Former Democratic Sen. Al Franken was on a trajectory that could have led the Saturday Night Live alum to the White House, before he stepped down in 2017 over sexual misconduct allegations, including that he forced kisses on conservative talk-show host Leeann Tweeden and several other women. But in an examination of the explosive allegations published Monday in The New Yorker, it is clear that not all of the accusations may stand up to scrutiny (half the women who came forward have never been named), and that those who asked him to step down did so amid a herd mentality just as the #MeToo movement was heating up.
As Jane Mayer reports, now those who pushed him out are having second thoughts about their rush to judgment and Franken isn’t sure what to do next.
Franken Regrets Resigning
Far from wanting to play the victim in the #MeToo context, Franken clearly regrets stepping down so quickly. He said he is constantly recognized on the street, most often by people who tell him “You shouldn’t have resigned,” to which he tells them, “Yup.” When asked by The New Yorker if he regretted his decision to step down, he is unequivocal. “Oh, yeah. Absolutely.”
There’s Never Been an Ethics Committee Investigation Into the Franken Allegations
Despite his immediate request to have his case heard in front of the Senate Ethics Committee, he was never called to testify. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) told The New Yorker the panel “should have been allowed to move forward” so that a hearing would have given the women a chance to testify. “We needed more facts,” she said. “That due process didn’t happen is not good for our democracy.” Several other senators agree. “This was a rush to judgment that didn’t allow any of us to fully explore what this was about,” Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon told Mayer. “I took the judgment of my peers rather than independently examining the circumstances. In my heart, I’ve not felt right about it.”
Franken had hoped to bring in the photographer and others on a plane on which a picture was taken of the then-USO performer mockingly putting his hands in the air in front of co-star Leann Tweeden’s breasts while she was asleep in 2006. “The photograph captures him on a military plane, mugging for the camera as he performs a lecherous pantomime,” Mayer writes. “He’s leering at the lens with his hands outstretched towards the breasts of his USO co-star, Tweeden, who is wearing a military helmet, fatigues and a bulletproof vest.” In the shot, Tweeden appears to be asleep, thus unable to consent to the joke.
The photographer who took the shot told The New Yorker that everyone was goofing around on the plane when the alleged offense took place. “I felt the truth would be out,” he said. But the committee never took up his case.
Seven Current and Former Senators Admit They Regret Pushing Franken Out
Among those who The New Yorker asked, Patrick Leahy, the 45-year Senate veteran from Vermont, said his decision to push for Franken’s exit was “one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made.” That sentiment was echoed by Heidi Heitkamp from North Dakota, who said, “If there’s one decision I’ve made that I would dare take back, it’s the decision to call for his resignation. It was made in the heat of the moment, without concern for exactly what this was.”
Leeann Tweeden Stands by Her Accusation
Tweeden, who the publication said declined to be interviewed for The New Yorker piece, told friends she had not seen the photo of Franken pretending to touch her until after she returned home from the USO tour, though she says that Franken’s relentless harassment during the trip had already made her feel violated. When she saw the photo, she felt worse. “I felt violated all over again,” she said, which is what led her to speak out. “I want the days of silence to be over.”
Witnesses Cast Doubt on Tweeden’s Claims Franken Wrote a Kissing Scene Just for Her
One of the women who played the USO show before Tweeden said Franken had the scene in the skit before Tweeden came on board. Traylor Portman, who acted under her maiden name, Traylor Howard, was Franken’s wingman in 2005 before Tweeden took the role. “It’s not accurate for her to say it was written for her,” Portman told Mayer. She also kissed Franken during practice scenes, but on stage the scene wasn’t what it seemed. It involved “what looked like kissing but wasn’t,” she said, adding, “It’s just for comic relief. I guess you could turn your head, but whatever—it’s nothing. I was in sitcoms. You just play it for laughs.”
Franken said he wrote the skit to be reminiscent of the bawdy acts Bob Hope once performed with Raquel Welch, not as an opportunity to grope his co-stars. Franken says the skit, in which a nerdy officer writes a play for a younger female officer as a ruse to kiss her, which she fights off, was just a joke, not harassment.
Franken Was Boring Behind the Scenes on SNL
Most of the cast members Mayer interviewed said they remember Franken as being a stick in the mud, with one even calling him the “self-appointed hallway monitor” on set. James Downey, a show writer, said he was the last person he would imagine accused of such offenses. “He’s lots of things, some delightful, some annoying,” he told Mayer. “But I’ve known him for forty-seven years and he’s the very last person who would be a sexual harasser.”
The Radio Outlet That Published Tweeden’s Allegation Never Fact-Checked It
Los Angeles’ KABC-AM put the story up on its website, but according to The New Yorker, no one there had approached Franken or his office for comment before it was published. “The station gave Franken less advance warning than it gave the Drudge Report, which it tipped off the previous day,” the article states. “Three top staffers there had been meeting secretly for weeks, after hours, with Tweeden to prepare her statement, but it hadn’t been vetted with even the most cursory fact-checking.”
Mayer reports Tweeden’s co-host Doug McIntyre told her he “bluntly” lobbied to give the senator more time to respond but was overruled by the station’s operations director and news director, who “feared that the story would leak.” McIntyre and the news director confirmed to Mayer that “nobody fact-checked Tweeden’s account.”
Franken Had a Bad History With Fox Hosts
In 2003, Fox sued Franken over his bestselling Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, which laid the groundwork for the amplification on the network of Tweeden’s accusations. Fox eventually dropped the suit against Franken, but not before Bill O’Reilly warned Franken that anyone who crosses Fox will eventually get their due. “Bam! The person gets what’s coming to them but never sees it coming,” O’Reilly said at the time. “Look at Al Franken, one day he’s going to get a knock on this door and life as he’s known it will change forever. That day will happen, trust me.” Franken said the first thing he thought when he found out about Tweeden’s claims was that O’Reilly was right.
Some of the Most Ardent #MeToo Defenders Question the Case Against Franken
A lawyer for Christine Blasey Ford is among those who believe Franken’s case was handled wrong from the start. “The allegations leveled against Senator Franken did not warrant his forced expulsion from the Senate, particularly given the context in which most of the behavior occurred, which was in his capacity as a comedian,” Debra Katz, Ford’s attorney told Mayer. “All offensive behavior should be addressed, but not all offensive behavior warrants the most severe sanction.”