ROBERT COSTA: President Trump gives his full-throated support to embattled Senate candidate Roy Moore as congressional Democrats turn on two of their own. I’m Robert Costa. Politics and choices amid sexual misconduct, tonight on Washington Week.
SENATOR AL FRANKEN (D-MN): (From video.) In the coming weeks I will be resigning as a member of the United States Senate.
MR. COSTA: Minnesota Senator Al Franken was one of three lawmakers who resigned this week amid a wave of sexual misconduct allegations. The Senate ethics committee began investigating Franken in November after a radio anchor alleged he groped and forcibly kissed her. None of his accusers called for his resignation, but fellow Democrats did.
SENATOR KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND (D-NY): (From video.) Enough is enough. We, as elected leaders, should absolutely be held to a higher standard, not a lower standard.
MR. COSTA: And Democratic Congressman John Conyers announced he would retire after facing multiple allegations of sexual harassment and pressure from party leaders. Across the aisle, Arizona Congressman Trent Franks announced he is leaving immediately.
Plus, the countdown to Tuesday’s special Senate election in Alabama. Will voters look past accusations against Republican Roy Moore?
We discuss it all with Philip Rucker of The Washington Post, Yamiche Alcindor and Peter Baker of The New York Times, and Andrea Mitchell of NBC News.
ANNOUNCER: Celebrating 50 years, this is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. Three members of Congress were forced out of their jobs this week, brought down in the wave of women speaking out about sexual harassment and worse.
Michigan Representative John Conyers announced his immediate retirement after a number of former employees lodged sexual harassment claims against him. The 88-year-old civil rights icon and Korean War veteran had served more than 50 years in the House.
Bowing to pressure from fellow Democrats, Minnesota Senator Al Franken announced he will resign his seat in the coming weeks. Several women have accused Franken of groping and forcibly trying to kiss them before he came to Washington. In his exit speech, Franken did not apologize, but did take a parting shot at the president and what he says is Republican hypocrisy.
SEN. FRANKEN: (From video.) I, of all people, am aware that there is some irony in the fact that I am leaving while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office and a man who has repeatedly preyed on young girls campaigns for the Senate with the full support of his party.
MR. COSTA: And then Republican Congressman Trent Franks, an outspoken social conservative, resigned today. The move comes after the House ethics committee opened a probe into conversations he had about surrogacy with two female staffers.
It was a week of reckoning in Washington, and especially on Capitol Hill, Yamiche. And what was so striking was the way the Democratic Party responded, purging their own. Why did they respond this week in this way, after being a little bit more hesitant in the prior weeks?
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: This is essentially a tipping point in the Congress. We had had stories kind of drip, drip, dripping about different people, but this week the Democrats essentially said we’re going to take the strategy of purging our party, we’re going to have people – kind of throw them out of our party if we think that they’re – if we think that they are people that are harassers. We’re also not going to wait for the ethics committee to go through, because both John Conyers and Al Franken denied from the – from the beginning to the end that they were guilty of most of the things that these women were saying. But the Democrats say, look, we’re not going to do this. And I think part of it is because when Roy – with Roy Moore coming to the Senate, I think that they’re gearing up for this argument that they’re going to make that Roy Moore doesn’t deserve to have a seat. And in this way, this might be – kind of give them a little bit of leverage to say, well, we purged our party already.
MR. COSTA: It was all – maybe it was all politics. But maybe, Andrea, it was a little broader, because if you look at this Trent Franks situation, talking about surrogacy with two female staffers. He decided to resign immediately today. There’s a culture on Capitol Hill. And this is affecting both parties.
ANDREA MITCHELL: And the extraordinary thing is we’ve seen this for decades. I covered the Hill. I covered Clarence Thomas, those hearings, and knew what was going on with the senators sitting in judgment of Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas. And we all knew which senators to tell our interns don’t go near. No one knew you could report anything. And I have a lot of feelings about this, as some of my colleagues – older colleagues have. Why didn’t we speak out? Well, we didn’t know where to go to either protect colleagues, ourselves, or just to get people reported. There was no way to get anyone reported. And the ethics committee was notoriously slow, ineffective, and secretive.
MR. COSTA: Phil, when you look at the White House, they’ve had a complicated response, because President Trump still faces accusations from last year’s campaign. More than a dozen women. What do you make of what they’re saying inside of the White House as they watch the Democrats this week?
