Former Vice President Joe Biden explicitly denied the sexual assault accusation against him during an appearance on MSNBC Friday morning. Speaking publicly about the matter for the first time, Biden maintained that he never sexually assaulted Tara Reade and doesn't remember her at all.
"This never happened," said Biden. "It's as simple as that."
Biden was expertly grilled by Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski, who questioned him about the whereabouts of his Senate records, which may contain additional information regarding Reade. But the most important exchange occurred when Brzezinski asked Biden to square his current defense with his previous claims that women should be believed when they come forward as sexual assault victims.
Biden then denied that he had previously advocated such a standard.
"From the very beginning, I've said believing the woman means taking the claim seriously, and then it's vetted, looked into," said Biden. "Women have a right to be heard, and the press should rigorously investigate claims they make. I'll always uphold that principle. But in the end the truth is what matters. And these claims are false."
The presumptive Democratic presidential candidate is misrepresenting his past statements. He absolutely did not take the position that "believing women means taking the claim seriously." (And if that's what believe-all-victims means, why not just say that instead?)
Brzezinski wasn't having it. She repeatedly reminded Biden that he had advocated believing Christine Blasey Ford, Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh's accuser. She even read his own words back to him: "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." Brzezinski also called out several of Biden's high profile supports—Stacey Abrams, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D–Calif.), and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D–N.Y.)—for participating in the Kavanaugh double standard.
Caught in an obvious contradiction, Biden then tried to say that victims should be believed until contrary evidence emerges.
"Women are to be believed, given the benefit of the doubt," said Biden. "If they come forward and say something happened to them, they should start with the presumption they are telling the truth. Then you have to look at the facts.
"What I said during the Kavanaugh hearings was she had a right to be heard," Biden continued. "And she came forward, the presumption would be she's telling the truth unless it's proved she wasn't telling the truth, or unless it's clear from the facts surrounding it that it isn't the truth."
But under this standard, Biden would be presumed guilty. If the former vice president is taking the position that women should be believed unless their accusations are disproven, then the burden of evidence is on the accused. No evidence has emerged that explicitly contradicts Reade's story. Does that mean the public should default to believing her?
Biden seems to think the lack of evidence confirming Reade's story is the same thing as evidence disproving it. Indeed, Biden's campaign has circulated the talking point that The New York Times investigated the allegation and found that it wasn't credible. The Times rightly objected to this characterization of its reporting. The newspaper didn't find hard evidence supporting either finding; that is quite different than saying they disproved Reade.
This is why the presumption of innocence matters, in both a criminal and a cultural context. If there's no way to determine what happened, one solution would be to default toward not believing it—or at least, not punishing the accused. An extraordinary claim requires affirmative evidence to be accepted, and if the evidence does not materialize, it is rejected. That seems to be what Biden is saying now. It's definitely not what he said before.