ex as a violent psychopath who couldn’t hold a job, a look at Dronen’s personal records showed that he was a successful business owner and had been remarried for many years. He’d been charged with domestic assault against Reade during the divorce (more on this below). But other than that, he had no record of criminal offenses.

When I received the divorce file on Monday from another journalist, I was able to get a detailed look at Reade’s shifting depiction of past events. She had, in fact, accused Dronen of abuse in her two petitions for a restraining order—a temporary one on February 29th, 1996, and then an extended one on March 22nd. Dronen admitted to assaulting her on February 21st of that year, in the midst of an argument that got out of hand, and acknowledged he was at fault; but he strongly disputed most of Reade’s other allegations and claimed that she had also hit him on several occasions.

Though such back and forth is fairly typical of contentious divorce cases, there is no question that Reade was a victim of domestic violence. (And it goes without saying that any level of domestic violence is wrong.) Nonetheless, there is a striking contrast between Reade’s own accusations against Dronen in 1996 and the horror-movie narrative she would pen 13 years later.

In her 2009 article, Reade wrote that “Tate” violently shoved her on one occasion when they were still dating in Washington, D.C. in 1993, and started battering her shortly after they moved to North Dakota later that year: “The first time he hit me, we had lived in the Midwest all of two months. The subject of the fight was unremarkable—the damage to my nose and jaw was not.” On the other hand, Reade’s February 29th 1996 statement accompanying her application for a restraining order (at a time when she had no incentive to minimize accounts of her husband’s violence) mentions episodes of “yelling and screaming,” as well as furniture-slamming, but alleges only one violent interpersonal incident prior to February 21st, 1996—at some point in late 1995: “Three months ago, he punched me in the arm during a heated discussion.”

In the 2009 article, Reade asserted that in the three years after their daughter was born, “Tate would beat her, threaten her, and commit incredible horrors against both of us.” In her 1996 statements, she alleged no violence toward the child other than one incident in which Dronen admitted to shaking her, and her main concern was that Dronen might leave with the girl, not commit “incredible horrors.” And while the restraining-order petition claims that Dronen frequently talked about killing himself, the 2009 article gives these suicide threats a far more sinister murder-suicide twist: “Tate threatened to kill himself, Molly, and me if I left.”

Other episodes recounted in the article are similar to ones described in the divorce files, but are dramatically amped up. In her March 1996 petition for a permanent restraining order, for instance, Reade wrote that when she first told Dronen she was pregnant, his reaction scared her so much that she flew home to California the next day: “He said we couldn’t afford to have a baby and started slamming things around the house. He then curled up into a fetal position and sobbed loudly for almost an hour. Afterward he was sullen and silent for the rest of the evening.” If true, that certainly sounds disturbing—but still nowhere near the 2009 version, which has an infanticidal “Tate” saying, “[P]lease have an abortion. I can’t stand things that are helpless. I can’t be a father, I would just want to kill it.” To top it off, Reade adds, “It would not be until later that year that I would find out he had killed the cat of a previous girlfriend and committed other unspeakable monstrosities.”

The dead cat does figure in Reade’s 1996 petition—but in that version, it is something that she claims Dronen confided to her early in their romance while talking about his personal issues: “Ted told me he had difficulties in relationships, citing only one girlfriend before me. While with her, he told me that he had beaten and killed a cat in a heat of frustration.” This was vehemently disputed by Dronen, who suggested that it was probably a projection from a story that Reade had told him from her own childhood. (“Petitioner informed me that her cat was found dead and she suspected it to have been killed by her ‘mentally retarded’ neighbor.”) Whether or not Dronen is a cat-killer, Reade’s statement made no mention of other “unspeakable monstrosities” he had supposedly committed before they met, focusing more on claims that he had been psychologically and physically abused by his father.

Reade’s description of the assault in February 1996 is troubling enough in her statement to the court eight days later: She alleges that after an argument escalated, Dronen knocked over a table and a futon couch, then slammed her against the wall hard enough to leave bruises on her back and shoulder and punched her in the stomach and chest. According to Reade, “Our daughter awakened, and witnessed the whole thing. Her screaming is what finally made him stop assaulting me.” However, the 2009 article takes this to another level, relating a scene in which “Tate” not only slammed Reade into the wall “repeatedly,” but also choked her until she passed out: “I saw blackness and slid to the floor as he squeezed the air from me, the wood of the futon splintering under his rage… I heard Molly’s toddler voice screaming, ‘Daddy noooo!’ before I faded into unconsciousness.” This sounds less like assault than attempted murder, and indeed Reade herself says in the article that her husband “almost succeeded” in killing her on that occasion.

