A nifty catch by Mollie Hemingway. As far as I’m aware, Biden has never publicly accused Hill of having lied. “I believed her from the beginning,” he said a few days ago on “The View.” He’s been criticized by the left for not doing more during Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearing to protect her, like calling witnesses who might have corroborated her testimony or reining in aggressive questioning by Republicans (most notably, ah, Arlen Specter), but he ended up voting against Thomas in the end. Progressives haven’t accused him of being a Hill skeptic but rather a far too tepid supporter.
But what if he is a skeptic? How much worse does his political problem get?
Here’s the key bit from Specter’s book. Per Hemingway, the exchange between him and Biden had to do with Hill being evasive when Specter asked if she was ever told by Senate staffers that her sexual harassment allegations would be kept secret and that they’d be used to pressure Thomas into withdrawing.
After this exchange Biden recessed the committee. Biden told me in November 1998, ‘It was clear to me from the way she was answering the questions, she was lying.’
‘At that point I truncated the hearing and recessed it early for lunch,’ Biden said. ‘I turned to my chief of staff and said, ‘Go down and tell her lawyers that if her recollection is not refreshed by the time she gets back, I will be compelled to pursue the same line of questioning the Senator [Specter] did. Because it seems to me, she did what he said.’
Hill returned from lunch and finally admitted that yes, the possibility had been raised to her by a staffer that accusing Thomas of misconduct would lead him to quit. Obviously that spoke to a potential motive: If she had a grudge against Thomas and thought she could blow up his big opportunity to land on the Court without drawing public scrutiny, the personal cost to her of leveling a false accusation would have been steeply reduced. If you believe Specter, Biden was sufficiently bothered by her evasiveness that he was planning to drill down on this himself in questioning.
I’m curious to see how Biden answers when he’s asked about this. One way he could go is pure denial. “I don’t know what Arlen thinks I said,” he might say, “but I never said that.” But why would Specter lie? He and Biden were friends and colleagues in the Senate for 30 years, some of them as members of the same caucus. Specter was still years away when the book came out (2000) from switching parties to become a Democrat, when he might have felt he needed some political cover from fellow Dems for his behavior during the Hill hearing among his new base. (“Biden agreed that she lied!”) Biden himself as far as I know has never disputed this account in Specter’s book even though it’s nearly 20 years old.
The other option for Biden is a qualified admission. “Yes, I thought Hill was being evasive during *that part* of questioning,” he could admit, “but I never thought her allegations against Thomas were false. She was reluctant to admit that Democratic staffers coordinated with her on her original statement, knowing what that might to do to her credibility. But all of the sexual harassment stuff seemed solid to me.” But that would invite an obvious follow-up question: If you thought she was lying about subject X, why would you give her the benefit of the doubt on subject Y? Judges sometimes explicitly invite juries to disbelieve the entirety of a witness’s testimony if they’re convinced the witness lied about something significant. According to Specter, Biden thought Hill lied initially when asked if Democratic staffers told her they might be able to get Thomas to drop out without her name becoming public. Why compartmentalize that and isolate it from questions about her credibility generally?
I think he’s stuck with a flat denial, insisting that he never said what Specter claims he said. If he admits to questioning any part of Hill’s testimony, the left will tear him to shreds — not just because she’s been elevated to progressive secular saint status in the decades since the hearing but because they’re highly motivated for electoral reasons to make Biden suffer. If they can pry loose some votes for Bernie Sanders by using the anecdote in Specter’s book to convict Biden of treason against #MeToo, they’ll do it.