Biden confronts allegation as he prepares for unprecedented campaign against Trump

CNN's MJ Lee reports.

Posted: May 3, 2020 10:40 AM
Updated: May 3, 2020 5:00 PM


Six months before Election Day, Joe Biden is scrambling to build a campaign to wage a political fight with little precedent in American history, hoping to capitalize on opportunities and overcome challenges that the coronavirus crisis has injected into his battle with President Donald Trump.

But even as Biden sharply criticizes Trump's leadership and how the administration has handled the deadly pandemic, the former vice president is grappling with the biggest crisis he has faced as a candidate. He has denied an allegation of sexual assault by a former Senate aide, but aides and allies privately acknowledge the allegation will likely remain as a cloud for the duration of the campaign -- and will be used as a political weapon by Trump and his backers.

After weeks of pressure mounting on Biden to directly address the allegation, Biden and his top advisers decided to release a carefully crafted statement from the former vice president Friday morning. Biden then sat for an 18-minute interview on the topic. He denied Tara Reade's claim while also saying Reade had a right to be heard and pushing for the Senate to locate any complaint she filed in the 1990s.

'I'm not concerned about what they might find, because I know the truth of the matter,' Biden later told a group of former President Barack Obama's administration and campaign alumni in a virtual fundraiser. He has resisted calls to open his Senate records, housed at the University of Delaware, saying they do not contain personnel records and would be used as political fodder.

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The presidential contest is plunging ahead on precarious terrain, with even the most basic fundamentals of campaigning suddenly uncertain. It is the most critical six-month stretch of Biden's long political career, the outcome of which will determine whether his long quest to win the presidency is realized.

'This is a referendum on Trump and the choice couldn't be clearer,' said Jen O'Malley Dillon, Biden's campaign manager. 'We're going to really be focused on that. We won't let him take us off our game.'

The Biden campaign, after outlasting a crowded and competitive Democratic primary, is nearing the final stages of hiring hundreds of new staffers assigned to critical battleground states. But even that basic step is complicated by coronavirus, which has turned a traditional campaign into a virtual one, for which there is no playbook.

With voter registration drives, rallies and organizing events on hold, both campaigns are searching for new ways to reach their supporters. The prospects of a crowded summer political convention also are highly in doubt, raising the prospects for the next 184 days to be remarkably unorthodox.

While Biden holds early advantages in recent polling from several battleground states, his advisers are bracing for a brutal fight with Trump. Only five of the 18 incumbent presidents who have run for re-election since the turn of the 20th century have lost.

The campaign will play out in traditional swing states, with the Biden campaign poised to concentrate its most intense efforts on the battlegrounds of Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, Arizona and North Carolina. But Trump's weak standing at this early stage of the race could create opportunities in Georgia, Ohio and other states Trump carried in 2016.

His vice presidential selection process is already underway, naming a search committee late last week with a goal of announcing his decision as early as July. It will be one of the most important moves of his campaign, aides say, which offers an opportunity like few other moments in a White House bid.

Aides believe Biden possesses unique assets -- empathy and decades of experience -- that match the political moment in which the 2020 race will be run. Biden at a Friday night fundraiser said Trump is 'just about the worst possible person to handle a crisis like this. He seemed completely overwhelmed by it. He doesn't have a team, the temperament or, quite frankly, the moral authority to take it on.'

But the former vice president won the Democratic primary with an analog campaign, with a base much older and less engaged online than those of rivals who were much more attuned to modern digital organizing and persuasion tactics. He is now under pressure to adapt to an environment in which his retail politicking skills are devalued and his relatively modest digital presence must grow rapidly.

Aides are in the early stages of discussing what a return to traditional campaigning may look like in the coming months, a Democrat familiar with the conversations said. Biden has spent the past seven weeks holding virtual events and fundraisers from the basement of his Delaware home, but aides are weighing the possibility of holding smaller-scale events, such as conducting tours as places start to reopen.

'I miss seeing people,' Biden said in a recent Instagram live with his wife Jill and soccer star Megan Rapinoe. 'Me looking in someone's eye and hearing their concerns and stories, that's how I get my information and that's what I like the best.'

Another worry of Biden's top aides -- which grew after Republicans in Wisconsin refused to expand access to by-mail voting in the state's April 7 primary -- is over how the November 3 election will be conducted. Voting laws are a state-by-state patchwork, with Democratic elections lawyer Marc Elias, the national and state parties and advocacy groups currently seeking to broaden opportunities to cast ballots in some of them. The pandemic has at least temporarily stopped Biden's campaign from conducting voter registration drives in key cities and college campuses that could offer a bounty of Democratic voters.

Biden is also for the first time confronting an opponent who is willing to attack him in ways other Democrats would not.

Following Biden's interview on MSNBC on Friday morning, in which he said the allegations by former aide Tara Reade that he sexually assaulted her in 1993 are 'not true' and 'never happened,' Trump campaign spokeswoman Erin Perrine said Biden had dug 'a deeper hole.'

Biden has asked for the Senate to search through personnel records and release any claim of misconduct that Reade filed. But he said he would not green-light a review of his personal papers at the University of Delaware to find any mention of Reade because those papers do not cover personnel matters -- a refusal that Trump's allies immediately pounced on, suggesting that Biden is hiding something.

