WASHINGTON • United States President Barack Obama weighed in on Wednesday on the Bill Cosby sex assault scandal, saying that drugging and having sex with someone without consent - a scenario that parallels allegations made against the comedian - amounts to rape.
He made the remarks at a White House press conference when asked whether he would revoke the Presidential Medal of Freedom bestowed in 2002 on the comedian, who has been accused of sexual misconduct by dozens of women and spanning four decades.
"There's no precedent for revoking a medal. We don't have that mechanism," he said, stressing that it was his policy not to comment "on the specifics of cases where there might still be, if not criminal, then civil issues involved."
"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," he said. "I think this country, any civilised country, should have no tolerance for rape."
More than 11,000 people have signed a petition asking for Cosby's Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honour in the US, to be revoked.
The 77-year-old Cosby was a cultural megastar - brilliant comedian, groundbreaking actor and star of The Cosby Show, a hit 1980s family sitcom. But since about 20 women have come forward accusing him of sexual assault or rape, he has turned into somewhat of a pariah.
Mr Obama's withering - if indirect - criticism came awkwardly near the end of a press conference about the Iran nuclear deal.
The father of two teenage girls, he prefaced his remarks on Cosby by saying he would abide by his long-standing policy of not commenting on unresolved legal matters. He chose to comment on the allegations because "he has zero tolerance for rape", Ms Valerie Jarrett, a senior White House adviser, said in an e-mail to Bloomberg.
Hovering in the air during his remarks was the recognition made by some observers that The Cosby Show, about an upwardly mobile black family in which Cosby played the trusted patriarch, helped change American attitudes about race and pave the way for the Obama candidacy in 2008.
In the most recent Cosby revelation, which came via court documents that were unsealed earlier this month following a request by the Associated Press, Cosby admitted to having obtained prescriptions for Quaaludes, a sedative, in the 1970s. He testified under oath that he had given the sedative to at least one woman.
His lawyers had long sought to block publication of the court transcripts, arguing that his right to privacy meant the records should be kept sealed. But US District Court Judge Eduardo Robreno rejected that argument.
AGENCE FRANCE- PRESSE, BLOOMBERG