More than a year on, the saga of Tara Reade — the woman who accused Joe Biden of sexually assaulting her nearly thirty years ago, before being vilified by the liberal press — continues to be unrivaled in the post–Me Too era for the way it was treated and litigated. And newly released exhibits and testimony from the New York attorney general’s investigation into former governor Andrew Cuomo’s allegations of sexual harassment show it was something else, too: a potential model for other embattled politicians to bat away allegations of their own.
At its heart, the Cuomo sexual harassment story was a workplace tale as old as time: a boss uses his power to mistreat, demean, and try and coerce his underlings, who, because their jobs and future careers depend on staying in his good graces, have to find a way to fend off the harassment without alienating him. In Cuomo’s case, this behavior often took the form of clumsy, embarrassing sexual advances, along with even more serious cases of unwanted groping and kissing.
While the Cuomo administration scrambled to neutralize what would turn out to be career-ending allegations from eleven women, his staffers looked to the Biden campaign’s successful suppression of the Reade allegation for how to do so, raw exhibits and transcripts released last week from attorney general Letitia James’s investigation into the accusations show. As has been typical of coverage of Reade since she came forward, the revelations have so far been ignored entirely by every sector of the press except for conservative outlets hostile to Biden.
“What Biden Said”
The same day that initial Cuomo accuser Lindsey Boylan publicly leveled her claim online in December, Dani Lever — Cuomo’s former press secretary, who remained part of his inner circle of confidantes working on the political crisis even though she had moved on to a communications position at Facebook — looked to the Biden campaign circa April 2020 for how to respond. “Pull what Biden said when he was accused during campaign,” Lever wrote to her colleagues.
That would be Biden’s April 2020 statement that “this absolutely did not happen” and that while “women have a right to be heard,” those “claims should also be diligently reviewed by an independent press.” It was a statement that happened to foreshadow a flurry of markedly negative press coverage of Reade and her life that had little to do with the substance of her allegation and that no modern accuser has been subjected to before or since. “I think we can victim shame on the record,” Lever concluded.
This isn’t the only time Biden’s name appears in the materials released last week. Former Cuomo chief of staff Linda Lacewell, another confidante who worked on handling the matter despite having moved on to a new job, was asked by investigators about having “done some research about how President Biden and Mike Bloomberg handled allegations of sexual harassment” and testified she was trying “to identify how other individuals had responded and put that into the mix of the conversation and the analysis and the discussion.” A different exhibit appears to show Lacewell emailing herself the Biden statement four months after Boylan’s accusation, after two more women had come forward with their own stories of Cuomo’s harassment.
Lever and Lacewell were both implicated by the attorney general’s report in August in an attempt to discredit Boylan by attacking her character, though it was not known until now that the Biden campaign served as their template. The “victim sham[ing]” that Lever urged took the form of leaking “confidential” and “privileged” files to the press showing complaints against Boylan by other staffers when she worked for the state, both impugning her character and challenging her claims about why she left Cuomo’s office.
These efforts were soon undercut, however. A set of other scandals, including Cuomo’s involvement in covering up thousands of nursing home deaths during the pandemic and securing immunity for campaign donors who were implicated, had weakened Cuomo politically, creating the space for Boylan and other women’s stories to be taken seriously. Finally, an official investigation by the attorney general whose results were released in August confirmed that Boylan’s was not one isolated case, but one of many, all involving accusers who later testified under oath.
Had this set of circumstances not unfolded, Boylan could very well have ended up like Reade did. Applying the standards of the post–Me Too era of reporting on sexual misconduct — which stressed the fallibility of survivors and the importance of corroboration over personal foibles — Reade’s story had a lot going for it. It was corroborated by a friend she told at the time it happened, her brother, a tape of her mother calling in to Larry King not long after the alleged assault, decades-old divorce documents, a neighbor she told about the incident a few years later, and at least three other people whom she confided to about the incident in varying detail over the years. (For some perspective, Donald Trump accuser E. Jean Carroll had two people who recalled her telling them about her assault, and Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh’s accuser Christine Blasey Ford, who was widely viewed as credible, was unable to produce any contemporaneous corroboration).
Instead, once the slow-rolling allegation showed signs of doing political damage to Biden, who had rooted his challenge to Trump in “decency” and personal character, media coverage of Reade turned sharply negative in precisely the ways reporters had sworn off just a few years earlier. Reporters churned out pieces going into Reade’s financial difficulties, her turbulent personal life, and printing statements from disgruntled landlords and other past acquaintances, turning the saga into a test of Reade’s personal qualities and credibility, instead of a test of the corroborative evidence.
It all harkened back to the treatment Bill Clinton’s accusers had received at the hands of reporters and political operatives more than two decades earlier. When the Intercept later published a detailed analysis of documents disputing the widely reported charge Reade had knowingly lied under oath about her academic history, the story wasn’t picked up. The transcripts and exhibits released last week suggest Cuomo and his team hoped to engineer a similar outcome against Boylan: to leave her looking publicly isolated while maligning her character and credibility.
In another transcript, top Cuomo strategist Melissa DeRosa testifies on the process of putting together a letter in defense of Cuomo from dozens former female staffers, which would make a variety of charges: that Boylan was self-interested, that her timing was convenient, that she had initially withheld parts of her story, that she had spoken positively about Cuomo, and that they had never seen such behavior from the governor.
