Over his decades-long career in the Senate, former Vice President Joe Biden was known as a demanding but fair and family-oriented boss, devoted to his home life in Delaware and committed to gender equality in his office.
He was not on a list of “creepy” male senators that female staffers told each other to avoid in the elevators on Capitol Hill.
Yet Biden, now the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, was also a toucher, seemingly oblivious to whether physical contact made some women uncomfortable. That behavior has persisted in recent years. Biden is now facing fresh scrutiny after a former aide in March charged that he sexually assaulted her when she worked in his Senate office in the early 1990s, an allegation Biden has categorically denied.
The PBS NewsHour spoke with 74 former Biden staffers, of whom 62 were women, in order to get a broader picture of his behavior toward women over the course of his career, how they see the new allegation, and whether there was evidence of a larger pattern.
None of the people interviewed said that they had experienced sexual harassment, assault or misconduct by Biden. All said they never heard any rumors or allegations of Biden engaging in sexual misconduct, until the recent assault allegation made by Tara Reade. Former staffers said they believed Reade should be heard, and acknowledged that their experiences do not disprove her accusation.
In all, the NewsHour tried to contact nearly 200 former staffers of Biden’s, based primarily on public records of his time in the Senate and White House and also from interviews with current campaign advisers. They include former interns and senior aides, from his 1972 Senate campaign through his time at the White House.
Some are still in politics, others left long ago to pursue other careers. They were asked about Reade’s allegation but also whether they, or anyone they know, were ever uncomfortable around Biden. Many said that her sexual assault allegation was at odds with their knowledge of Biden’s behavior toward women.
The interviews revealed previously unreported details about the Biden office when Reade worked there, such as an account that she lost her job because of her poor performance, not as retaliation for lodging complaints about sexual harassment, as Reade has said.
Other recollections from former staffers corroborated things she has described publicly, such as Biden’s use of the Senate gym and a supervisor admonishing her for dressing inappropriately.
Overall, the people who spoke to the NewsHour described largely positive and gratifying experiences working for Biden, painting a portrait of someone who was ahead of his time in empowering women in the workplace.
“The one thing about Joe Biden is, he is a man of the highest character and that’s why these accusations are so surreal and just can’t comport with the man I worked with,” said Marcia Lee Taylor, a senior policy advisor on the Judiciary Committee, where women held leading roles when Biden served as chairman.
But he had blindspots, which Biden himself has publicly acknowledged, when it came to how his interactions with women in public could make them uncomfortable.
Reade declined the NewsHour’s interview request but her attorney, Doug Wigdor, sent detailed answers to a number of questions by email. He wrote that Biden’s public touching is evidence that he could have mistreated his client in the way she claims.
“I don’t think anyone would describe these situations as normal,” Wigdor wrote. “They are troublesome, to say the least.”
Many former Biden staffers said they believe Reade’s allegation is false.
Addressing Tara Reade’s allegations
Since Reade went public with her assault accusation in March, former staffers of Biden’s world have been scanning their memories, considering the details of her story and their own experiences.
Reade, in interviews with multiple news outlets, has alleged that Biden attacked her in the Senate complex when she met him on an errand. But her accusations are also more sweeping. She has charged that the Biden office was a toxic place to work, that the senator touched her shoulders and neck multiple times, and that she was asked to serve drinks because he thought she was pretty. Reade has also claimed she was demoted and ultimately pushed to leave because she complained about workplace harassment.
The NewsHour spoke with more than 20 people who worked for Biden when Reade was also a staffer. Some remembered her, many did not.
Ben Savage, who said his desk was next to Reade’s in the Biden mailroom, disputed her charge that she was forced out of her job in retaliation for a sexual harassment complaint she claims to have filed.
Savage, who worked as the office’s systems administrator, overseeing computers and information processing, told the NewsHour that Reade was fired for her poor performance on the job, which he witnessed — not as retaliation for her complaints about sexual harassment.
But according to Savage, Reade had been mishandling a key part of her job and an essential office task — processing constituent mail, something they worked on together. Savage said he recalls reporting these issues to his boss, deputy chief of staff Dennis Toner. After that, Savage said he began diminishing Reade’s duties, taking over some of her tasks and rerouting parts of the process to exclude her.
