Last April, Tara Reade watched as a familiar conversation around her former boss, Joe Biden, and his relationship with personal space unfolded on the national stage. Nevada politician Lucy Flores alleged that Biden had inappropriately sniffed her hair and kissed the back of her head as she waited to go on stage at a rally in 2014. Biden, in a statement in response, said that “not once” in his career did he believe that he had acted inappropriately. But Flores’s allegation sounded accurate to Reade, she said, because Reade had experienced something very similar as a staffer in Biden’s Senate office years earlier.
After she saw an episode of the ABC show “The View,” in which most of the panelists stood up for Biden and attacked Flores as politically motivated, Reade decided that she had no choice but to come forward and support Flores. She gave an interview to a local reporter, describing several instances in which Biden had behaved similarly toward her, inappropriately touching her during her early-’90s tenure in his Senate office. In that first interview, she decided to tell a piece of the story, she said, that matched what had happened to Flores — plus, she had filed a contemporaneous complaint, and there were witnesses, so she considered the allegation bulletproof. The short article brought a wave of attention on her, along with accusations that she was doing the bidding of Russian President Vladimir Putin. So Reade went quiet.
To get legal help, Tara Reade reached out to Time’s Up, established in the wake of the #MeToo movement to help survivors tell their stories.
As the campaign went on, Reade, who first supported Sen. Elizabeth Warren and then Sen. Bernie Sanders, began to reconsider staying silent. She thought about the world she wanted her daughter to live in and decided that she wanted to continue telling her story and push back against what she saw as online defamation. To get legal help, and manage what she knew from her first go-around would be serious backlash, she reached out to the organization Time’s Up, established in the wake of the #MeToo movement to help survivors tell their stories.
The Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund was the recipient of an outpouring of donations over the past two-plus years, and is set up as a 501(c)3 nonprofit housed within the National Women’s Law Center. It was launched in December 2017 and was the most successful GoFundMe in the site’s history, raising more than $24 million. Among the accusers backed so far by Time’s Up are some of those assaulted by Harvey Weinstein, as well scores of others with allegations against executives in male-dominated industries. The group has committed more than $10 million toward funding cases.
In January of this year, Reade spoke with a program director at NWLC and was encouraged by the conversation. The fact that she was a Sanders supporter and had come forward previously in incomplete fashion didn’t dissuade Time’s Up. The program director referred her to outside attorneys, Reade said, and suggested that the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund might be able to provide funding for PR and subsidize legal assistance.
The program director shared with Reade the note she planned to forward to attorneys, which read, in part:
She began publicly sharing the harassment she experienced in April 2019 but was attacked … online including by Richard Painter (Univ. of MN law professor who worked in the Obama administration) and journalist Edward-Isaac Dovere for being a Russian operative. There is more to the story of the harassment that she did not feel safe sharing at that time. She is looking for support in sharing her story and guidance on any possible legal action she may be able to take against online harassers. [Editor’s note: Painter served in the Bush, not Obama, administration, and ran for Senate in 2018 as a Democrat.]
The references to Dovere, a reporter with The Atlantic, and Painter stem from their Twitter posts that highlighted favorable comments Reade had made about Putin in a now-deleted post on Medium. “What if I told you that everything you learned about Russia was wrong?” she had written in one 2018 post. “President Putin scares the power elite in America because he is a compassionate, caring, visionary leader. … To President Putin, I say keep your eyes to the beautiful future and maybe, just maybe America will come to see Russia as I do, with eyes of love. To all my Russian friends, happy holiday and Happy New Year.”
Reade says that she learned about Russia and Putin through a Russian friend in her creative-writing group; she is currently writing a novel set in Russia. She wrote the post in the spirit of world peace and solidarity with her friend, she said, adding that the writing should have nothing to do with her allegation. Reade’s leftist mother had raised her to oppose American imperialism and be skeptical of American exceptionalism. She hoped that Time’s Up would be able to help push back against the attacks she knew would be coming.
On February 11, the NWLC program director wrote to Reade that she “wanted to let you know that after our conversation I talked further with our Director, Sharyn Tejani, about our ability to offer funding or public relations support in your case. Unfortunately, the Fund’s decision remains the same. … Please know how much I appreciate your courage in speaking out and appreciate what you shared over the phone, that you are speaking out so that your daughter and other young people can start their careers free of harassment.”
