Biden Says He’ll Adjust His Physical Behavior As Three More Women Come Forward

© Courtesy of Sofie Karasek/Courtesy of Sofie Karasek Then-Vice President Biden talks wth Sofie Karasek after the 2016 Academy Awards ceremony. Karasek was among sexual assault victims who appeared onstage with Lady Gaga that year. Biden’s physical contact came after Karasek told him of a college student who had been sexually assaulted and recently died by suicide. She later said the physical encounter had made her feel uncomfortable.

By Elise Viebeck, Matt Viser, Colby Itkowitz
The Washington Post
Former vice president Joe Biden promised on Wednesday to adjust his physical behavior toward women, an effort to quell controversy over whether his intimate style is appropriate in the era of the #MeToo movement.

Biden addressed critics in a video posted to Twitter as three additional women told The Washington Post on Wednesday about encounters with him that made them feel uncomfortable. Their stories bring the total number of people who have expressed concerns about alleged interactions with Biden to seven. Other women defended Biden, who has been seen by many women as an advocate for them.

The new accounts, emerging just weeks before Biden, 76, is expected to announce his decision about a White House bid, reflected a feeling among some women that Biden was struggling to understand why his behavior might at times be inappropriate or unwelcome. In a party energized by millennials, women and people of color, Biden has faced criticism over a host of positions and decisions from his nearly five decades in public life, including his handling of Anita Hill’s testimony during Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearing.

Even on Wednesday, as Biden acknowledged shifting social norms and promised to be “more respectful of people’s personal space,” he defended his style of interacting and did not offer an apology.

“I’ll be much more mindful. That is my responsibility, my responsibility, and I’ll meet it. But I’ll always believe governing, quite frankly, and life, for that matter, is about connecting, about connecting with people. That won’t change,” Biden said in the video.

Three women told The Post that Biden’s behavior toward them made them feel uncomfortable and said Biden’s comments Wednesday didn’t fully address their concerns.

Vail Kohnert-Yount said she was a White House intern in the spring of 2013 and one day tried to exit the basement of the West Wing when she was asked to step aside so Biden could enter. After she moved out of the way, she said, Biden approached her to introduce himself and shake her hand.

“He then put his hand on the back of my head and pressed his forehead to my forehead while he talked to me. I was so shocked that it was hard to focus on what he was saying. I remember he told me I was a ‘pretty girl,’ ” Kohnert-Yount said in a statement to The Post.

She described feeling uncomfortable and embarrassed that Biden had commented on her appearance in a professional setting, “even though it was intended as a compliment.”

“I do not consider my experience to have been sexual assault or harassment,” she stated, adding that she believes Biden’s intentions were good. “But it was the kind of inappropriate behavior that makes many women feel uncomfortable and unequal in the workplace.”

In response to Biden’s video, Kohnert-Yount emailed: “I appreciate his attempt to do better in the future, but to me this is not mainly about whether Joe Biden has adequate respect for personal space. It’s about women deserving equal respect in the workplace.”

The allegations have dominated coverage of Biden since last week. President Trump, who has denied multiple allegations of sexual misconduct, on Wednesday said Biden should not apologize for his behavior, even as a pro-Trump super PAC circulated an online ad casting Biden’s interactions with women and girls in a negative light.

Biden’s video comes as he and his advisers have been laying the groundwork for a presidential campaign. He has been expected to make an announcement by late April, and in recent days his advisers have been calling allies to assure them that the latest controversy would not knock him out of a run. Advisers said that they viewed Biden’s video as a strong and forceful response and that it has not derailed his decision.

The reexamination of Biden’s behavior toward women began last week after a former Nevada legislator, Lucy Flores, wrote that she felt uncomfortable after Biden allegedly held her shoulders, smelled her hair and kissed her head in 2014.

In the wake of the allegations, multiple women came forward to defend Biden, including former staffers, MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski and actress and #MeToo advocate Alyssa Milano. Several noted Biden’s record on issues concerning women; as a senator from Delaware, he led efforts to pass the Violence Against Women Act, and as vice president, he was the Obama administration’s point person on efforts to end sexual assaults against women on college campuses.

The Democratic mayor of Atlanta, Keisha Lance Bottoms, on Wednesday evening tweeted a photo of she and Biden standing forehead to forehead.

“Everyone’s experience is their own. As for mine, I found my introduction and interaction with @JoeBiden to be genuine and endearing,” she wrote.

Six other women have shared stories similar to Flores’s. D.J. Hill and Caitlyn Caruso, who told the New York Times on Tuesday that Biden had made them feel uncomfortable during encounters with him, did not respond to requests for comment.

A spokesman for Biden declined to comment on any specific allegations and referred The Post to the video posted to Twitter earlier in the day.

The most recent encounter described to The Post took place in 2016.

Sofie Karasek was part of a group of 51 sexual assault victims who appeared onstage at the Oscars with Lady Gaga that year; Biden had introduced the singer’s performance.

Karasek said as she met Biden after the ceremony, she was thinking about a college student who had been sexually assaulted and recently died by suicide. She decided to share the story with the then-vice president, and Biden responded by clasping her hands and leaning down to place his forehead against hers, a moment captured in a widely circulated photograph.

Karasek said she appreciated Biden’s support but also felt awkward and uncomfortable that his gesture had left their faces suddenly inches apart. She said she did not know how to respond to, as she described it, Biden crossing the boundary into her personal space at a sensitive moment.

Someone printed her the photo of that moment, which Karasek framed and put on a shelf, but later took it down as the #MeToo movement began drawing more attention to cases of sexual harassment, assault and unwanted touching.

She said Biden, in the video, “still didn’t take ownership in the way that he needs to.”

“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,” she said.

The third woman to speak with The Post recalled meeting Biden for the first time during the 2008 election cycle.

Ally Coll said she was a young Democratic staffer helping run a reception of about 50 people when Biden entered the room. She said she was then introduced to Biden, who she said leaned in, squeezed her shoulders and delivered a compliment about her smile, holding her “for a beat too long.”

Coll, who runs the Purple Campaign, a nonprofit group that fights sexual harassment, said she felt nervous and excited about meeting Biden at the time and shrugged off feelings of discomfort. She says now that she felt his alleged behavior was out of place and inappropriate in the context of a work situation.

“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,” said Coll, who consults with companies about their workplace policies.

Coll said Biden’s video demonstrated “a continued lack of understanding about why these stories are being told and their relevance in the #MeToo era.”

People who have observed or interacted with Biden said pulling people toward him to touch foreheads is a common gesture he employs with men and women.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the country’s highest ranking Democrat and female political leader, said this week that the allegations against Biden are not disqualifying but that he should learn to avoid such intimate physical behavior in political settings.

“I think that it’s important for the vice president and others to understand that it isn’t what you intended; it’s how it was received,” Pelosi said at Tuesday morning at an event in Washington.

The speaker also challenged Biden’s response to the controversy on Sunday, when he stated that he never intended to act inappropriately but “if it is suggested I did so, I will listen respectfully.”

“To say, ‘I’m sorry that you were offended’ is not an apology,” Pelosi said. “That’s not accepting the fact that people think differently about communication, whether it’s a handshake, a hug. . . . He has to understand in the world that we’re in now that people’s space is important to them, and what’s important is how they receive it, not necessarily how you intended it.”

Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.