WASHINGTON — Joe Biden allies rallied to his defense Monday as his team pushed back on "smears and forgeries" it said misrepresent his conduct, part of an urgent push to neutralize the biggest threat yet to the former vice president's potential candidacy.
For more than 48 hours, Biden's not-yet campaign team treaded carefully in responding to former Nevada assemblywoman Lucy Flores' allegation of an inappropriate campaign encounter on the eve of the 2014 election. For a longtime public figure who has considered his work on issues surrounding sexual assault a career hallmark, Biden's inner circle sought to strike a respectful balance — not disputing her account even as he insisted he did not believe he had acted inappropriately.
That posture changed late Sunday after Flores, in an interview on MSNBC's "KasieDC," encouraged viewers to seek out online memes purporting to show Biden acting inappropriately around women. "It feels like almost endless images of him being inappropriate," she said.
In a new statement Monday, Biden spokesperson Bill Russo — without naming Flores — said that "smears and forgeries have existed in the dark recesses of the Internet for a while," exploited by "right wing trolls and others." The statement noted that two individuals who appeared in oft-circulated images — Stephanie Carter, wife of former Defense Secretary Ash Carter, and the 13-year old daughter of Delaware Sen. Chris Coons — have sought to correct any public impression that they felt Biden had acted inappropriately toward them.
Biden believes that any women who experiences discomfort, "regardless of intention, should speak and be heard, and that he will be among those who listen," Russo said. "But the important conversation about these issues are not advanced, nor are any criticisms of Vice President Biden validated, by the continued misrepresentation of the Carter and Coons moments, or a failure to be vigilant about a cottage industry of lies."
Some of Biden's potential 2020 rivals have begun to weigh in, saying they are inclined to believe Flores and that Biden should address the matter. In an interview on MSNBC Monday, Flores said she had not yet heard from Biden or any member of his team seeking to express remorse. She said she had not come forward in an effort to boost a potential rival Democratic presidential candidate, but she did say in that interview that Biden was not her candidate. When asked if she was comfortable playing into a right-wing narrative branding Biden as "creepy," Flores called it "an honest narrative."
"We have to take this kind of behavior seriously. And we have to think about not just the person doing it, but the way, the recipient of that behavior," she said. "This is not a new thing about Joe Biden. It is just the first time that we're actually having a serious discussion about it."
NBC News has not independently verified that the incident Flores alleges took place, but has reviewed correspondence provided by Flores that appears to corroborate that she discussed the alleged incident around the time she says it occurred.
Since Flores' first-person account was posted online Friday, a number of former Biden staffers have posted their own testimonials of Biden's character and how he empowered women on his staff during his decades in public office. Several took to the airwaves Monday.
"He's very friendly and personable, and I think that's a positive and that's the way he's always operated. But, you know, I think he did mention that he had no intention of making anyone feel uncomfortable and is willing to listen to what people have to say," said Sheila Nix, former chief of staff to Jill Biden and Biden's chief of staff in the 2012 reelection campaign.
Asked if the new controversy might steer Biden against entering the 2020 contest, Nix said she's "hopeful that this won't in any way discourage him."