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It’s been three days since Lucy Flores accused former Vice President Joe Biden of invading her personal space to plant an unwanted kiss on the back of her head, and the questions about whether Biden can still win a presidential campaign are already swirling.
Biden has long been rumored to be planning a 2020 run for the White House, but the scandal is one of his campaign’s first brushes with the realities of 2020: In a post-#MeToo world, Biden’s habit of intimately touching women, including whispering in their ear and kissing them on the mouth, might doom his candidacy.
Here’s what we know so far.
The kiss allegedly happened in November 2014, when Flores was running as the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor of Nevada. Biden showed up at a rally to improve voter turnout, and the two were about to go on stage when, Flores said, she felt Biden’s hands on her shoulders, according to an essay Flores published in The Cut on Friday. Flores said Biden then leaned in, smelled her hair, and then gave her what she called “a big slow kiss” on the back of her head.
“I thought to myself, ‘I didn’t wash my hair today, and the vice president of the United States is smelling it,’” wrote Flores, a former Nevada state legislator who supported Bernie Sanders during the 2016 presidential election. “‘And also, what in the actual fuck? Why is the vice president of the United States smelling my hair?’”
“My brain couldn’t process what was happening. I was embarrassed. I was shocked. I was confused,” she wrote. “I wanted nothing more than to get Biden away from me. My name was called, and I was never happier to get on stage in front of an audience.”
After Flores’ essay was published, Henry R. Munoz III, the rally’s organizer, said there was no evidence that Flores and Biden had ever been left alone together. After reviewing photos and talking with staffers, Munoz said he and the organization he co-founded, the Latino Victory Project, “do not believe that circumstances support allegations that such an event took place.”
Flores did not say in her essay that she and Biden were ever alone, and she called Munoz’s statement “entirely irrelevant” in an interview with CNN on Sunday.
What’s Biden saying?
“I have offered countless handshakes, hugs, expressions of affection, support and comfort. And not once — never — did I believe I acted inappropriately,” Biden said in a statement. “If it is suggested I did so, I will listen respectfully. But it was never my intention.”
“I may not recall these moments the same way, and I may be surprised at what I hear,” he went on. “But we have arrived at an important time when women feel they can and should relate their experiences, and men should pay attention. And I will.”
So far, though, Biden has not given any interviews about the accusation.
In a statement to Politico, Biden spokesman Bill Russo added, “Neither then, nor in the years since, did he or the staff with him at the time have an inkling that Ms. Flores had been at any time uncomfortable, nor do they recall what she describes.”
Public figures accused of sexual misconduct in the wake of #MeToo must walk a tightrope, and denials like Biden’s are becoming increasingly common. It’s no longer acceptable to deny a woman’s story outright, but accused men often couch their denials with supportive language. They stress that they believe women writ large, and that they’re willing to listen to their accuser — while emphasizing that they still believe their accuser is, in that particular case, wrong, as New York Times critic Amanda Hess has pointed out.
When Brett Kavanaugh was accused of sexually assaulting Christine Blasey Ford as a teenager, for example, Kavanaugh and his advocates frequently made sure to mention that they believed Ford when she said she’d been attacked, but they didn’t believe her when she said Kavanaugh had done it.
What does all this mean for Biden’s likely campaign?
Now in his 70s, Biden has had a long career in politics, and he’s already facing criticism for how his moderate liberal policies now diverge from a Democratic Party that’s moving steadily leftward. But thanks to Flores’ allegation, many critics are also now pointing to Biden’s documented history of getting up close and personal with women in public, including nuzzling a female biker and kissing female supporters on their faces and lips.
“The thing that’s so challenging for team Biden is that everything that Lucy Flores said seems very, very true,” Rebecca Katz, a progressive consultant, told Politico. “There’s literally highlight reels of Biden, whether it’s with world leaders or granddaughters of incoming members of Congress, doing things that seem a little off — on camera.”
One woman, Stephanie Carter, made it clear in a Medium post published Sunday night that she did not feel uncomfortable when the vice president gripped her shoulders and whispered in her ear, while Carter’s husband was sworn in as secretary of defense. A photo of the gesture is frequently cited as proof that Biden makes women uncomfortable.
“Let me state upfront that I don’t know her, but I absolutely support her right to speak her truth and she should be, like all women, believed,” Carter said of Flores. “But her story is not mine. The Joe Biden in my picture is a close friend helping someone get through a big day, for which I will always be grateful.”
In a statement Monday, Russo cited Carter’s essay as proof that misunderstood and even manipulated photos are now being used to spread a “false narrative” against Biden. “These smears and forgeries have existed in the dark recesses of the internet for a while,” Russo said. “And to this day, right-wing trolls and others continue to exploit them for their own gain.”
Carter’s essay, however, seems unlikely to quiet the growing murmurs over Biden’s fraught history. At the time of Flores’ essay, Biden had already been dealing with days of criticism over comments he made last week about Anita Hill. Biden had been chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee when Hill testified that now-Justice Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her.
“She faced a committee that didn’t fully understand what the hell this was all about,” said Biden, sidestepping the fact that Biden led that all-male, all-white committee. “To this day, I regret I couldn’t come up with a way to get her the kind of hearing she deserved.”
“She was abused through the hearing,” he later added. “She was taken advantage of. Her reputation was attacked. I wish I could have done something.”
These comments might be a public apology, but Biden has not apologized to Hill privately, Hill said last fall. Hill told Elle, “It’s become sort of a running joke in the household when someone rings the doorbell and we’re not expecting company. ‘Oh,’ we say, ‘Is that Joe Biden coming to apologize?’”
Cover image: Vice President Joe Biden takes a selfie with Nevada Lt. Governor Democratic candidate Lucy Flores during a rally in support of Nevada Democrats at the Plumbers and Pipefitters Joint UA Local 525 in Las Vegas Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014. (AP Photo/Las Vegas Sun, L.E. Baskow)