“Of all the people who held that position, she’s the only one during my time there who couldn’t necessarily keep up or who found it frustrating,” said Savage, who worked in the office for three years, from 1993 to 1996.
Toner, who was Savage’s direct supervisor, told the NewsHour that he did not remember Reade. He said he did remember Savage as a good worker who stood out in the office.
“I can’t take issue with Ben saying that her job performance was not up to par. We would have had a discussion with Tara or whomever the employee would have been to see how we could make it work,” Toner said. “I do not recall Tara being in the office. I can’t comment on why she would have left or anything like that,” he added.
Wigdor, Reade’s attorney, said that she does not remember Savage specifically, but said his story is wrong and her performance had nothing to do with her termination.
“Ms. Reade recalls that there was a lot of nitpicking regarding her performance in the office,” he wrote. “She was also very nervous at that point and distracted so it is possible that from time to time there was a mistake made … but her performance had nothing to do with her termination.”
More broadly, Wigdor said, it was “not surprising” that former staffers would say they did not believe the allegation against Biden. Wigdor argued that former aides have an incentive to stand with Biden because they could benefit personally if he becomes president, do not want to have “their lives turned upside down if they come out against him,” or are simply motivated by a desire to protect Biden to help bolster his chances of beating President Donald Trump in the general election.
Reade’s story has been corroborated publicly by three people who spoke with other news organizations, saying she told them in the past about the alleged assault. Despite numerous attempts to contact them via phone, email and through a lawyer, none of them responded or could be reached for comment on this story.
Biden’s presidential campaign responded with a statement from deputy campaign manager and communications director Kate Bedingfield.
“Whether it was in his campaigns, his Senate office, his family, or in the Obama Administration, Joe Biden has always championed and empowered women professionals. He has and will always insist on a workplace culture built on respect, equality and dignity, leading by his own example,” Bedingfield said.
Last year, after seven women — including Reade — publicly stated Biden made unwanted physical contact with them, like touching their shoulders and smelling their hair, he released a video and tweet addressing their concerns.
“Social norms are changing,” he wrote. “I’ve heard what these women are saying. Politics to me has always been about making connections, but I will be more mindful about respecting personal space in the future.”
Reade did not publicly accuse Biden of sexual assault until March of this year.
Reade has claimed a supervisor admonished her for the way she dressed and asked her to be more modest. She has claimed this was a baseless criticism and retaliation for her complaint about sexual harassment from Biden.
A woman who worked with Reade, but who spoke to the NewsHour on the condition she not be named, said she remembers Reade mentioning that she was scolded for her attire and that Reade asked her if it was a legitimate complaint. That coworker and two other staffers who worked with Reade said they believe she was not appropriately dressed for work.
Reade has said that she was bringing Biden his gym bag, somewhere “down toward the Capitol,” when the alleged assault took place.
Several staffers confirmed to the NewsHour that Biden regularly used the Senate gym, and that a person in Reade’s position might have been asked to bring him items, such as paperwork, or in one example given, Advil, that he needed. None of them recalled ever bringing him a gym bag.
Biden’s Senate offices were in a prime location, bookending the second floor of the Russell Senate Office building, the closest to the U.S. Capitol.
Reade’s attorney told the NewsHour that Reade recalls the assault happening “in a semiprivate area like an alcove” and that it was “somewhere between the Russell (building) and/or Capitol building.” He pointed out that survivors often have difficulty with specifics about trauma.
Reade’s description aligns with other staffers’ recollections of Biden’s short indoor route between his office and the Capitol. It is a roughly 10-minute walk that consists of one flight of stairs and one long hallway inside the Russell Building, followed by a wide tunnel through which he could walk or take an internal subway train to the Capitol.
The layout of that route and building has not changed. A recent walk through that area showed the subway tunnel contains no out-of-view areas, like an alcove. The remaining portion of the route includes multiple stairwells as well as corridors lined with offices. It is a main thoroughfare for senators and staffers.
