President Barack Obama weighed in on the allegations swirling around legendary comedian Bill Cosby for the first time on Wednesday, saying there’s “no precedent” for revoking his Presidential Medal of Freedom. However, the president said “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,” Obama continued.
Since last fall, allegations that the 78-year-old comedian drugged and/or sexually assaulted several dozen women over many decades resurfaced and have seriously tarnished Cosby’s reputation. Although he has never been charged with a crime and has denied allegations in the past, recently unsealed 2005 deposition testimony confirmed that Cosby admitted to buying Quaaludes in the 1970s to seduce younger women for sexual purposes.
The president was asked to comment on an ongoing effort to have Cosby’s Medal of Freedom rescinded during a White House press conference largely focused on the historic nuclear agreement brokered with Iran. The award, which is the highest civilian honor in the U.S., was presented to Cosby by former President George W. Bush in 2002.
“There’s no precedent for revoking a medal, we don’t have that mechanism,” Obama said. The president also reiterated his stance that he usually avoids commenting on the specifics of cases where civil or criminal considerations are still pending.
The president’s remarks follow a previous statement on the matter from White House press secretary Josh Earnest. In addition to saying he wasn’t sure the White House has the legal authority to revoke Cosby’s medal, he said, “I can tell you as a general matter, this administration has been focused in countering sexual assault and doing so in a variety of settings.”
A petition calling on the White House to act, drafted by Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment (PAVE), a sexual assault prevention and awareness group, currently has just over 10,000 signatures. It will have top 100,000 to get an official White House response. PAVE’s effort has drawn prominent boosters in Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Sen. Claire McKaskill (D-MO).
“Kirsten has always advocated for listening to survivors’ voices. This 10-year-old admission is appalling, but sadly not surprising considering that dozens of women have been speaking out,” a Gillibrand spokesperson told NBC News in a statement last week. “She supports this group’s effort because 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.”
Meanwhile, some prominent former allies of Cosby have recently come out to proclaim his guilt since his 2005 testimony was revealed. Actress Whoopi Goldberg, singer Jill Scott and Cosby’s former co-star Joseph C. Phillips have all publicly condemned him. And former supermodel Beverly Johnson, who in a December 2014 op-ed for Vanity Fair alleged Cosby drugged her in the 1980s, retweeted the president’s remarks on the scandal.