PHILIP RUCKER: Yeah, you know, with the accusations that came out last year during the campaign, Trump categorically denied them, and faced no repercussions. In fact, he was elected president because of it. And the White House line has been: Look, this was litigated at the polls last November in the election. But there are a lot of Americans, including Senator Al Franken right there, who feel like this president needs to be held accountable for his actions. It’s not just the Access Hollywood video where he bragged about sexual assault, but it’s the more than 12 allegations about groping, inappropriate touching, sexual harassment, sexual assault. It’s his comments that he’s made on radio shows over the years about sneaking backstage at the beauty pageants that he owned. I mean, there’s a real pattern of behavior there that he’s not answered for in the same way that some of the figures that have fallen in the media and in other industries have answered for.
MR. COSTA: What do you make of Senator Franken stepping away, Peter? I mean, this was someone who was talked about as a 2020 presidential hopeful, a major voice on the progressive side of the Democratic Party. Now he’s gone.
PETER BAKER: Yeah. I mean, originally, of course, the first allegation against him was some boorish behavior, not exactly what later came out. And he and his people thought he could survive. He had a number of women who had been on his staff come out and speak for him. And the argument was, well, he was a comedian doing a stupid, but he thought funny, thing with the picture and all that. And it turns out that one thing almost always seems to lead to more. And, you know, these folks who come under accusation, you know, find themselves with their houses being thoroughly scrutinized.
In fact, what’s really interesting right now is you have a set of hundreds of candidates getting ready to run next year for the House and the Senate. Right now, all across the country, there are candidates having uncomfortable conversations with their strategists and their consultants, and their wives perhaps, and their spouses and their children. What did you do? What might you have done? What might people have thought you did? Let’s deal with it now, because otherwise it’s going to come out later.
MS. MITCHELL: And I think there are a couple of things going on here. Some of the polling shows that younger women have a different attitude, different definitions, perhaps, different tolerance. That’s what you saw with Kirsten Gillibrand as well. There are more women in the Senate, so there’s – it’s closer to a critical mass. Not nearly equal – you know, it’s not parity, but you have more women to speak out.
But I also think that they are kidding themselves if they think that they can draw this bright line: Well, we’ve purged our house – before the Tuesday election with Roy Moore even – to try to make that point now so that they have a couple of more days to argue against Roy Moore, and then for the midterms. Because no one knows who is next here, not in this environment, not in all of our industries, not in every profession. And one hopes at the level of service workers and women, you know, waitstaff and other women who don’t have the protections that many of us have.
MR. COSTA: It’s part of a national conversation. Yamiche, you were also on Capitol Hill this week covering Republicans. And I love this anecdote I read about you following Blake Farenthold, the Texas congressman who settled a harassment claim for using $84,000 in taxpayer money. And the ethics committee is still investigating him. Blake Farenthold, under scrutiny. Republican House member. He’s not really being pressured to resign or step away from many Republicans on Capitol Hill, as the Democrats are clamoring for many people accused on their side to step away. What’s the break? What’s the difference among Republicans?
MS. ALCINDOR: Well, as I chased, essentially, him down the hallway, because that’s how we do our jobs, of course, on the Hill. And when I finally caught up to him I said: Do you feel any pressure to resign? And he said, I’ve done nothing wrong. I don’t feel like I’m – I essentially feel like I am confident in my position. And I think his leadership so far has been pretty much radio silent on whether or not he should stay. There is some talk that Paul Ryan is starting to clean up shop and looking at everybody.
I think Trent Franks is one of those people. He essentially resigned almost before the stories even came out. And you – as a reporter, when you read the statement – when I read the statements from his office saying why he was resigning, there was this talk of surrogacy, there was this talk – but you really didn’t understand what was going on. And then the next day, after he’s already said I’m going to give up my seat, that’s when you see this drip, drip, drip of stuff about the $5 million and possibly wanting to naturally impregnate a woman. So there’s this idea that Paul Ryan probably knew about that information and said: You have to go.
But I think that point that you made about – that Andrea made about younger women. I was sitting in the Hill, waiting for this press conference on sexual harassment to start, when Kristen Gillibrand tweeted that Al Franken had to resign. And it was like 10 minutes. And it seemed as though almost every single female Democratic senator said: I’m not waiting for Chuck Schumer. I’m going to tweet this out. And now you’re going to have to deal with this. And en masse you had almost male senators, even though they’re outnumbered, you had them basically following the women’s lead. And that was remarkable to me.