Some former staffers told the NewsHour that if Biden did assault Reade in any of these places, it would have been a brazen attack in an area with a high risk of being seen.
“When I worked in the Senate, it was always crowded [and] packed with lobbyists, staff and tourists,” said Sheila Nix, who was Biden’s chief of staff on the 2012 presidential campaign and previously worked as chief of staff to two other Democratic senators.
In interviews, staffers have also raised doubts about Reade’s claim that she was asked to serve drinks at a fundraiser, an incident she said she included in an official complaint of sexual harassment submitted while she worked in the office.
But more than 50 former staffers said they didn’t remember ever attending a fundraiser for Biden in Washington, D.C., when they were on his Senate staff. And some recalled an office policy banning most of Biden’s Senate staff from doing campaign work.
“Never would have happened,” said Melissa Lefko, who was a staff assistant in Biden’s office during the time Reade was there. “We all knew there was a very hard line there.”
Dozens of staffers, from different eras, said Biden rarely attended any events in Washington, racing to catch his train home to Wilmington, Delaware, as soon as Senate voting ended each night.
Further, two men who worked as junior staffers for Biden said the senator specifically did not want women to serve beverages, like coffee, or perform other menial tasks in his Senate office or on the committees he chaired. Men were typically asked to perform such tasks.
“He didn’t want an image of a young woman staffer serving him,” said John Earnhardt, who took over Reade’s duties. Reade left the office in mid-1993, after working there approximately nine months.
Biden’s treatment of women
In separate and in-depth interviews, women who worked for Biden generally did not want to weigh in with certainty on whether they believed Reade’s allegation was true. But they all said it is at odds with their experience.
Numerous former Biden staffers said they felt he treated men and women equally, and that he was known for hiring women for top jobs that women seldom held in other Senate offices.
“Biden has a terrific record on hiring women at very high levels and doing it long before other people did,” said Diana Huffman, who served as the staff director for the Judiciary Committee in the late 1980s, when Biden was chair.
“He was fully embracing the idea that women should have the same opportunities and be taken with the same seriousness as male staff. That was distinctive,” said Liz Sherwood-Randall, a former senior foreign policy adviser to Biden.
The experiences of former Biden staffers underscore the complicated nature of sexual assault reporting and how to judge conflicting portraits of an individual. It is a current topic of research and heated debate among experts.
“It only takes one act to be worthy of consideration,” said Juliet Williams, a gender studies expert at the University of California, Los Angeles, pointing out that years of inoffensive behavior with many or even most women does not indicate whether someone is capable of ever committing an offense.
“When we try someone for murder it’s not like, ‘Well there’s serial murders and one-offers,’” Williams said. “There’s certain kinds of behavior that are never acceptable. Quantity is not the only metric.”
Sherry Hamby, the founding editor of the academic journal The Psychology of Violence, also said that any pattern is possible.
She described the idea of a 50-year-old man, the age Biden was at the time of the alleged attack, committing his first and only act of sexual assault as improbable. “In terms of likely statistical pattern, that would be an incredibly unlikely trajectory to see,” Hamby said.
But she and others also noted that false reports of sexual assault are rare, and that the way women’s accusations are evaluated is flawed because they face more pressure than men to have their stories corroborated or to prove that they’re part of a larger group of victims.
Still, Williams said, “I do think it is worth recording if the evidence shows that in the case of the former vice president there are scores of women who actually praise him for his collegiality and professionalism and respect.”
Biden’s office was known for having women-friendly work policies. For example, he promoted at least one Senate staffer while she was on maternity leave. As vice president, he helped secure paid family leave for White House employees.
Female staffers who spent countless hours with Biden, including in one-on-one settings, like his small private office in the U.S. Capitol, known as a “hideaway,” said he never made passes at them or behaved in other ways that suggested sexual impropriety.
Victoria Nourse, who served as Biden’s top lawyer on the Judiciary Committee in the early 1990s, recalled Biden’s reaction when another official made a comment about her looks in front of Biden during a flight in 1991. The man said, “‘Oh Joe, let me sit next to the pretty girl,’” recalled Nourse, who later served as Biden’s chief counsel in the White House.