The Biden campaign rejects the notion that the reluctant to release the Delaware papers are this campaign's equivalent to Hillary Clinton's emails, with aides saying they should instead be compared to Trump, who has repeatedly refused to release myriad records.

Trump on Thursday said he has been 'falsely charged numerous times' and suggested Biden might have been, as well. The comment blurred lines between the accusation Biden faces and the more than a dozen women have leveled allegations against Trump, ranging from unwelcome advances to sexual harassment and assault. Trump has denied those allegations.

Bridging a divided party

Biden's campaign is also attempting to bridge the lasting divides within the Democratic Party after a hard-fought primary and figure out whether and how it can hold a summer nominating convention -- and if it can guarantee Biden four nights of attention without tens of thousands of people gathering in person.

Obama has signaled his intention to make winning the White House a top priority over the next six months, aides said, pledging to campaign aggressively for Biden and in House and Senate races. The former president believes his biggest contribution can be helping to unify the Democratic Party.

While Bernie Sanders and all of the major 2020 Democratic candidates have endorsed Biden, the fissures inside the party remain palpable, with considerable work ahead to bridge the divide.

One major decision that remains is what the Democratic National Convention -- originally scheduled for July in Milwaukee, but already delayed until August -- will look like.

The convention's official function is to nominate Biden as the party's presidential candidate. But it's also a four-night, prime-time showcase featuring all of the party's most prominent figures making their strongest, uninterrupted case for their nominee -- a milestone moment that campaigns typically hope will give their poll numbers a boost and energize their supporters.

The Biden campaign and Sanders announced an agreement this week allowing Sanders to keep hundreds of delegates he otherwise would have forfeited due to dropping out of the race last month. The move is among several attempts the Biden campaign has made to show it's committed to uniting the party and bring Sanders' progressive supporters into the fold.

Biden and Sanders had previously announced their teams would establish six policy working groups on immigration, criminal justice, the economy, climate action, education and health care, and the former vice president has already made substantive policy overtures on Medicare eligibility and student loan debt. Several top advisers to Biden are also working with progressive groups to seek their input as the campaign moves forward to the general election.

Biden aides say that -- in part because Biden and Sanders personally get along -- the two camps have worked well together thus far. Former top Sanders aide Jeff Weaver co-founded a super PAC supporting Biden.

New digital organizing efforts

With social distancing and work from home practices in place, field organizing has turned to a digital format.

Biden's campaign staff has left behind its Philadelphia headquarters, with staffers instead decamping to their hometowns or cloistered in small apartments they'd expected they wouldn't be spending much time in.

With door-knocking drives, in-person volunteer trainings and surrogate events now impossible, the campaign's organizers are attempting to reach voters instead through phone calls, texts, emails and on social media.

'Our ultimate goal is not much different than it would be if we were in an in-person campaign. We are looking for ways to engage new supporters and invite them to take action with the campaign and build our frankly, army, of volunteers,' said Molly Ritner, the states director for the Biden campaign. 'And secondarily we are looking for opportunities to connect with voters in a way that meets them where they are.'

Field organizers have replaced traditional door-knocking with community check-in calls to ask how people are coping with the coronavirus pandemic. Organizers and supporters participate in virtual house parties to connect with voters in their communities.

'Even though we might not be making the hard ask or knocking on their door the way we would be in an on ground the campaign, I think we're finding if you meet people where they are, we're having really effective conversations that we strongly believe people are going to remember in November,' said Ritner, who noted any return to traditional field organizing will involve considerable planning and follow recommendations from health professionals to ensure the safety of organizers and supporters.

Biden's campaign is attempting to arm supporters for digital warfare. A week ago the campaign held a summit for more than 700 supporters focused on showing backers how to make and share content across social media. One volunteer is building pro-Biden Pinterest boards; many others are making videos.

Biden's campaign reached 63 million video views across all social media channels in April, and outspent Trump on digital advertising in March.

Online fundraising picks up

Biden's fundraising has also moved entirely online, with the former vice president holding nearly-daily events over Zoom with donors, while reporters listen in.

One Biden fundraiser who is in close contact with his aides said that it was initially difficult to get donors to participate in online events, rather than waiting for in-person fundraisers.

'But over the course of the past, I'd say, three weeks, maybe longer, it's been abundantly clear this situation is going to last a little longer than most folks first thought, people are just settling in to this being the new norm and this is the best way to support the campaign,' the fundraiser said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal campaign discussions.

Biden's campaign and the Democratic National Committee recently struck a joint fundraising agreement that will allow major donors to give up to $360,600. The move comes as Biden's campaign takes over the broader Democratic apparatus behind the scenes, much as the GOP's infrastructure is aligned behind Trump. The President and his party enter the general election with a massive financial advantage, with nearly $187 million more cash on hand combined, accounting for unpaid debts, than Biden and the DNC.

The agreement means large Democratic donors who were allowed to give a maximum of $5,600 to Biden -- half for use in the primary; half for the general election -- are now able to cut much larger checks.

Biden's small-dollar online fundraising presence has also grown rapidly. His campaign has more than doubled the size of its email list since Super Tuesday.

'We always knew that Trump and the Republicans could have a significant financial advantage going into the summer. That concern was exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis and our campaign's inability to do in-person fundraising at a time where the typical Presidential campaign would be just ramping up and preparing for the general election,' said Biden's deputy campaign manager Rufus Gifford. 'Yet what we have seen in the last few months makes me incredibly optimistic.'

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