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Biden jokes about unwanted touching, two days after assuring accusers ‘I get it’

The former vice president and potential Democratic candidate has been accused by several women of unprofessional behavior and unwanted contact.

Joe Biden jokes about touching people days after pledging to be 'more mindful' of his behavior. (Photo credit: Cindy Ord/Getty Images for It's On Us)
Joe Biden jokes about touching people days after pledging to be 'more mindful' of his behavior. (Photo credit: Cindy Ord/Getty Images for It's On Us)

Former Vice President Joe Biden was caught up in controversy Friday for remarks during a speech in Washington that appeared to make light of allegations by several women who have accused him of unwanted touching.

Taking the stage at a conference hosted by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), the potential 2020 presidential candidate briefly embraced IBEW President Lonnie Stephenson, who had just introduced him as a speaker.

Moments later, before a crowd of mostly men, Biden joked that he had received permission to hug Stephenson. “I just wanted to let you know I had permission to hug Lonnie — we had permission,” he said, to raucous applause and cheers from the audience.

A short time later, Biden gathered a group of children behind him, pulling one to his side. “By the way,” he said to the crowd, pointing to the child, “he gave me permission to touch him.”  The crowd once again reacted with laughter and applause.

Asked about the remarks later, Biden told reporters, “It wasn’t my intent to make light of anyone’s discomfort.”

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He added, “I am sorry I didn’t understand more. I am not sorry for any of my intentions. I am not sorry for anything that I have ever done — I’ve never been disrespectful, intentionally, to a man or a woman.”

Biden’s remarks came two days after he issued a video response to a series of allegations from women who say he acted unprofessionally or touched them without their consent.

One accuser, Lucy Flores, says Biden smelled her hair and gave her “a big slow kiss” on the back of the head during a 2014 campaign event for her Nevada lieutenant governor bid. Another, Amy Lappos, claims Biden placed his hand on the back of her neck and pulled her in to rub noses with him during a 2009 political fundraiser.

D.J. Hill and Caitlyn Caruso, a sexual assault survivor, also claim that the former vice president touched them in ways that made them uncomfortable during a 2012 fundraiser and an event at the University of Nevada event in 2016, respectively. Several other women also have come forward to claim Biden acted unprofessionally around them in the past.

In his video released on Wednesday, Biden appeared apologetic, but did not apologize over the allegations. “In my career, I’ve always tried to make a human connection — that’s my responsibility, I think,” he said. “I shake hands, I hug people, I grab men and women by the shoulders and say, ‘You can do this.'”

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But he said, “Social norms have begun to change, they’ve shifted, and the boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset and I get it. I get it. I hear what they’re saying. I understand it.” He added that he would be “much more mindful” of his behavior in the future.

“I will be more mindful and respectful of people’s personal space — that’s a good thing,” he said. “I’ve worked my whole life to empower women … so the idea that I can’t adjust to the fact that personal space is important — more important than it’s ever been — is just not thinkable. I will. I will.”

Biden has since been criticized for his reaction to the allegations, with one of the women, Sofie Karasek, calling his video response lacking.

“[He] didn’t take ownership in the way that he needs to,” said Karasek, a sexual assault survivor who told The Washington Post that Biden made her uncomfortable following a conversation at the 2016 Academy Awards.

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“He emphasized that he wants to connect with people and, of course, that’s important. But again, all of our interactions and friendships are a two-way street. . . . Too often it doesn’t matter how the woman feels about it or they just assume that they’re fine with it.”

Biden allies point to his work to raise awareness and fight against issues such as sexual assault and harassment as proof that his past “handsy behavior” is not ill-intentioned. Supporters also say that his behavior is far less serious than sexual assault, harassment and predation that other politicians have been accused of in recent memory, including President Donald Trump.

His accusers, however, say it’s important to speak out all about kinds of behavior that make women feel uncomfortable in the workplace more broadly.

“There’s been a lack of understanding about the way that power can turn something that might seem innocuous into something that can make somebody feel uncomfortable,” one of the women, Ally Coll, told the Post this week.

She added, “[There’s] a continued lack of understanding about why these stories are being told and their relevance in the #MeToo era.”

This article has been updated to include additional remarks from Biden following his speech on Friday.