On Thursday, Sen. Al Franken was accused of sexual assault: Leeann Tweeden, a radio host and former model, revealed in an article that Franken groped her and kissed her without her consent while the two were part of a USO tour through the Middle East in 2006.
According to Tweeden, one night she and Franken were set to perform a skit in front of troops in which Franken’s character would kiss her. She alleges that backstage, Franken — who was not yet a candidate for U.S. Senate in Minnesota — repeatedly insisted on “rehearsing” the kiss with her, and, ultimately, forcibly kissed her.
Tweeden goes on to detail a later incident — captured on camera — in which Franken, flashing a smile, appears to grope her breasts while she was asleep on the military plane home to the U.S.
Her story comes in the wake of sexual assault and misconduct allegations that have rocked the fields of entertainment, media, and politics. To this point, Congress and statehouses around the country have engaged in an unprecedented conversation about sexual assault and harassment in politics, but Franken is the first sitting member of Congress to be accused of assault by name.
Franken, a progressive Democrat, has been seen as an ally of women, and had condemned men like Harvey Weinstein who had been revealed as serial sexual assaulters and harassers in past months.
Tweeden’s story has put Franken’s future in the U.S. Senate in doubt, as key congressional leaders on both sides — and Franken himself — agreed on Thursday to an investigation into his conduct by the Senate Ethics Committee.
The news has also forced Democrats and Republicans alike to carefully consider their responses, in light of recent harassment and assault stories that have afflicted both parties, from the Minnesota State Capitol to the Alabama U.S. Senate race.
A series of apologies
An hour after Tweeden’s story was posted on the website of KABC 790, the Los Angeles talk radio station where she works, Franken released his first public statement. “I certainly don’t remember the rehearsal for the skit in the same way, but I send my sincerest apologies to Leeann,” he said. “As to the photo, it was clearly intended to be funny but wasn’t. I shouldn’t have done it.”
This statement was roundly criticized on social media, and by midday, the Minnesota Republican Party was calling on Franken to resign his Senate seat, and several prominent Democrats had advocated for an investigation into Franken by the Ethics Committee.
Franken then issued a lengthier statement, which began with a broad apology to Tweeden, and to his supporters.
“I respect women. I don’t respect men who don’t,” he said. “And the fact that my own actions have given people a good reason to doubt that makes me feel ashamed.” (Franken again asserted, however, that he does not “remember the rehearsal for the skit as Leeann does.”)
Franken said he asked for an ethics investigation in the Senate. “I will gladly cooperate,” he said.
The desire for an investigation — along with a general sense of sadness and disappointment at Franken’s actions — was shared by nearly all of Minnesota’s Democratic members of Congress. Sen. Amy Klobuchar condemned Franken’s behavior, saying “this should not have happened to Leeann Tweeden … the Senate Ethics Committee must open an investigation.”
First District Rep. Tim Walz, a DFL candidate for governor, said he was “deeply disappointed.”
“These are serious allegations,” Walz told MinnPost, “and it’s hard for me to watch this. When others have done this, it’s hard to watch them be able to serve, because you lose credibility.”
“The ethics investigation is the least we can do in this situation,” Walz said. He did not say whether he believed Franken should resign his seat, but he said, “I think you have to consider that.”
Reps. Keith Ellison, Rick Nolan, and Betty McCollum all weighed in, expressing their disappointment and disapproval of Franken’s actions. McCollum and Nolan specifically called for the ethics investigation.
“I’m glad to hear Sen. Franken is cooperating,” Nolan told MinnPost, but said it was “premature” to think about Franken resigning. He said the press should look into Tweeden’s allegation and that the process should “run its course.”
Seventh District Rep. Collin Peterson said he wanted to learn more and that it’s up to the Senate to decide how to proceed.
Reactions to the Franken news varied on the Republican side. The Republican Party of Minnesota swiftly called for his resignation, but Republican members of Congress were more circumspect.
Second District Rep. Jason Lewis called the allegations against Franken — which MinnPost described to him for the first time — “disconcerting,” but said he wanted to learn more. “I don’t like to rush to judgment for anyone,” he said.
Sixth District Rep. Tom Emmer said in a statement that “standing up for victims and against harassment and assault is not a partisan issue and I support investigations into any claims against elected officials.” (At press time, Rep. Erik Paulsen’s office had not responded to a request for comment.)
On Thursday, Walz was the only Minnesota Democratic congressman to publicly entertain the idea of Franken resigning — though that prospect is on the minds of Democrats around the state.
If Franken were to step down — and there is no indication that he will — Gov. Mark Dayton would be able to appoint an interim senator. There would then be a special election for the seat on Election Day 2018, when Minnesota’s eight U.S. House members and Klobuchar are all up for re-election. Franken himself is up for re-election in 2020.
Unless more allegations against Franken come out, many DFLers do not expect Franken to resign. A Senate investigation could result in Franken being officially censured, which is a formal statement of condemnation on behalf of the institution. It is a rare punishment — carried out nine times in Senate history — and it is less severe than expulsion, but the Senate website says it can “have a powerful psychological effect on a member and his/her relationships in the Senate.”
The last U.S. senator to be formally censured was former Sen. David Durenberger, a Minnesota Republican, who was condemned by the body in 1990 — by a vote of 96 to 0 — for improper and unethical financial dealings. He did not run for re-election.
The political implications of Tweeden’s allegation will reverberate in both the short and long term. If Franken runs for re-election in 2020, several DFL operatives envisioned an attack campaign in which the photo of Franken appearing to grope Tweeden is featured in mailers and TV ads statewide.
Some Republicans are also calling on Democratic candidates who have received campaign cash from Franken to return it, and to decline support from him in the future. Over the years, Franken — through his personal political action committee, Midwest Values PAC — has contributed millions of dollars to Democratic candidates around the country.
Each Democrat in the Minnesota delegation has received generous contributions from Franken’s PAC. This election cycle, both Ellison and McCollum received $10,000 and $5,000 from Franken, respectively; in 2016, all Democratic members of the Minnesota delegation received anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 in donations.
Angie Craig, who is running for the DFL endorsement in the 2nd Congressional District, said on Thursday afternoon that she would be returning $15,000 in campaign contributions she has received from Franken.