Politicians and comedians are trying to assess the line between predatory behavior and an inexcusable mistake as calls mounted for Sen. Al Franken to resign.
After the latest in a dizzying series of sexual-assault revelations enveloped Sen. Al Franken and rattled the Capitol, politicians and comedians were left trying to assess the line between predatory behavior and an inexcusable mistake, as calls mounted for him to resign.
Franken, D-Minn., a veteran of both comedy and politics — two industries under increased scrutiny for fostering cultures where sexual abuse and sexual harassment are pervasive — was targeted by Republicans, including President Donald Trump, who has himself been accused by multiple women of sexual harassment and assault. Republicans are struggling with their own scandal, as Roy S. Moore pursues a Senate seat amid accusations of assaulting teenage girls decades ago.
But that did not diminish their zeal as they called on Franken to step down.
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On Twitter, Trump publicly hinted at a pattern of assault, and the political fallout continued as two Minnesota candidates for governor, both Democrats, called on Franken to resign. The conservative writer and activist L. Brent Bozell III said Franken had been “caught red-handed conducting lewd and unacceptable behavior,” adding, “there is a pervert in the United States Senate.”
By late Friday, Franken had canceled a coming appearance at a book fair in Miami.
But while there was no widespread public showing of support for Franken, a number of his allies, including three former “Saturday Night Live” colleagues and 10 former aides, all women, said they did not believe his behavior fit a pattern or was in the same realm of misconduct as other high-profile men accused of sexual abuse in the entertainment industry, including comedian Louis C.K. and producer Harvey Weinstein.
“I’m just so upset about this atmosphere and good people being dragged into it,” said Jane Curtin, a member of the original cast of “Saturday Night Live” with Franken from 1975 to 1980 who has been close to him since. “It’s just like the red menace. You don’t know who’s going to be next.”
Curtin said that in a comedy setting where women were at times not valued or dismissed because of their gender, Franken was a powerful ally who viewed female writers and comedians as his equals. But she was also among several who said they were disappointed by Franken’s conduct and were struggling with the episode, which happened during his comedy career and before he ran for the Senate.
“I was surprised,” Curtin said. “If he did that, that’s really stupid, but I have never seen him in a situation where he has been sexually aggressive with anybody.”
The woman who accused Franken, Leeann Tweeden, said he forcibly kissed her during a 2006 USO tour of the Middle East. Franken issued two apologies Thursday and also wrote Tweeden a personal letter of remorse, which she read Friday during an appearance on “The View.”
In the letter, Franken told Tweeden that he wanted to “apologize to you personally.” He also said there is no excuse for the photo taken of him posing in a joking manner while apparently placing his hands on her chest while she was asleep.
In another appearance, on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Tweeden, a radio newscaster, said that she had not told her story for political gain, and that his fate was up to the people of Minnesota to decide. She said she wanted women to feel more comfortable to share their experiences.
“Because if he did this to somebody else, or if anybody else has stayed silent, or anybody else has been the victim of any kind of abuse, maybe they can speak out and feel like they can come forward in real time and not wait a decade or longer,” she said. No one else has come forward to accuse Franken.
As Washington wrestled with how to categorize Franken’s behavior, which was accompanied by a photo that showed him appearing to grope Tweeden, who was wearing a bulletproof jacket, as she slept on a military plane, even some ardent defenders of women’s rights said the senator’s offense was not so grievous as to require his resignation.
“This is not a Harvey Weinstein situation,” said Debra Katz, a civil-rights lawyer who handles sexual-harassment cases. “Harvey Weinstein was a serial predator who used his power to put women in very vulnerable situations. He abused that power by sexually assaulting women. That’s not what this is.”
Katz also drew a distinction between Franken’s role as a comedian and that of a senator.
“Context is relevant,” she said. “He did not do this as a member of the U.S. Senate. He did this in his capacity of someone who was still functioning as an entertainer.”
Victoria Jackson, who also worked with Franken on “Saturday Night Live,” said he did not have a history of acting in an inappropriate manner in that workplace, where humor was often bawdy. She remembered him telling her he was troubled she acted like “a ditz” in meetings when he knew she was smart, a comment that unsettled her but one she ultimately did not feel was harassment.
“I have a lot of stories of sexually inappropriate things that have happened to me in my life from people in show business,” Jackson, 58, said in an interview. “As far as Al Franken, he never said or did anything inappropriate to me the six years I was on ‘Saturday Night Live.’”
Several of Franken’s former aides said they believed Tweeden’s accusation, but her account did not match what they experienced on Capitol Hill. They expressed disappointment in his actions but defended his track record as a lawmaker who promoted women in his office and valued their opinions.
Natalie Volin Lehr, a former aide who signed a joint statement in Franken’s defense, said in an interview Friday that Franken was being judged unfairly, and that his track record in office had been one of defending women’s rights.
“He’s had unsavory jokes in the past that he’s regretted,” Volin Lehr said of Franken’s comedy career. She said the photo published Thursday fell into that category, “but it is hard to see how this is comparable to the other incidents that women have brought forward in the recent past.”
Those who know him also said Franken, 66, is a dedicated husband to Franni Bryson, whom he married in 1975 and whose struggle with alcohol abuse has been publicly discussed by the couple. A former “Saturday Night Live” colleague, writer Marilyn Suzanne Miller, cried as she defended Franken, saying, “He wouldn’t do it to Franni.”