Innocence Can’t Be Proven
The left’s ongoing failure to have a serious discussion about evidence is an open invitation to the right to weaponize sexual assault allegations
For a number of reasons, I didn’t vote for Joe Biden in the primary. I filled in the circle next to another candidate’s name on my absentee ballot. That’s totally irrelevant but sadly must be stated upfront just to get some of the former Vice President’s harshest critics on both the right and the left to keep reading.
In fact, for purposes of this article, Joe Biden could be any public figure. Replace Joe Biden’s name each time you see it with Bernie Sanders’ name, or the name of your favorite public official, then imagine that person being accused of a serious sexual crime and it will become clear that the identity of the accused has no bearing on the arguments that are about to follow.
One last thing needs to be said here before I get started: I’m agnostic when it comes to the charges Tara Reade has made against former Vice President Biden. For one thing, I wasn’t there. If Reade and Biden agree about anything it’s that there are no witnesses to the assault she alleges. In her case, it’s because they were alone when it occurred and in his case, it’s because he claims it never happened.
Regardless, if we’re being honest, this lack of witnesses together with the fact that both Reade and Biden can point to people able to provide at least some degree of corroboration for their version of events creates a challenge for those of us looking in upon this case from the outside.
This is not an uncommon problem. Sexual crimes rarely involve more than a single perpetrator and a single victim. Victims of these crimes are understandably frustrated that this fact about them seriously complicates the investigation of the crime. Even in cases where DNA evidence is readily available it can be extremely difficult for outsiders to evaluate questions such as consent.
But the Biden case, like the case of former Senator Al Franken before it, poses an additional challenge because the allegations also occur in a political context. Unlike Republicans, who have shown little interest in taking the allegations against individuals like Donald Trump or Roy Moore seriously, Democrats have sought to distinguish themselves by making very clear they do take accusations of sexual harassment and assault very seriously.
Unfortunately, Democrats have been deciding what taking allegations seriously should look like as they go along. Perhaps this was inevitable given the #Me Too movement emerged organically largely in reaction to Trump’s 2016 elevation to the presidency. As a movement with no clear leadership representing the experiences of hundreds of thousands if not millions of women, it’s too much to ask that it have answers to all the difficult but extremely important issues it raises right from the start.
That said, it’s time for both the #Me Too movement and the left to make clear that as a society we can’t afford to be requiring proof of innocence in response to sexual assault or harassment charges. The Biden case demonstrates just how dangerous, to say nothing of foolish, doing so is.
Donald Trump is a man whose own words reveal his likely guilt in most if not all of the two dozen or so allegations that have been made against him. The Access Hollywood tape that came out just prior to the 2016 election is exhibit A. In addition, he has illegally used campaign funds to pay hush money to one of his accusers and there are numerous examples of him making derogatory comments about women during interviews, press conferences, and in other public or semi-public venues.
While there are instances of Biden making women feel uncomfortable until Tara Reade none have suggested these incidents rose to the level of sexual assault. In addition, Biden has so far been very careful to avoid speaking negatively about Reade personally other than to say he completely denies her accusation against him. Asking me or other voters to ignore these facts about Biden’s pattern of behavior is as unreasonable as asking me to ignore Trump’s.
More concerning, at least at the moment, is the insistence that Biden provide access to the records he has turned over to the University of Deleware Library from his time in the US Senate. This would open up a can of worms as both reporters and opposition researchers combed through materials that will inevitably contain at least some ammunition that can be used against Biden in the presidential election. The same would be true if Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, or Amy Klobuchar had won the nomination and were being asked to provide access to their Senate papers.
Some might respond with calls for transparency but those doing so are either being disingenuous or naive. Remember the Clinton emails? In that case, they were stolen and hers was the only campaign that had to endure having thousands of emails revealed to the world. If those using them against her in 2016 thought making internal campaign emails available to the public was a matter of transparency then why weren’t they also demanding that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders publish all of their internal emails so voters could make a thorough and thoughtful comparison?
To demand that Biden unilaterally make tens of thousands of pages of documents from his years in the Senate public while Donald Trump continues to withhold his tax returns and cites executive privilege at every opportunity is just stupid. Furthermore, would a failure to find anything there related to the Tara Reade matter be taken as proof, or even evidence, that he is innocent of the charges leveled against him? No. Republicans or disgruntled Sanders supporters would just claim a copy of the complaint she filed must be elsewhere or would begin theorizing about conspiracies to destroy the evidence. As was the case with Obama’s birth certificate, failure to provide the equivalent of “the original” would be taken as evidence of a coverup.
The fact is, Biden can’t produce a document if it never existed in the first place. That’s not to say it doesn’t exist and Reade never filed a complaint but since she didn’t save a copy and no one has so far been able to find it we can’t reasonably use the lack of evidence of its existence like it’s evidence of guilt. Nor can we risk allowing a hunt for a document that may or may not exist in records where it is extremely unlikely to be even if it does exist to open the door to the re-election of a man against whom we already have mountains of evidence of sexual assault and corruption.
Whether we like it or not, the burden of proof must rest with the accuser, not the accused. No democracy can long endure if mere allegations of wrongdoing are enough to undo elections or throw upcoming ones into turmoil. We should absolutely take all charges seriously. In this instance, that means continuing to look into Tara Reade’s allegations. At this point, that investigation should focus on finding out if her complaint is actually on file in the National Archives, US Senate records, or within the files of some other government office. Since Biden’s Senate papers are the least likely place we would find this kind of personnel record they should be the last place we search, not the first. Even then that search should be limited only to evidence relevant in this particular case.
While the allegations against Biden have caused some to finally begin stating that the hashtag #believe women always meant ‘take their charges seriously’ and thoroughly investigate them, the fact remains that some of these same people preempted the chance to conduct an investigation in Senator Al Franken’s case even though he was never accused of sexual assault. Hopefully, the way they are now treating the accusations against Biden means they have learned their lesson. To the extent that we continue to treat the accused as though they are guilty until proven innocent the #believe women message will be a muddled one at best, leaving its users open to regular charges of hypocrisy while enabling many extremely dangerous perpetrators to continue getting away with it, or worse, win elections.