Barack Obama waded into the controversy over the dozens of rape allegations against Bill Cosby on Wednesday, saying he didn’t have a way to revoke the comedian’s Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“There’s no precedent for revoking a medal,” Obama told reporters after being asked about the medal during a press conference. “We don’t have that mechanism.”
Cosby received the medal, the country’s highest civilian honor, in 2002 from George W. Bush, but members of Congress and others have called for the medal to be rescinded in the light of recent revelations about the sexual assault accusations against Cosby. More than 40 women have accused Cosby of sexual assault, with many sharing similar stories of him drugging and raping them. The latest break in the story came earlier this month when previously withheld testimony from a civil proceeding against Cosby revealed that the comedian had admitted to obtaining Quaaludes in order to “use” them for women he wanted to have sex with.
After that revelation, Sens. Claire McCaskill and Kirsten Gillibrand backed a petition calling on Obama to take away the medal. Gillibrand’s office told Politico that “we need to set a clear example that sexual assault will not be tolerated in this country, and someone who admitted to using drugs for sex no longer deserves the nation’s highest honor.”
For his part, Obama seemed to be relying on the lack of procedure and precedent in order to skirt the issue, but he does seem to have some cover for avoiding the topic. “I don’t think it’s ever happened, and it’s probably unlikely to happen, but there’s no precedent for it,” a former White House aide who led the Medal of Freedom selection process during the Reagan administration told the Hill last year about the potential for a medal to be revoked.
While the medal appears here to stay, Obama did make a point to say—without actually saying Cosby had committed a crime—that the things the entertainer is accused to have done are clearly rape, and that rape is wrong.
“As you know I tend to make it a policy not to comment on the specifics of cases where there might still be, if not criminal, then civil issues involved,” Obama said. “I’ll say this: If you give a woman—or a man, for that matter—without his or her knowledge, a drug and then have sex with that person without consent, that’s rape. And I think this country, any civilized country, should have no tolerance for rape.”
Civilized countries can apparently tolerate, though, a man accused of dozens of rapes maintaining that civilized country’s highest civilian honor.