MR. BAKER: And that’s what – and that’s – sorry – but that’s what matters, in fact, is the presence of women in positions of leadership. My wife points out to me that only 6.4 percent of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies today are women – 6.4 percent. Here we are in the 21st century, deep into it at this point, and it’s still really a male culture. And the top of the corporate boardroom, the top of the corporate hierarchy is still – in a lot of our organizations, and certainly in politics.
MR. COSTA: Phil, what does it mean, though, for the White House if sexual harassment and this culture of really having a national discussion about it dominates the midterms next year?
MR. RUCKER: It’s very tricky, not only for the White House but for the Republican Party, especially if Roy Moore wins this Senate election in Alabama. President Trump has endorsed – outright endorsed – Roy Moore. He has told his aides privately that he thinks Roy Moore’s statement that these accusations are not true matters, that he takes Roy Moore at his word that these may not be true, and is getting behind this campaign. If he’s around in the Senate every single day and making comments and showing behavior that Republicans, including those in the White House, are going to have to answer for, it just really complicates the political calculus.
MS. MITCHELL: One thing I do think is becoming apparent is that we’re in the middle of a cultural revolution, and we don’t know what the rules are. And Ruth Marcus has a very thought-provoking –
MR. COSTA: The Washington Post columnist.
MS. MITCHELL: – provocative column in The Washington Post, suggesting that there is a lack of proportionality with Al Franken and some of the others, especially considering Roy Moore and the possibility that he is going to get elected.
MR. BAKER: That’s part of the conversation, right? Is are we able to make distinctions between misdemeanors and felonies? I mean, where does the line be crossed to the point where you have to be fired or you have to lose your seat, you have to pay the ultimate price. And is there any intermediary accountability for people who might not have done the things that the worst have done, but have done things that they shouldn’t have done?
MR. COSTA: That’s why I’ve been paying attention to Senator Gillibrand of New York. She said this week: Enough is enough. At a news conference. We need to draw a line in the sand and say none of it is OK. None of it is acceptable. And she’s having this national moment now as a politician.
MS. ALCINDOR: She’s having this national moment. But what I – as I hear that, I hear also Al Franken saying that if I had been – if I had been able to come before the ethics committee, I feel like I would have been cleared. You are the person that I think I am. And I know what’s truth. And there’s this idea that his speech was not a speech of a man who was resigning, an apologetic and sympathetic and kind of going away. He was going away as a fighter. He was saying: I want justice. You guys didn’t give it to me. So now I have to step down. But I don’t think this is fair.
MR. COSTA: Let’s turn to Alabama, because we keep talking about Roy Moore. And President Trump is in Pensacola, Florida this Friday night for a campaign-style rally. And it’s just 25 miles from the Alabama state line. Moore’s campaign this week also got a boost when former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon rallied Alabama Republicans earlier this week. While Bannon went on the attack, as he usually does, against establishment Republicans, Moore cast himself as a political outsider, reminding voters of his conservative values.
Democratic candidate Doug Jones, however, is portraying the race in these closing days as a referendum on decency, and tried to make the case that next week’s election also has economic implications.
ALABAMA SENATE CANDIDATE DOUG JONES (D): (From video.) Does the idea of Senator Roy Moore make it more or less likely that Toyota, or anyone else, will see Alabama’s image in such a negative way that they would cross Alabama off their list and move on to another state?
MR. COSTA: Phil, I was in that room in Birmingham a few days ago. And listening to Doug Jones, he didn’t talk about his Democratic values. He was talking about Alabama values. And that speech was a pitch to suburban business-minded Republicans. And can he close that gap? Can he win them over?
MR. RUCKER: He’s trying to. He’s trying to make it clear that he’s an independent type of – would be an independent type of senator from Alabama with their interests in mind. The problem is he’s got President Trump with his big megaphone almost every day now saying he’s a puppet for Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, distorting his record on crime and other issues to make him seem like a typical sort of liberal Democrat, and he’s got to deal with that association with his party.
