Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign has admitted the former vice president was not arrested for trying to visit Nelson Mandela at a South African prison during apartheid after the Democratic candidate used the claim at least three times during appearances in recent weeks.
In campaign visits to Nevada and South Carolina, Mr Biden claimed he was arrested with the US ambassador to the United Nations in Soweto, despite there being no publicly available evidence of the incident.
“This day, 30 years ago, Nelson Mandela walked out of prison and entered into discussions about apartheid,” the Democratic candidate said at a campaign event in South Carolina.
“I had the great honour of meeting him. I had the great honour of being arrested with our UN ambassador on the streets of Soweto trying to get to see him on Robben Island.”
However, attempts by news organisations, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, have failed to find any evidence to support the story, which was not mentioned in Mr Biden’s 2007 memoir when he wrote about a 1970s trip to South Africa.
It is also unclear why Mr Biden would have been arrested in Soweto for trying to visit Mandela, as the city is hundreds of miles away from the island where the anti-apartheid activist was imprisoned.
Now, his presidential campaign has walked back the claim and admitted he was only “separated” from a congressional delegation at a South African airport.
“He took a trip with a [congressional delegation] in the 70s. He was separated from the [Congressional Black Caucus] members he was traveling with at the airport, when he landed,” Kate Bedingfield, Mr Biden’s communications director, told reporters on Wednesday.
“When making that remark, he was talking about his long record fighting apartheid; he was one of the leading voices in the United States Senate in the 80s.”
However, Ms Bedingfield could not justify Mr Biden’s use of the word “arrest” or a coda he added to the story, in which Mandela personally thanked him over the incident.
“I said, ‘What are you thanking me for, Mr President?’ He said, ‘You tried to see me. You got arrested trying to see me.’”
Ms Bedingfield could only say Mandela thanked the former vice president for his “anti-apartheid work” more broadly, not any specific incident.
As for the supposed arrest, Mr Biden’s communications director was clear that the incident should be referred to as a separation.
“It was a separation. He was not allowed to go through the same door as the rest of the party he was with,” she told reporters.
“Obviously, this was apartheid South Africa. There was a white door. There was a black door. He did not want to go through the white door and have the rest of the party go to the black door.”
Ms Bedingfield added that this separation occurred during a trip while the group were in Johannesburg.
“Those are the facts. That’s what I know about it,” she said.
“I’ve now told you everything I know about that trip, which happened in the mid-70s.”
When Andrew Young, the US ambassador to the UN from 1977 to 1979, was asked about the story, he said he did not recall being arrested with Mr Biden during their time in South Africa.
“No, I was never arrested and I don’t think he was either,” Mr Young told The New York Times.
“I don’t think there was ever a situation where congressmen were arrested in South Africa.”
Mr Biden is battling to save his 2020 presidential campaign after trailing behind frontrunner Bernie Sanders in the opening three states of the Democratic primary.
The former vice president is currently leading in polls for South Carolina, according to analysis by RealClearPolitics, where voters will select their pick for the Democratic nomination on 29 February.