Reade also writes that the next day, a sympathetic co-worker who noticed her bruises (including “Tate’s handprint outlined clearly on my neck”) invited her for coffee and took her to “the victim/witness program” at the District Attorney’s office: “Our freedom began with pictures of my face, neck, back and a restraining order.” Yet her February 29th petition—in which, to repeat, she had every incentive to make the case against Dronen in the strongest possible terms—made no mention of any photos of her injuries or of a trip to the DA’s office. As for her “freedom,” the petition stated that Dronen had already “moved from our house” and was “looking for a place to live.”

The divorce files go as far as August 1997. They show a lot of sordid wrangling over custody and finances and a lot of mudslinging involving not only Dronen and Reade but their mothers. In July 1997, Dronen, who by then had complained repeatedly about being denied access to his daughter—and had completed counseling related to the domestic violence charge—was granted unsupervised visitation with “Molly,” then two-and-a-half. These facts are absent from Reade’s 2009 article. She says only that she and her daughter eventually had to leave California and move to Washington State under new identities to escape her ex-husband’s “late-night stalking,” and that “his parental rights were terminated in court.” (As with Reade’s claims in regard to Biden, there are no public records available to support these claims of serious criminal activity.)

In a particularly bizarre passage in the 2009 article, Reade insinuates that her ex-husband was a suspected serial killer: “I received news that Tate’s DNA was collected by the FBI for two missing women’s cases because he was a ‘person of interest’—Tate’s profile was that of a sociopath.” It’s unclear why the FBI would have been looking at Dronen’s “profile” given his lack of a criminal record outside of a single domestic abuse incident, or why such news would have been conveyed to an ex-wife.

It’s impossible to say how much truth there was to Reade’s original claims in the 1996 court documents. Dronen, who did not respond to my request for an interview, has declined to talk to the media beyond a brief statement to the effect that he and Reade ended their relationship under “difficult circumstances,” and that he wishes her well. In his declarations to the court at the time, he characterized her statements about him as “inaccurate, misleading and distorted,” and suggested that her perceptions were colored by “traumatic events in her life,” including sexual harassment and abuse in her family of origin. (He also claimed to have proof that Reade had contacted him more than once to ask for his help with child-care and other matters after she was granted the temporary restraining order, despite professing to be terrified of him.) A psychologist’s report in 1997 concluded that Dronen was a caring father and was not mentally ill, but had a tendency toward (verbal) angry outbursts and needed to work on his underlying personal issues. It also described Reade as “overreactive and hypervigilant,” and noted that her accusations against her ex-husband were often rooted more in “unresolved anger” than in realistic assessments.

What’s not in doubt is that, from 1996 to 2009, Reade’s account of her abuse grew vastly more dramatic and lurid. A former husband whom she originally described as an unstable man with a troubled past and an anger-management problem—and who has an actual record of a one-time spousal assault—got upgraded to a psychopathic monster who commits “unspeakable” horrors, voices thoughts of infanticide, and may well be a serial killer. A nasty fight in which she was thrown against the wall and punched in the chest turned into attempted murder by strangulation. Suicidal musings became threats of murder-suicide.

(Quillette contacted Reade, seeking comment on each of the above-described discrepancies between Reade’s court file and her 2009 article. She did not respond to us directly. But on May 14, a lawyer representing Reade sent us the following response for publication: “The double standard that is being used in reporting on this matter is remarkable. Questioning Ms. Reade about her divorce proceedings from decades ago is quintessential victim shaming. It is no wonder why so many survivors decide not to come forward—for fear of reporting such as this. It is despicable.”)

A similar pattern is evident in Reade’s evolving story about Biden. Her narrative in 2019 was about a boss who (she said) made her uncomfortable by casually touching her hair, shoulders, and neck. In the 2020 version, the boss is suddenly a sexual predator who pushes her against the wall in a public hallway and violates her with his hand before cruelly declaring her to be worthless. And the alleged attack grew even more brutal in a subsequent retelling.

Could Reade’s ex be a well-camouflaged homicidal psychopath? Could Biden be a well-camouflaged rapist? Well, anything is possible. But it seems far more likely that Reade is a serial fabulist with a propensity to weave a thread of genuine bad experiences into a tissue of made-for-TV melodrama.

* * *

Reade’s supporters say that her story is vindicated by corroborative evidence showing that she’d shared various elements of it with other people years ago. Yet nearly all of that evidence relates to the vague claims of unwelcome touching she’d made in 2019, not the completely new allegation of sexual assault she offered this year. Dronen’s 1996 declaration to the court, trumpeted by some as vindication for Reade, only mentions “sexual harassment” and doesn’t even name Biden as the culprit. A caller on CNN’s Larry King Live show in August 1993, believed to be Reade’s now-deceased mother Jeannette Altimus, talks about her daughter’s “problems” at the office of a “prominent senator,” but makes no mention of sexual harassment, let alone assault, let alone at the hands of the senator himself.