MS. MITCHELL: And I think the big issue – the big drawback for him with Alabama voters is his view on abortion. Being pro-choice is a really hard, hard path for them to follow. They are going to try to energize the vote, do something about turnout. There’s some facts, some data down there indicating that absentee ballots are up, that there could be a higher turnout. John Lewis and other civil rights leaders are going to be down there trying to energize the black vote. So it remains to be seen. It will all depend on turnout and organization. But you’re absolutely right, Phil, the president is trumping everything, no pun intended – (laughter) – with his message that this man is somehow soft on crime, which is ludicrous considering that he prosecuted the Klan.
MS. ALCINDOR: As I think about Roy Moore, I go back to the women that I interviewed after that Access Hollywood tape came out and after the women came out against Trump, and the women – and essentially those women were telling me two things. One, yes, I understand that Trump is brash and that he talks in a way that is inappropriate, but my husband and other people – men in my life, they talk that way. And also, there are women who essentially said I’ve dealt with things, I’ve had to deal with issues that were hard for me to overcome, and I’ve been able to overcome them. So there’s this idea that when Roy Moore’s making this pitch saying, you know, I asked their parents for their permission and, you know, this is all about – this is almost a fight between good and evil, I wonder if he’s also going to the culture of Alabama and saying if you’re an Alabama person and you’re someone, you have to understand that this is the culture – I’m part of the culture, I’m a child, almost, of Alabama. And that makes maybe some people uncomfortable, but for some people that feels familiar.
MR. COSTA: Yes, the culture of Alabama, because I noticed when I was at this restaurant, Fife’s, in Birmingham yesterday – working-class neighborhood, white voters, black voters – they were talking about, Peter, how this is about a bigger question. It’s not just Republican versus Democrat, blue versus red; it’s about Alabama’s past, as Yamiche was saying so well, and Alabama’s culture versus what Alabama’s future, and its national reputation could be on the line.
MR. BAKER: Well, that’s why you heard Doug Jones make that argument, basically an economic argument. But I think it’s also about the idea that Alabama is under assault by outside elites, right? That’s the appeal that Roy Moore is making: Don’t let these outsiders like The Washington Post – excuse me for saying – and the liberal – the liberal Democrats, and the establishment Republicans like Mitch McConnell, tell us who we should have as our senator, and it’s an effective argument. You saw some holes that they’re trying to poke in the stories of some of the women today, whether the yearbook had been – you know, some extra writing had been done on the yearbook or not. And it’s just – it’s just trying to give voters a reason to say it’s OK to support Roy Moore, he’s one of us, don’t let the outsiders tell you what to do.
MR. COSTA: Phil, President Trump going to Pensacola, but not going to Alabama?
MR. RUCKER: Classic. (Laughter.) It’s just a classic Trumpian move. You know, he had said – the White House had said early on that he would not be campaigning in Alabama, so he’s going to go right up to the state line. He bills it as a make America great again rally to thank the voters of the Panhandle of Florida who supported him, but it’s the Friday night before the election right next to Alabama.
MR. BAKER: The White House spokesman said on the plane on the way down, he says, it’s not that we’re not going to Alabama, it’s that we’re going to Pensacola. (Laughter.)
MR. COSTA: But, Andrea, if he gets elected – if Roy Moore gets elected to the U.S. Senate, there was talk a few weeks ago by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that maybe he’d face expulsion. He’s certainly going to have an ethics committee investigation. But they’ve walked that back in the Republican Party.
MS. MITCHELL: Mitch McConnell has just done a complete flip on this, and they want that vote. And it’s just fascinating to watch, with the tax bill, you know, at stake, they want that vote. They want that seat. I mean, it’s obviously going to be a Republican seat no matter what – you know, what happens in this election when they get down to the midterms and people have to run again in the next couple of years. It’s going to end up being a Republican seat. But –
MR. COSTA: You wonder, though. You wonder. In Virginia – the Democrats did a little better in Virginia in this November 2017 election. Could there ever be a little bit of a turn in the Deep South?
MS. MITCHELL: Sure. I mean, people are saying down there that it’s very close, that they can imagine a scenario where Doug Jones can win. But for them, this seat is more important to them than anything else right now. I think what they may discover is that winning this election is actually going to cost them seats in the midterms because they will have Roy Moore seated in the Senate and they will have him hanging around their neck as an albatross.
