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The Case of Al Franken

A close look at the accusations against the former senator.

When Franken was asked if he regretted his decision to resign from the Senate, he said, “Oh, yeah. Absolutely.”

Photograph by Geordie Wood for The New Yorker

The Case of Al Franken

A close look at the accusations against the former senator.

Last month, in Minneapolis, I climbed the stairs of a row house to find Al Franken, Minnesota’s disgraced former senator, wandering around in jeans and stocking feet. It was a sunny day, but the shades were mostly drawn. Takeout containers of hummus and carrot sticks were set out on the kitchen table. His wife, Franni Bryson, was stuck in their apartment in Washington, D.C., with a cold, and he had evidently done the best he could to be hospitable. But the place felt like the kind of man cave where someone hides out from the world, which is more or less what Franken has been doing since he resigned, in December, 2017, amid accusations of sexual impropriety.

There had been occasional sightings of him: in Washington, people mentioned having glimpsed him riding the Metro or browsing alone in a bookstore; there was gossip that he had fallen into a depression, and had been seen in a fetal position on a friend’s couch. But Franken had experienced one of the most abrupt downfalls in recent political memory. He had been perhaps the most recognizable figure in the Senate, in part because he’d entered it as a celebrity: a best-selling author and a former writer and performer on “Saturday Night Live.” Now Franken was just one more face in a gallery of previously powerful men who had been brought down by the #MeToo movement, and whom no one wanted to hear from again. America had ghosted him.

Only two years ago, Franken was being talked up as a possible challenger to President Donald Trump in 2020. In Senate hearings, Franken had proved himself to be one of the most effective critics of the Trump Administration. His tough questioning of Jeff Sessions, Trump’s nominee for Attorney General, had led Sessions to recuse himself from the investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 election, and prompted the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel.

As it turns out, Franken’s only role in the 2020 Presidential campaign has been as a figure of controversy. On June 4th, Pete Buttigieg was widely criticized on social media for saying that he would not have pressured Franken to resign—as had virtually all his Democratic rivals who were then in the Senate—without first learning more about the alleged incidents. At the same time, the Presidential candidacy of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has been plagued by questions about her role as the first of three dozen Democratic senators to demand Franken’s resignation. Gillibrand has cast herself as a feminist champion of “zero tolerance” toward sexual impropriety, but Democratic donors sympathetic to Franken have stunted her fund-raising and, Gillibrand says, tried to “intimidate” her “into silence.”

Franken’s fall was stunningly swift: he resigned only three weeks after Leeann Tweeden, a conservative talk-radio host, accused him of having forced an unwanted kiss on her during a 2006 U.S.O. tour. Seven more women followed with accusations against Franken; all of them centered on inappropriate touches or kisses. Half the accusers’ names have still not become public. Although both Franken and Tweeden called for an independent investigation into her charges, none took place. This reticence reflects the cultural moment: in an era when women’s accusations of sexual discrimination and harassment are finally being taken seriously, after years of belittlement and dismissal, some see it as offensive to subject accusers to scrutiny. “Believe Women” has become a credo of the #MeToo movement.

At his house, Franken said he understood that, in such an atmosphere, the public might not be eager to hear his grievances. Holding his head in his hands, he said, “I don’t think people who have been sexually assaulted, and those kinds of things, want to hear from people who have been #MeToo’d that they’re victims.” Yet, he added, being on the losing side of the #MeToo movement, which he fervently supports, has led him to spend time thinking about such matters as due process, proportionality of punishment, and the consequences of Internet-fuelled outrage. He told me that his therapist had likened his experience to “what happens when primates are shunned and humiliated by the rest of the other primates.” Their reaction, Franken said, with a mirthless laugh, “is ‘I’m going to die alone in the jungle.’ ”

Now sixty-eight, Franken is short and sturdily built, with bristly gray hair, tortoiseshell glasses, and a wide, froglike mouth from which he tends to talk out of one corner. Despite his current isolation, Franken is recognized nearly everywhere he goes, and he often gets stopped on the street. “I can’t go anywhere without people reminding me of this, usually with some version of ‘You shouldn’t have resigned,’ ” Franken said. He appreciates the support, but such comments torment him about his departure from the Senate. He tends to respond curtly, “Yup.”