Four people have apparently told journalists that Reade had talked to them years ago about the alleged 1993 sexual assault. But only two have been willing to have their names published: Reade’s brother Colin Moulton and a former next-door neighbor from the mid-1990s, Lynda LaCasse. Both come with big asterisks.

Earlier this year, Moulton initially confirmed to the Washington Post that Reade told him about “inappropriate” behavior by Biden—specifically, neck- and shoulder-touching. But then he texted the reporter again to “clarify” that, according to the Post story, “he recalled Reade telling him in the early 1990s that Biden had cornered her and put his hands under her clothes.”

LaCasse claims that Reade told her about the alleged 1993 sexual assault, in fairly graphic detail, during a tearful conversation that took place in 1995 or 1996; but she also makes it clear that she only remembered this conversation after Reade recently reminded her of it. In a May 1st interview on Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! podcast, LaCasse said: “I didn’t know about all the stuff that was going on in the news. She told me about it last month. She called me, and she told me that she had decided to come forward with it. And I said—and she told me about the allegations. And I said, ‘Oh, yes, I remember that.’”

But was Reade simply jogging LaCasse’s memory, or pushing it in the direction she wanted? It is well known that memory is malleable, and that people tend to “edit” their memories to fit expected narratives—which is why so many people confess to crimes they never committed and unknowingly bear false witness at trials.

Meanwhile, Vox’s Laura McGann describes another (unnamed) friend of Reade’s who now claims Reade told her about the sexual assault in 1993. But as McGann notes, this same friend offered a completely different story last year, and has no real explanation for why her account changed. In 2019, the woman confirmed to McGann that Reade told her about unwelcome touching from Biden—but added that “it wasn’t that bad,” that Biden “never tried to kiss” Reade, and that he “never went for one of those touches.” When McGann contacted her again in 2020 following Reade’s new account of being digitally raped, the friend now claimed that, in the reporter’s words, “Reade had told her about the alleged assault the week it happened in 1993.” Her explanation for her earlier statements was that “it just organically rolled out that way,” and that she hadn’t wanted to go beyond Reade’s “degree of comfort… she wanted to leave a layer there, and I did not want to betray that.”

“All of this leaves me where no reporter wants to be: mired in the miasma of uncertainty,” McGann, a strong #MeToo supporter, concluded in a long May 7th essay examining the Reade saga, in which she did her best to give Reade the benefit of the doubt. “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.”

An additional cautionary tale can be found in another Biden scandal that died before it could take off.

On May 1st, the web site Law & Crime reported that a New Jersey woman, Eva Murry, had come forward on Facebook with a story of being sexually harassed by Biden in 2008 as a 14-year-old. Murry said that she met Biden while attending the First State Gridiron Dinner & Show—an annual Delaware event for politicians, journalists, and business figures—with her aunt Christine O’Donnell, a conservative Republican who’d made a quixotic run against Biden that year. According to Murry, the senator asked how old she was and then remarked that she was very “well-endowed” for her age. Law & Crime also reported that Murry’s sister and five friends had confirmed she told them about the incident soon after it happened.

And then the story imploded when it was just a few hours old. The dinner organizers unequivocally stated that Biden did not attend the event that year, but had sent a video instead. Moreover, news stories from that period showed he had just undergone surgery for a deviated septum and was still in recovery when the dinner took place. O’Donnell tried to salvage the story by claiming the incident might have happened in 2007 or 2009, even though Murry’s original Facebook post was quite specific about the date. (It turned out that Biden also had a rock-solid alibi for 2007 and likely wasn’t at the 2009 event, when he was already vice president.)

Did Murry lie to her friends years ago in an attempt to smear her aunt’s opponent, or did she invent the story this year? Did her friends lie to back her up? Did their conversations nudge them toward recalling something that didn’t happen? It’s impossible to tell. But this brief episode should serve as a disturbing reminder that false accusations do happen—and that contemporaneous statements to other people should not necessarily be treated as corroboration.

* * *

What really happened to Reade in Biden’s office all those years ago? Absent the emergence of long-lost witnesses or closed-circuit film footage, we’ll never know. When the New York Times interviewed three aides whom Reade said she approached in 1993 with complaints about inappropriate behavior (though not sexual assault), none supported even the original milder version of her claims. Biden’s longtime executive assistant Marianne Baker, who had been Reade’s supervisor at the time, emphatically stated that she “never once witnessed, or heard of, or received, any reports of inappropriate conduct, period—not from Ms. Reade, not from anyone.” Nor has anyone confirmed another one of Reade’s original claims from last year: that she refused Biden’s request for her to serve drinks at a fundraising event after a female aide took offense on her behalf, suggesting that she was being asked to do this because Biden thought she was pretty and had “nice legs.” Various reporters have helped Reade look in government document troves for any piece of paper that could back up her story, including a written complaint that she claims to have filed in 1993. Nothing has emerged, despite the Times alone putting three reporters on the story. The most likely explanation is that these documents were never there to begin with.