Biden told the man off, Nourse said, “making it clear that we were here for work, and that was inappropriate — in a very no nonsense way.”
“I traveled with him all over the world, all over the country. I was alone with him all the time,” said Elizabeth Alexander, a former Senate and White House aide. “Never, ever, ever did I feel uncomfortable.”
The Reade accusation is part of a larger, decades-long discussion about misogyny on Capitol Hill. It highlights a pivot point in the Senate in the 1990s, when a then-record four women were newly elected to the chamber, and prominent claims of sexual harassment drew more attention to the behavior of male senators.
Biden was a central figure and front-row witness to this shift.
In October 1991, Biden chaired the Judiciary Committee when Anita Hill testified that Clarence Thomas, then a Supreme Court nominee, had sexually harassed her in the workplace. Biden has been roundly criticized by advocates for women and former Democratic senators for agreeing to keep other female witnesses from testifying about Thomas’ conduct toward them, and for appearing tone-deaf on sexual harassment.
Five months later, in March 1992, Sen. Brock Adams, D-Wash., announced his retirement after the Seattle Times reported that eight women had accused him of sexual crimes, including drugging and molesting them.
At the time, a climate of harassment and sexual entitlement existed in some offices in the Senate, driven by some male senators whose behavior was well known on Capitol Hill.
“We all worked in a culture where men put their hands on you, often,” said Mary Byrne, who worked in the Senate from 1988 to 1995. “I remember sitting at a desk outside the Agriculture Committee and one staffer would come in and give you a shoulder massage, say you are doing good,” Byrne said. “Men there felt they had access to your body as a young woman.”
Byrne also said she remembers walking in on a female deputy chief of staff sitting on a senator’s lap. Another person who worked in the Senate at the time told the NewsHour he recalled seeing a senator with his arm around the waist of a young female staffer on an elevator.
Byrne, like many women working on the Hill in those years, talked with other female aides about a “list” of senators to avoid.
“You got to know which senators you didn’t want to be on an elevator alone with,” said Liz Tankersley, who was Biden’s legislative director from 1985 to 1993. “No one ever said Joe Biden was one of them.”
On that list in 1993, according to multiple staffers, was Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore. He later resigned, in 1995, after the public revelation that he had engaged in years of aggressive sexual behavior toward women, including staffers. The late Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., was also infamously on the avoid-elevator list, staffers claimed. So was another now-deceased lawmaker — Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass.
“I know some of those people on the list,” said former Sen. Dennis DeConcini, a Democrat from Arizona who served from 1977 to 1995 and sat on the Judiciary Committee with Biden for many years. “There were several, it was almost common knowledge. And Biden was never mentioned in any of that. He went home every night to Delaware.”
Around the time Reade alleges Biden attacked her, he was building a reputation as a leading crusader on behalf of women. Biden had already introduced and was pushing for passage of the landmark Violence Against Women Act. In March 1993, he held a hearing on protecting women from stalkers.
But Byrne, who was then press secretary to Democratic Florida Sen. Bob Graham, and others told the NewsHour that Biden was known for his habit of touching people when interacting with them.
“We knew that about Biden,” Byrne said. “He was always massaging somebody’s shoulders. But never anything more than that. There was no vibe about him.”
Many staffers stressed that people frequently gravitate to Biden, as a kind of “comforter-in-chief,” and look for an arm around a shoulder or a kiss on the cheek.
However, staffers agree it was not in Biden’s nature to gauge social signals about whether someone wanted to be hugged or touched. Many said they learned that he might do so without warning, though most saw it as an endearing quality that wasn’t sexual in nature.
A former staffer said that when Biden does things like stroking women’s hair, there’s a complicated dynamic at play.
His behavior toward women can be “somewhat infantilizing,” the staffer said. “That doesn’t look like equality, right? But that was an expression of empathy, as opposed to flirtation.”
For others, Biden’s touching evoked some regret. “There were times as I now look back that I think we messed up. We should have said something about that,” a different former staffer said. “We probably should have recognized that made people uncomfortable.”
Rachel Wellford and Saher Khan contributed reporting to this story.