When I asked him if he truly regretted his decision to resign, he said, “Oh, yeah. Absolutely.” He wishes that he had appeared before a Senate Ethics Committee hearing, as he had requested, allowing him to marshal facts that countered the narrative aired in the press. It is extremely rare for a senator to resign under pressure. No senator has been expelled since the Civil War, and in modern times only three have resigned under the threat of expulsion: Harrison Williams, in 1982, Bob Packwood, in 1995, and John Ensign, in 2011. Williams resigned after he was convicted of bribery and conspiracy; Packwood faced numerous sexual-assault accusations; Ensign was accused of making illegal payoffs to hide an affair.

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A remarkable number of Franken’s Senate colleagues have regrets about their own roles in his fall. Seven current and former U.S. senators who demanded Franken’s resignation in 2017 told me that they’d been wrong to do so. Such admissions are unusual in an institution whose members rarely concede mistakes. Patrick Leahy, the veteran Democrat from Vermont, said that his decision to seek Franken’s resignation without first getting all the facts was “one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made” in forty-five years in the Senate. Heidi Heitkamp, the former senator from North Dakota, told me, “If there’s one decision I’ve made that I would take back, it’s the decision to call for his resignation. It was made in the heat of the moment, without concern for exactly what this was.” Tammy Duckworth, the junior Democratic senator from Illinois, told me that the Senate Ethics Committee “should have been allowed to move forward.” She said it was important to acknowledge the trauma that Franken’s accusers had gone through, but added, “We needed more facts. That due process didn’t happen is not good for our democracy.” Angus King, the Independent senator from Maine, said that he’d “regretted it ever since” he joined the call for Franken’s resignation. “There’s no excuse for sexual assault,” he said. “But Al deserved more of a process. I don’t denigrate the allegations, but this was the political equivalent of capital punishment.” Senator Jeff Merkley, of Oregon, told me, “This was a rush to judgment that didn’t allow any of us to fully explore what this was about. I took the judgment of my peers rather than independently examining the circumstances. In my heart, I’ve not felt right about it.” Bill Nelson, the former Florida senator, said, “I realized almost right away I’d made a mistake. I felt terrible. I should have stood up for due process to render what it’s supposed to—the truth.” Tom Udall, the senior Democratic senator from New Mexico, said, “I made a mistake. I started having second thoughts shortly after he stepped down. He had the right to be heard by an independent investigative body. I’ve heard from people around my state, and around the country, saying that they think he got railroaded. It doesn’t seem fair. I’m a lawyer. I really believe in due process.”

Former Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, who watched the drama unfold from retirement, told me, “It’s terrible what happened to him. It was unfair. It took the legs out from under him. He was a very fine senator.” Many voters have also protested Franken’s decision. A petition urging Franken to retract his resignation received more than seventy-five thousand signatures. It declared, “There’s a difference between abuse and a mistake.”

In recent months, Franken has witnessed a prominent Democrat survive a similar political storm: this past spring, several women accused Joe Biden of unwanted kissing or touching at rallies and other political events. Biden apologized but never stopped campaigning for President. Unlike Biden, though, Franken was caught on camera. His undoing began with a photograph, which was released by a conservative talk-radio station on November 16, 2017. The image was taken in 2006, the year before Franken first ran for the Senate. At the time, he was on his seventh U.S.O. tour, entertaining American troops abroad as a comedian. The photograph captures him on a military plane, mugging for the camera as he performs a lecherous pantomime. He’s leering at the lens with his hands outstretched toward the breasts of his U.S.O. co-star, Tweeden, who is wearing a military helmet, fatigues, and a bulletproof vest. Franken’s hands appear to be practically touching her chest, and Tweeden looks to be asleep—and therefore not consenting to the joke.

Some people saw the photograph as a mere gag. Emily Yoffe, writing in The Atlantic, called the image “an inoffensive burlesque of a burlesque.” Yoffe, who has argued that men accused of sexual misdeeds deserve more due process, noted that Franken and Tweeden were “on a U.S.O. tour, which is a raunchy vaudeville throwback.” But the minute the photograph surfaced it went viral, and condemnation came from both conservatives and liberals. Breitbart, which loathed Franken’s politics, elicited gleeful comments from readers after it posted a piece from Slate, a liberal publication, headlined “Franken Should Resign Immediately.” The article argued that “there is no rational reason to doubt the truth of Tweeden’s accusations, no legitimate defense of Franken’s actions, and no ambiguity.” Sean Hannity, Fox News’ biggest star, also quoted the Slate piece, and on his show he interviewed Tweeden—a friend who had been a guest on his show dozens of times, often as a booster of the military. The media uproar was further heightened by an impassioned personal statement released by Tweeden’s Los Angeles radio station, KABC-AM, which provided her account of the story behind the photograph.

