WASHINGTON — Vice President Joe Biden began his first speech since a handful of women came forward with stories of unwanted physical contact by joking about the accusations.
“I just want you to know. I had permission to hug Lonnie,” Biden said to laughs and cheers from a male-heavy crowd after hugging International Brotherhood of Electric Workers President Lonnie Stephenson as he took the stage at their annual convention in Washington Friday morning.
Biden jokes he got "permission" to hug organizer of speech before International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers pic.twitter.com/wimlZPYdRe
— TPM Livewire (@TPMLiveWire) April 5, 2019
Biden wasn’t done joking about the topic, inviting a handful children running through the convention crowd onstage. He shook their hands before putting his arm around the nearest boy.
“He gave me permission to touch him,” he said to laughs.
Those were his only comments on the topic during the speech — he never addressed his previous behavior head-on.
Afterwards, Biden insisted he “wasn’t joking” with the remarks.
“The president of the union put his arms around me. Well that’s how it’s always been,” he told reporters outside the event. “That’s how people react.”
And he refused to apologize directly for any of his earlier actions.
“The fact of the matter is I made it clear that if I made anyone feel uncomfortable that I feel badly about that. That was never my intention, ever, ever, ever,” he said. “I’m sorry I didn’t understand more. I’m not sorry for any of my intentions. I’m not sorry for anything that I’ve ever done. I’ve never been disrespectful intentionally to a man or a woman. That’s not the reputation I’ve had since high school, for god’s sake.”
The joke at the top of his speech was literally the first sentence Biden uttered onstage since Nevada Democrat Lucy Flores accused him of unwanted physical contact during a 2014 rally for her lieutenant gubernatorial campaign a week ago. That accusation led to other women coming forward to say that he’d made them uncomfortable with unusually close physical contact, even as they described the moves as paternalistic and condescending, not sexual, in nature. The common thread: That Biden had overstepped norms of physical contact and left them feeling demeaned.
Sexual assault survivors’ rights advocate Sofie Karasek was the latest woman to come forward accusing Biden of making her uncomfortable — she penned a Thursday op-ed for the Washington Post saying she’d felt a growing “sense of shame and belittlement” over a photo of Biden pressing his forehead to hers, and described his act as “well-intentioned” but “paternalistic.”
The issue threatens to damage Biden’s 2020 presidential run before he even announces — and critics say his handling of it so far has been rather dismissive.
Biden’s aides have furiously fought back against the accusations that he’s acted inappropriately, circulating op-eds and statements of support from women who know Biden well and defended his character. Privately, they have raged at the false equivalence of intense focus on Biden’s well-known overly physical approach to politics — one that’s been a public punchline for more than a decade — while stories of multiple women who accused President Trump of sexual assault have been treated as old news.
But Biden himself had hesitated to address the issue head-on. He first released a statement seeking to put the issue behind him earlier this week. Then, on Thursday, Biden’s team tweeted out a short video in which he said “social norms are changing” and promised to be “more mindful and respectful of people’s personal space” going forward — but didn’t apologize for any past behavior.
His lighthearted treatment of the issue on Friday indicated he’s not taking the recent criticism very seriously — an approach that will almost certainly generate consternation, if not fury, from parts of the Democratic base.
This story was last updated at 12:55 p.m.