Former Vice President Joe Biden, speaking publicly for the first time since several women said his hands-on approach made them uncomfortable, cracked a joke about the complaints at the start of an event Friday.
“I just want you to know, I had permission to hug Lonnie,” Biden said after embracing International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers president Lonnie Stephenson as he began a speech to IBEW workers in Washington.
Later in the speech, the Delaware Democrat invited several children on stage and shook their hands. As they were leaving, the former vice president put his arm around a young boy and joked to the crowd, “He gave me permission to touch him, all right?”
“Everyone knows I like kids better than people," Biden added.
Biden didn’t otherwise address the women’s claims of unwanted touching in the half-hour speech, instead talking about labor unions and the economy, and saying Wall Street exploits workers.
Following the event, Biden was asked if he felt he owed the women who have come forward a direct apology.
“I’m sorry I didn’t understand more. I’m not sorry for any of my intentions,” Biden said. “I’ve never been disrespectful intentionally to a man or a woman. That’s not the reputation I’ve had since I was in high school, for God’s sake.”
Biden also hinted at his widely expected 2020 presidential run, telling reporters he was close to making a decision.
“My intention from the beginning, if I were to run, would be to be the last person to announce. Give everybody else their day, then I get a shot, then off to the races,” Biden said.
Several women have objected to the affectionate and hands-on personal style that has become his trademark. Former Nevada lawmaker Lucy Flores accused Biden of inappropriately smelling her hair and kissing her on the back of her head in 2014. Caitlyn Caruso told the New York Times that Biden put his hand on her thigh and hugged her “just a little bit too long” during an event about sexual assault in 2016.
Other women have come out in defense of Biden. Stephanie Carter, wife of former Defense Secretary Ash Carter, said a viral photo of Biden whispering in her ear in 2015 was “misleadingly extracted” and taken out of context. Margaret Aitken, who served as Biden’s press secretary for 10 years, wrote in an op-ed in the Wilmington News Journal that she “never once saw anything that even came close to resembling something inappropriate.”
“I’ll always believe governing, and quite frankly, life, for that matter, is about connecting, is about connecting with people," Biden said in a video earlier this week. “That won’t change, but I will be more mindful, respectful of people’s personal space. And that’s a good thing. I worked my whole life to empower women. I worked my whole life to prevent abuse.”
The video was quickly mocked on Twitter by President Donald Trump, who has been accused of various degrees of sexual misconduct and admitted to grabbing women without their consent on a now-famous Access Hollywood tape from 2005.
On Friday morning, ahead of his trip to the southern border, Trump was asked by a reporter if he was the right messenger when it came to criticizing Biden. “Yeah, I think I’m a good messenger,” Trump said, claiming people “got a kick out” of his Twitter post mocking Biden. "He’s going through a situation — let’s see what happens. You’ve got to sort-of smile a little bit, right?”