When reached for comment by The Intercept, the program director Reade had spoken to referred questions to a NWLC spokesperson, Maria Patrick, who said that the organization has legal constraints. “As a nonprofit 501(c)(3) charitable organization, the National Women’s Law Center is restricted in how it can spend its funds, including restrictions that pertain to candidates running for election,” Patrick responded, when asked why the organizing declined to provide funds to Reade. “Our decision on whether or not to provide certain types of support to an individual should not be interpreted as our validation or doubt of the truthfulness of the person’s statements. Regardless, our support of workers who come forward regarding workplace sexual harassment remains unwavering.”
By February, Reade learned that no assistance could be provided because Biden was a candidate for federal office, and assisting a case against him, Time’s Up said, could jeopardize the organization’s nonprofit status.
Ruling out federal candidates marks as off-limits any member of Congress running for reelection, as well as President Donald Trump. Ellen Aprill, a professor of tax law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said that Time’s Up’s analysis is too conservative, and the group wouldn’t be putting its tax-exempt status at risk by taking a case involving a candidate for federal office as long as it followed its standard criteria for taking on cases. “As a legal matter, if the group is clear regarding the criteria used as to whom it is taking to court, show that these are long-established neutral criteria, and they are being applied to individuals completely independent of their running for office, it would not be a violation of tax law. Groups are allowed to continue to do what they have always done,” she said.
The public relations firm that works on behalf of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund is SKDKnickerbocker, whose managing director, Anita Dunn, is the top adviser to Biden’s presidential campaign. A spokesperson for Biden declined to comment. The SKDK spokesperson assigned to Time’s Up referred questions back to the NWLC.
As for influencing the election, Reade said that she was deeply conflicted about continuing to come forward, given that Biden’s opponent in the general election is someone she sees as far worse politically. “I don’t want to help Trump. But what can I do?” she said. “All I can do is stand on my truth.”
Update: March 26, 2020
Reade has given an interview with podcast host Katie Halper, describing her time in Biden’s office, and what she described as a sexual assault in 1993. At the time, she told her mother, brother, and a friend who worked in Sen. Ted Kennedy’s office about the incident. Her mother has since passed away, but both her friend and brother told The Intercept they recalled hearing about it from her at the time. Reade’s friend, who asked to remain anonymous so as not to be part of the public blowback, said she discouraged Reade from coming forward at all, concerned that she would be attacked and would never get the apology she was hoping for. Reade and her brother, Collin Moulton, both said that their mother urged her to call the police, but her brother urged her to move on instead. “Woefully, I did not encourage her to follow up,” he said. “I wasn’t one of her better advocates. I said let it go, move on, guys are idiots.” (Moulton, who lives in Georgia, said he voted for Gary Johnson in 2016 and has no intention to vote for either Biden or Donald Trump.)
The experience in Biden’s office derailed her life, Reade’s friend said. “Back then people assumed girls just get over it,” she said. “But no, it plants a seed and lives can spin out of control. Yes, everybody’s an adult, but guess what, so is he.” At the time, there was just no way that Reade’s effort to right the wrong could succeed, her friend said, but this time, she’s determined to be heard. “It was the ‘90s,” she said. “There was no Me Too. There was no Time’s Up.”
Update: March 27, 2020
The Biden campaign has denied the allegation, releasing two statements, one from Communications Director Kate Bedingfield and the other from former executive assistant to then-Senator Biden Marianne Baker, who served him from 1982-2000.
Women have a right to tell their story, and reporters have an obligation to rigorously vet those claims. We encourage them to do so, because these accusations are false.
For nearly 20 years, I worked as Senator Biden’s executive assistant and supervised dozens of employees who reported to me. I took very seriously my duties with respect to human resources, following the direction of a Senator whose insistence on a professional workplace was embedded in our culture. In all my years working for Senator Biden, I never once witnessed, or heard of, or received, any reports of inappropriate conduct, period — not from Ms. Reade, not from anyone. 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. These clearly false allegations are in complete contradiction to both the inner workings of our Senate office and to the man I know and worked so closely with for almost two decades.