The effort paralleled the response from Biden’s campaign and the anti-Trump press to Reade’s allegation in early 2020, which drew on denials from copious former staffers and longtime Biden loyalists to throw cold water on the charge against the man who was by then solidified as Trump’s election opponent.
“There was a consensus among the group that the negative op-ed was not the right way to go,” DeRosa testified, referring to an earlier idea to have the governor “push back on Lindsey” by publishing an article lobbing personal and professional attacks on Boylan. That op-ed would be shared with and edited by Tina Tchen, the former head of Time’s Up, a victim’s advocacy organization set up in 2018 to give legal representation and public relations assistance to accusers of powerful sexual abusers and whose public relations firm was headed by Biden adviser Anita Dunn. (Tchen has now resigned over her covert assistance to Cuomo’s team.) Reade herself had taken her case to Time’s Up in January 2020 long before going public but was abruptly dropped after being told that they couldn’t legally represent an accuser of a federal candidate because it would be a conflict of interest — a claim that’s been disputed by others.
As DeRosa testified, the op-ed was ultimately nixed anyway, with advisors fearing it would do more harm than good, and the team decided to try put together the letter of support and denials from former staffers, taking a cue from the Biden camp. “We thought that this was a more constructive, positive exercise to engage in, and that if ultimately we needed to put something out, this was something that Joe Biden had done,” she explained.
Elsewhere, Lis Smith — Cuomo’s former spokesperson who went on to serve as senior adviser for Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign — testified regarding a message she wrote about her discussions with the New York Times about a piece on another Cuomo accuser, Anna Ruch. Asked what she meant when she wrote, “I’m trying to get them to Biden in this story,” she explained that she wanted them to “put it in context that . . . that was a story about the hands, which is that, you know, that Biden had faced similar criticisms during the presidential campaign.”
Smith was referring to a different set of allegations Biden had faced early in his campaign, when seven women — Reade among them — had come forward complaining about the candidate’s inappropriate handsiness in their interactions with him, which included stroking hair and putting his hand on a thigh. Like Cuomo later would, Biden cast the allegations as a case of misinterpreted friendliness and changing social mores. In an initial piece covering the Reade allegation, the Times had infamously written that it had “found no pattern of sexual misconduct by Mr. Biden, beyond the hugs, kisses and touching that women previously said made them uncomfortable,” before quietly deleting the second part of that sentence at the request of the campaign.
Other testimony suggests Cuomo’s team took note of the Biden camp’s framing.
“Once the Anna Ruch thing happened, I think that we were apprehensive that there could be more things like that, like where it could be like a Joe Biden situation of, like, you know, older guy who is out of touch, who is taking photos with people in a way that made them feel uncomfortable,” testified DeRosa.
Biden wasn’t the only figure Cuomo’s team learned from. The governor’s brother and now-fired CNN anchor Chris Cuomo testified that he and the governor had discussed Donald Trump and the raft of assault allegations against him in the context of Cuomo’s case, specifically about “the nature of what was resonating and what wasn’t and why and what that meant about what was happening in society and the media.” The governor, his brother said, determined
that it is highly political in perspective, that we haven’t gotten to a place where we all see things the same way. And that was something that he believed very much politically benefited the former president, that it was very different how things were viewed in his camp, I guess you’d call it.
Cuomo seems to have been referring to the role today’s partisan and cultural polarization has played in shaping the reception of such allegations, with polling support, attitudes, and media arguments virtually swapped between partisans when a Republican has been accused versus when Biden was. But he may also have overestimated this phenomenon: While Biden, as the only alternative to Trump, may have been too big to fail for many liberals, for Cuomo in deep blue New York, there was no similar force at work to make him unexpendable.
Two Models, Two Futures
There was also another, perhaps more important factor: the launching of an official, independent investigation of the charges against Cuomo, where witnesses and the accused testified under oath. It was this, coupled with a push for impeachment and criticism from a collection of party leaders and legislators, which finally made Cuomo’s insistence on staying in power untenable.
The demand to “believe women” was always meant as a call to take such allegations seriously and investigate them, rather than as an evidentiary standard. It is, after all, possible for accusers to level false charges for political and other reasons, as we saw in the cases of Alex Morse and Judy Munro-Leighton, who admitted inventing her allegation against Brett Kavanaugh, even as other accusations against him were corroborated. The question is how to litigate such claims without producing the kind of character assassination and personal danger that alleged survivors have typically faced when coming forward in the past.
Anita Hill — who herself was viciously defamed and disbelieved about her own sexual harassment allegations against Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas and whose testimony against him was serially undermined by Biden himself — has pointed to James’s investigation as a “model” for investigating accusations. “It put to rest a lot of the follow-ups that we hear in these cases where people say, ‘Well, we don’t know what happened. We don’t have any evidence. We can never know. It’s just a he said-she said thing,’” Hill has said.
For her part, Reade says she would testify under oath and cooperate with any investigation into what she says happened between her and Biden in 1993 and hopes his staffers could be forced to testify, too. “It is one thing if they protect Biden in the media, but very different for them to go under oath,” she says. “Also, an investigative process might provide a safer venue for others to step forward with their own experiences with Joe Biden.”
The New York attorney general’s report shows that an unscrupulous politician and his loyalists viewed the Biden campaign as model for how to suppress serious allegations of sexual misconduct. But perhaps that same report can be a model for how to ensure justice for both accusers and the accused going forward.