In 2017, Leann Tweedon accused Minnesota Sen. Al Franken of forcing a kiss on her a decade before. Seven additional women soon came forward with allegations of unwanted contact. Many Democratic senators demanded his resignation, and he complied. Now, a new article revisits Franken's resignation, which he says he regrets. AEI's Norm Ornstein, a long-time Franken friend, joins Amna Nawaz to discuss.
In November 2017, during the height of the MeToo movement, a conservative talk-radio host named Leeann Tweeden accused Minnesota Senator Al Franken of forcing an unwanted kiss on her a decade earlier.
In the days that followed, seven additional women came forward with allegations of inappropriate behavior. Three dozen Democratic senators demanded Franken's resignation from the Senate. And, by January, he was gone.
A new piece by "The New Yorker"'s Jane Mayer asks the question: Did the punishment fit the crime?
To dig deeper, I'm joined by longtime Congress watcher Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. He is also a close friend of Senator Franken's.
Norm, welcome back to the "NewsHour."
Great to be back.
So, in that "New Yorker" piece, Senator Franken gives an interview.
And he says, when he first heard about the allegation and saw an accompanying photo that Ms. Tweeden had shared, it was her sleeping on a USO flight. Senator Franken is reaching out to her and what can only be described as sort of a lewd gesture…
… pretending to grope her.
When that photo came out and the piece came out, he said: Oh, my God, my life — my life.
He knew it would have a big impact. When you first heard about it, did you feel the same way?
I knew it would have an impact, but none of us, his close friends, including those who'd work with him on "Saturday Night Live" going back decades, the people who worked on his staff, who had been in his campaign, thought it would have the kind of rolling and dramatic implications that it did, because there was nothing in his past behavior from people close to him, including women who had been his press secretary, his chief of staff, his campaign manager, the women he'd worked with at "SNL," had any sense at all that there was a problem or a potential problem there.
Even as additional women came forward? Did you start to wonder, maybe I don't know what's really going on here?
Well, there was some puzzlement about it.
And most of the additional allegations that emerged were basically from photo-ops that he'd taken at the Minnesota State Fair with tens of thousands of people around or in very public settings of grabbing a buttock or a waist even during a photo-op.
And the questions of whether this was a misinterpretation, crossed signals, a kind of "Rashomon" kind of thing all emerged. But, obviously, as each additional one emerged, you wondered what the political dynamic would be in the Senate.
But through all of this, people who knew him well and those who knew his family well, there was never any sense that Al was in the same category as people with whom he was being lumped together, like Harvey Weinstein or Charlie Rose.
Well, the calls for him to resign from his senator colleagues, they came pretty quickly.
And I wonder, did you talk to him at the time? Did you offer him any counsel as to what he should do?
And from the beginning, when the Tweeden accusations emerged — and it's, as the Jane Mayer article points out, a much more complex setting, where a lot of what she said was simply not true — what Al did was, first, he didn't want to blame the victim, which makes you look like a jerk. And, obviously, there's a long history of that.
But he also called for this Senate ethics investigation, believing that people other than himself who could look at this and look at the nature of these allegations, what the real truth was, would have it emerge eventually.
And that it suddenly turned with a kind of perfect storm to these calls for his resignation, starting with Senator Gillibrand and including a bunch of others, was stunning to him and to all of us.
So you mentioned Senator Gillibrand. She was, in fact, the first senator to call for his resignation.
Take a listen to what she had to say back at that time.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.:
I do not feel that he should continue to serve. Everyone will make their own judgment. I hope they do make their own judgment.
She was asked about why she made that decision in a recent interview. This was Judy Woodruff back in May of this year. Take a listen to what she had to say then.
I have a responsibility. I stood with eight women who feel they were groped and forcibly kissed by Senator Franken inappropriately, and spoke out. I stood with them. And, again, if our party is going to punish women who stand up for other women, then we are absolutely going in the wrong direction.
Norm, from the Democratic standpoint, do you understand why Senator Gillibrand and why so many others called for Senator Franken to resign?
The way in which it happened, and the move to force him out, without allowing any due process, and basically saying, doesn't matter what the nature of the offenses is, you're out of here, with all the public humiliation that came with it, was still pretty stunning.
And one of the key points in this article is, seven senators, including women and men, who said you should resign now saying, oh, my God, we made terrible mistakes, we should have let due process go forward.
And I have been around the Senate for 50 years. I have never found a situation where seven senators admit to a major mistake. It's hard to find one.
Have you spoken to any others who also regret calling for his resignation?
There are other senators who don't want to come forward now because you get in the crosshairs on an issue like this. And that's a part of what happened.
But, yes, there are plenty who got caught up in the moment. And, remember, one of the things that happens in cases like this is, media go on a death watch. And so there were 50 cameras and other reporters surrounding his daughter's house when he was there.
Every Democratic senator had microphones thrust in their faces: What are you going to do? What are you going to do?
And people caved, and now, I think, believe that they made a mistake. It was a perfect storm in a lot of ways. And I have to say some of it came from Senator Schumer, the leader, who basically told Franken, if you don't announce you're resigning by 5:00 p.m., the same day that all of this emerged, then I will get the caucus to vote calling for your resignation, and we may strip you of your committees, and you will become a pariah.
So the pressure was intense. And there wasn't any sense of, let's step back from this.
What do you think would be different today if Senator Franken had not resigned?
I think Al, who was an enormous force in the Senate, would be an enormous force in the Senate.
He would have been a force in a lot of the hearings that have taken place. He would have been strong when it came to the Mueller report and Trump's reaction to it. He would have been an incredible questioner. He's missed in the Senate, as a lot of people see it.
But it's also a human tragedy that something like this that might have resulted with an ethics investigation and, what Jane Mayer's article shows, probably a letter of admonishment, that it ended up destroying a career and causing an enormous level of heartache is really unfortunate.
Amna Nawaz Is his political career over? Why give this interview now? Do you think he would ever run for office again?
I think more significant is getting his voice back.
When he announced that he would resign, under this intense pressure, he said: I'm not going to give up my voice in public issues.
He started a podcast. He's doing a little writing. There are a lot of issues he cares about.
I think the importance of this article and the interview is, now we can have Al Franken back as a public voice. And his is an important and powerful voice.
And with all the tragedy, at least that's a very positive thing.
Norman Ornstein, thanks very much for being here.
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