The damning image, Tweeden said, was the culmination of a campaign of sexual harassment that Franken had subjected her to after she had spurned his advances at the start of the U.S.O. tour, which lasted two weeks. It was Tweeden’s ninth U.S.O. gig, but her first with Franken. She alleged that he had written a skit with a kissing scene expressly for her, telling her, “When I found out you were coming on this tour, I wrote a little scene, if you will, with you in it.” She said that when she saw the script, which required them to kiss, “I suspected what he was after, but I figured I could turn my head at the last minute.”

According to Tweeden’s statement, after they landed in Kuwait, the tour’s first stop, Franken told her, “We need to practice the kissing scene.” At first, she said, she “blew him off,” but “he persisted” so aggressively that it “reminded me of, like, the Harvey Weinstein tape”; Weinstein, she noted, had been taped “badgering” a resistant sexual victim. Just five weeks before Tweeden released her statement, the Times and this magazine had published allegations accusing Weinstein of serial sexual harassment, assault, and rape. The resulting outcry had emboldened women across the country to speak out about their own victimization; online, the hashtag #MeToo emerged. Tweeden cited these developments as having inspired her to come forward about Franken.

She wrote that, in 2006, she’d initially told Franken that it was unnecessary to rehearse, saying, “Al, this isn’t ‘S.N.L.’ ” She relented only so that he would “shut up.” The rehearsal occurred, she said, in a makeshift gym behind the stage. When they got to the kiss, Tweeden said, “he just put his hand on the back of my head, and he mashed his face against it.” She went on, “He stuck his tongue in my mouth so fast—and all that I could remember is that his lips were really wet, and it was slimy.” Privately, she began thinking of Franken as Fish Lips. She emphasized that she’d fought back: “I pushed him off with my hands, and I remember, I almost punched him.” Afterward, her hands instinctively clenched “into fists” whenever she saw him. She said that she had warned him that “if he ever did that to me again I wouldn’t be so nice about it the next time.” Tweeden said, “I was violated.”

Tweeden wrote that she “never had a voluntary conversation with Franken again.” When they performed the kiss onstage, she said, “trust me, he didn’t get close to my face.” She said that, because she had felt powerless, she hadn’t reported the assault to the military authorities. She claimed that she had “told a few others on the tour what Franken had done and how I felt,” but her prepared statement provided no names of corroborators. Franken, she said, “repaid me with petty insults” for having rejected him. He doodled “devil horns” on a head shot of hers. As a final act of reprisal, Franken demeaned her with the photograph of her sleeping. Tweeden remembered clearly that the photograph had been taken on the final day of the tour, Christmas Eve, as “we began the 36-hour trip home to L.A.” and “our C-17 cargo plane took off from Afghanistan.”

Tweeden concluded her statement by declaring, “Senator Franken, you wrote the script. But there’s nothing funny about sexual assault.” She continued, “You knew exactly what you were doing. You forcibly kissed me without my consent, grabbed my breasts while I was sleeping, and had someone take a photo of you doing it, knowing I would see it later, and be ashamed.”

She said that it wasn’t until she returned home and received a CD of images from the tour photographer that she saw the image of Franken pretending to grope her while she slept. “I felt violated all over again,” she said. At that moment, she had wanted to “shout my story to the world,” but hadn’t felt secure enough. Now, she said, she wanted “other victims of sexual assault to be able to speak out,” adding, “I want the days of silence to be over.”

Tweeden went public the Thursday before Thanksgiving, while Congress was wrapping up for the holiday break. At 9:54 a.m., Ed Shelleby, Franken’s deputy chief of staff, was at his desk in the Capitol when he noticed that a strange e-mail had arrived in an office account. The subject line was “Comment Requested,” and the sender was Nathan Baker, the news director at KABC-AM. The e-mail said that the station’s “morning drive anchor,” Leeann Tweeden, had written “a piece about experiences she had with Senator Franken while on a U.S.O. tour.” It noted, “If you have any reaction or comment from the Senator we would of course include it in our coverage.” There was a link to Tweeden’s statement and to the photograph, both of which had already been posted on the Internet. Shelleby called Franken’s chief of staff, Jeff Lomonaco. “We gotta get Al!” Shelleby said. “We’ve got this thing! ”

Franken was in a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Lomonaco ran through a series of corridors and pulled him out.

