Senate Democrats were left scrambling on Thursday after it was revealed that one of their own, Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), was accused of groping radio host Leeann Tweeden in 2006.
Democratic lawmakers struggled initially with how to handle the fallout. Many refused to take a hard line on Franken’s fate, while some avoided the issue entirely. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) was silent as The Daily Beast asked her five separate times about the matter. Sen. Angus King (I-ME), who caucuses with the Democrats, told reporters that he didn’t “really want to comment on it. I’m not going to comment. I think I said that several times.”
Others, meanwhile, offered procedural explanations for their no-comments. Sens. Chris Coons (D-DE), the vice chairman of the six-member Senate Select Committee on Ethics, and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), a member of the committee, both said they were unable to comment on something that “may come before the ethics committee.” Senate Democrats abruptly canceled a 12:30 p.m. press conference, where questions about Franken surely would have come up.
But as the day progressed, lawmakers and party leaders offered more forceful condemnations of their colleague, with some supporting the opening of an ethics investigation into the matter.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) was among the first Democratic lawmakers to call for an ethics probe, saying the matter was “deeply disturbing.” She was soon joined by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL).
The hardening of the party’s position on the Franken matter was also evident in Franken’s own statements. The senator initially seemed to downplay the controversy, saying that the photo “was clearly intended to be funny but wasn't. I shouldn't have done it.” But just hours later, he had taken another, more conciliatory attempt at clearing it up.
“Over the last few months, all of us—including and especially men who respect women—have been forced to take a good, hard look at our own actions and think (perhaps, shamefully, for the first time) about how those actions have affected women,” Franken wrote.
Later Thursday, some Democratic senators—including Gillebrand, Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO)—said they would donate the campaign money contributed by Franken’s super PAC to various charities.
Tweeden said later Thursday afternoon that “there's no reason why I shouldn't accept” Franken's apology, and that she was not calling for the senator to step down.
The controversy comes at a particularly dynamic political moment, with respect to both the Senate’s composition and the broader societal debate over issues of sexual harassment. Over the past week, numerous women have accused GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore of preying on them sexually when they were teenagers. The charges, which are more serious than what Franken admitted to, have upended that race and placed national Republicans in an incredible bind.
The national party apparatuses have ended their fundraising arrangements with Moore, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has encouraged him to leave the race. McConnell on Thursday, was the first to call for an ethics investigation into Franken. And both the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee have called on Democrats to return any money raised directly from, or with the assistance of, Franken.
Democrats have given no indication either way whether they will do that. But those who did speak up offered almost universal, unequivocal condemnation of the senator.
Speaking on behalf of himself alone on Twitter, Guy Cecil, chairman of Priorities USA, wrote: “Al Franken must be held accountable if our party wants to live up to our commitment to women & girls.”
Women’s March, an organization spun out of the historic nationwide marches the day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, made clear that “Sexual harassment and assault is not a partisan issue. It is not about politics. @SenFranken should be held accountable for his actions. We have a duty to believe and support survivors, always.”
The group did not immediately respond to a request for further comment from The Daily Beast. Emily’s List, an organization devoted to getting pro-choice Democratic women elected to office, similarly did not immediately respond.
Meanwhile, UltraViolet, a women's advocacy group, said that Franken should resign.
“We believe women. We believe Leeann Tweeden,” Nita Chaudhary, co-founder of the group said in a statement to The Daily Beast.
“Sexual harassment and sexual assault have no place in any workplace or anywhere in our society and certainly not in the US Senate. Senator Franken’s actions are deeply disturbing and completely unacceptable. Period.
“All men who commit these acts must be held accountable – regardless of whether they are Democrats or Republicans – no one who does this deserves to be in the Senate, House or White House. Al Franken should resign.”