By James Oliphant
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, facing a growing swell of allegations that he has made women uncomfortable with his use of physical contact, made light of the controversy on Friday while continuing to lay the groundwork for his 2020 presidential run.
At the outset of a speech to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Washington, Biden joked that he “had permission” to hug the union’s male president, Lonnie Stephenson.
The friendly, mostly male audience responded with laughter and cheers.
He made a similar joke again after inviting some children of the attendees on stage and draping his arm around a boy.
Biden’s remarks were his first public comments since more than a half-dozen women aired their complaints that he had touched them inappropriately at political events.
Biden never directly addressed the allegations, as he did earlier in the week when he released a two-minute video on social media acknowledging that concepts of “personal space” had evolved in the wake of the #MeToo movement.
Speaking to reporters after the speech, Biden expressed regret over the criticism that his tactile behaviour made some women uncomfortable but stopped short of apologising.
“The fact of the matter is I’ve made it clear that if I made anyone feel uncomfortable I feel badly about that,” he said. “It was never my intention, ever, ever, ever.
“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 have ever done – I’ve never been disrespectful intentionally, to a man or a woman.”
Sources close to Biden told Reuters earlier this week that the flap over his history of hugging and touching members of the public at political events has not deterred the planning for a presidential run.
Biden, who served eight years as vice president under Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, is expected to announce his plans later this month. Public opinion polls have consistently shown him atop the Democratic field.
(Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu; editing by Colleen Jenkins and Susan Thomas)