MS. ALCINDOR: I also feel like Roy Moore is almost an example of how Mitch McConnell has lost control of the – of the Republican Party. Mitch McConnell is also – you talk to people that are close to him and they tell me that this is not what the wants to be talking about. He did not want Roy Moore in the Senate. He had said that he should have stepped down, he should step aside. No one – like, almost no one cared that he said that, Roy Moore included. So there’s this idea that Mitch McConnell’s in this place where now that he has Roy Moore, he’s essentially acquiescing to the will of the people. And he’s completely – I feel like this is an example of President Trump really being the leader of the Republican Party, and Mitch McConnell having to follow the president almost at all costs.
MS. MITCHELL: And the other thing about Roy Moore is people are overlooking the other parts of his record. In fact, according to the L.A. Times now, he was in September justifying slavery, as saying that that was America’s, you know, first values. And also this weekend, we have the racial issue with John Lewis saying that he will not attend the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. And Sarah Sanders lecturing John Lewis about not understanding the meaning of the sacrifices of the civil rights leaders who were being honored by that museum, which was sort of extraordinary.
MR. COSTA: And Roy Moore, Peter, has said he doesn’t want to see Muslims serving in the U.S. Congress. He has said comments that are against gay rights and gay people.
MR. BAKER: Well, and he’s twice been thrown off the Alabama Supreme Court because he wouldn’t follow the law. And he was a controversial candidate long before these women came forward. And Mitch McConnell didn’t want him on there because he was a bomb-thrower, because he was a loose cannon, and he didn’t – you know, and he lost that primary. You know, they tried to push in Luther Strange, who was appointed by the governor there. And he didn’t – and Luther Strange didn’t win.
There’s an interesting question, by the way, that is raised about what Mitch McConnell could do if Roy Moore is elected, which is: Does the Senate really have the power to unseat an elected representative of the state of Alabama for actions that took place prior to his service in the Senate? And there’s a really interesting debate about that. And so I think it’s – you know, there’s a lot of questions here to be looked at.
MS. ALCINDOR: It’s also is it democratic. If Alabama, they’ve had weeks to consider this, much like people had weeks to consider President Trump’s allegations. If you see all these things and you say, we still want Roy Moore over Doug Jones, how do you tell the people of Alabama, well, we know what’s best for you, and not ensure that you are saying that we are the elitist Republican Party who knows best – who knows more than our actual base knows? I mean, I think it’s really tough.
But I think, going back to Roy Moore’s comments on slavery, because I just – to me, it’s just remarkable that he actually voiced that. I think for a lot of African-Americans who heard make America great, they felt as though the president and a lot of his supporters were saying: Go back to this time when African-Americans were in chains, or when African-Americans were having to go to segregated schools. So it seems remarkable that he actually voiced those opinions and that people are going to the polls to vote for him.
MR. COSTA: So, Phil, inside the White House, Roy Moore may win, but it could be by a narrow margin. And they’re looking at Virginia. They’re looking now in Alabama, the Trump base, and they’re seeing some of these Republican voters, the more moderate Republican voters, saying no thanks to either President Trump or a Trump-aligned candidate. Does that worry them at all?
MR. RUCKER: It does worry them. And going into the midterms, you’ve got a number of competitive races where, you know, there are going to be real divides between the Trump base and what his core supporters want, and the more mainstream suburban voters that are going to decide a lot of these key House districts. The House is very much up for grabs in 2018. And so many of those races are going to be determined in the suburbs, where there may be a lot of Republican voters, but they’re not Trump Republican voters.
MS. MITCHELL: And one other thing about the Al Franken story is that I think the Democrats may discover that that seat is very much in play in 2018, because there’s going to be this caretaker appointment of the lieutenant governor. And this seat, especially if there’s a strong Republican candidate, there’s talk of Tim Pawlenty, the former governor running, very popular, very well-financed, lobbyist for the banking industry. That could be a loss.
MR. COSTA: And President Trump – President Trump did much better as a candidate in Minnesota than anyone expected. You could have a crowded Democratic primary. So what a – what a political environment we’re in, where – you have Mississippi Senate race is going to be complicated. Alabama, it’s a tight race, Minnesota could be in play. This is wild times. Wild times with big issues, important issues.
We’re going to have to leave it there for this conversation. Thanks, everybody, for joining us. And don’t go anywhere, if you’re watching, because our conversation will continue on a special half-hour Washington Week. It airs next on most PBS stations, and we’ll talk about late-breaking developments in the Russia probe, and the international fallout over President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. And if you miss it, you can find it online later tonight and all weekend long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for watching.