I find it entirely believable that Reade was irked by Biden’s familiarities. It’s also quite possible that she was upset with the office politics among his staffers. Reade, who’d been a model and an actress before getting the job in the senator’s office, was—as is evident from the old photos she’s used to illustrate her blog posts—a strikingly attractive woman. Some of her conflicts with the other staff may have had to do with resentment, perhaps from both women and men. Or perhaps Reade’s own behavior was the problem. (An analysis of her employment records suggests her pay was reduced twice over issues of performance or conduct, though the details are unknown.) If she left her job under contentious circumstances, the claim that she quit because of sexual harassment may have been a cover story for other people, including her mother and boyfriend.

And what of Reade’s current story of sexual assault? Is it a dramatic embellishment of some incident that actually happened, or something completely made up—and what would have been her motivation? McGann notes that Reade ramped up her claims against Biden shortly after she came out an “ardent Bernie Sanders supporter.” It’s also possible that she is motivated by old grievances against Biden and his loyalists, or that she wants a moment in the spotlight, or that she is mentally ill. (While it is now common to speak openly about the prevalence of mental health issues in the general population, there is a taboo against considering such issues as a plausible explanation for an implausible allegation of sexual abuse.) Sometimes, people—women and men alike—take drastic actions for irrational reasons.

The dilemma for Democrats is that, in the age of #MeToo, raising questions about Reade’s credibility or mental stability is likely to be perceived as misogynistic by the party’s most vocal constituencies. Applying reasonable skepticism to accusations of serious crimes was once a central plank of liberal belief, in large part because people who are poor or targeted by discrimination tend to be the most vulnerable to false accusations—as in the classic case of the black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman. But according to progressive dogma in its recently reinvented form, false accusations of sexual assault are so vanishingly rare as to be a non-issue, and if the accuser’s story or behavior seems inconsistent or doesn’t make sense, it’s simply the result of trauma or coping mechanisms. This premise has been formally embedded into so-called “trauma-informed” investigation and adjudication, as journalist Emily Yoffe has noted in her Atlantic reporting on junk science. In particular, it has become part of the standard response to sexual assault cases on college campuses thanks to initiatives promoted by the Obama administration, and by Biden personally. (Notably, Reade has told BuzzFeed that she chose to disclose the sexual assault on Halper’s podcast because Halper is “very trauma-informed.”)

None other than Biden himself told reporters in 2018, when asked about the accusations of sexual assault against then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh: “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.” In 2020, those words are coming back to haunt him—just as the attempt to take down Kavanaugh over decades-old allegations that had their own major credibility issues is backfiring on the Democrats.

Biden is a man whose long political career is in danger of being undone by moral panic. And under normal circumstances, I would feel sympathy for him. But he is also a politician who played a major role in stoking that panic—and who apparently has no intention of rethinking his role. On May 7th, after Education Secretary Betsy DeVos unveiled new federal rules for campus sexual assault investigations that give more due-process rights to the accused, Biden issued a statement blasting the new policy as “wrong,” and promising that it would be “put to a quick end” once he became president. With no apparent trace of self-awareness, Biden promised he would be “right where I always have been throughout my career—on the side of survivors.” All of them, apparently, except for Reade, even though she surely counts as a “survivor” by the because-I-say-so standard that Biden otherwise embraces. The Biden-bashing memes write themselves.

When pushed on this contradiction, Biden is reduced to non sequiturs, like this statement on ABC’s Good Morning America this week: “Look, here, I think women should be believed. They should have an opportunity to have their case and state it forthrightly what their case is. Then it’s the responsibility of responsible journalists like you and everyone else to go out and investigate those. The end of the day, the truth is the truth… And the truth is this never happened.”

Even so, Biden will probably ride out this scandal: As Hirshman candidly notes, there’s simply too much at stake in the election for Democrats to follow their #MeToo conscience. But if Reade’s claims really do sink Biden in November, the Democrats will merely be reaping what their moral panic has sowed. Hamstrung by slogans that depict half of the human population as inveterate truth-tellers incapable of dishonesty, the party has backed itself into a corner. Democrats must either stipulate that the church of #MeToo shall provide Biden with a one-off indulgence—or else urge Americans to vote for a presumed rapist. It’s hard to say which narrative would make Trump happier.

Correction: Due to an editing error, the original version of this article mistakenly indicated that Joe Biden first ran for a U.S. Senate seat in 1992, instead of 1972; and that Tara Reade first accused Biden of sexual assault in 2019, instead of 2020.

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Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a Russian-born American journalist. She is a writer at The Bulwark, a contributing editor at Reason, and a cultural studies fellow at the Cato Institute.