“What’s going on?” Franken said.

“It’s important,” Lomonaco said.

“But I want to vote,” Franken protested.

Lomonaco showed him the KABC-AM story and the photograph.

Oh, my God, my life! My life! was Franken’s first thought. He remembered the picture being taken, but he was stunned by Tweeden’s account. He had thought that they were on friendly terms. In 2009, she had attended a U.S.O. awards ceremony, in Washington, honoring him; photographs of the event capture them laughing together. He had no memory of her having balked at the kissing scene, and knew that he hadn’t written it for her. He had written it in 2003, and performed it on other U.S.O. tours before meeting her.

In Franken’s 2017 book, “Al Franken, Giant of the Senate,” which was published before Tweeden’s accusations, he writes of being preoccupied during the 2006 tour with deciding whether to run for public office. Others on the trip confirm this, recalling that he spent much of his downtime studying policy positions with an assistant, Andy Barr. Records show that Franken had already set up a political-action committee, and he announced his Senate bid soon after returning home.

Tweeden may well have felt harassed, and even violated, by Franken, but he insisted to me that her version of events is “just not true.” He confirmed that he had rehearsed the skit with her, noting, “You always rehearse.” The script, he recalled, called for a man to “surprise” a woman with a kiss, in a “sort of sudden” way, and though Tweeden had read the script, it’s possible that in the moment he startled her. Tweeden wasn’t an actress—before going into broadcasting, she had been a Frederick’s of Hollywood model—so she may have been unfamiliar with rehearsals. But Franken said, of Tweeden, “I don’t remember her being taken aback.” He adamantly denied having stuck his tongue in her mouth.

Franken’s longtime fund-raiser, A. J. Goodman, a former criminal-defense lawyer, told me that it was “easy to see how it could have grossed Tweeden out” to be kissed by Franken. At the time, Franken was fifty-five, and his clothes tended toward mom jeans and garish windbreakers. “He was like your uncle Morty,” Goodman recalled. “He wasn’t Cary Grant. But tongue down the throat? No. I’ve done hundreds of events with this guy. I’ve been on the road and on his book tours with him.” She said that Franken was “five hundred per cent devoted” to Bryson, his wife, whom he met during his freshman year at Harvard. “He can be a jerk, but he’s all about his family,” Goodman said. (Franken and Bryson have a daughter, a son, and four grandchildren.)

In Hollywood, Franken’s reputation had been far from wild. According to Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad’s book, “Saturday Night,” when Franken worked on “S.N.L.” he was seen as a stickler and a “self-appointed hallway monitor” figure. James Downey, who spent decades writing for the show, told me, of Franken, “He’s lots of things, some delightful, some annoying. He can be very aggressive interpersonally. He can say mean things, or use other people as props. He can seem more confident that the audience will find him adorable than he ought to. His estimate of his charm can be overconfident. But I’ve known him for forty-seven years and he’s the very last person who would be a sexual harasser.”

As Franken absorbed Tweeden’s statement and the photograph, he realized that, given the recent rise of the #MeToo movement, “anyone who wanted to read the photo as confirming what I was accused of could do that. I understood that right away. And boom—I was instantly in shock.”

Franken wasn’t the only one. Two actresses who had performed the same role as Tweeden on earlier U.S.O. tours with him, Karri Turner and Traylor Portman, immediately recognized that Tweeden was wrong to say that Franken had written the part in order to kiss her. Both women told me that they fully supported the #MeToo movement and could speak only to their own experiences. But Turner confirmed that she had acted in the same skit in 2003. Video footage of her performing it, which can be seen online, shows that the script was altered for Tweeden only by cutting references to “JAG,” a TV show in which Turner starred. In a statement, Turner said that “no woman should have to deal with any type of harassment, ever!” But on her two U.S.O. tours with Franken, she said, “there was nothing inappropriate toward me,” adding, “I only experienced a person that was eager to make soldiers laugh.”

Traylor Portman, who used her maiden name, Traylor Howard, while appearing on the TV show “Monk,” said that she also played the role in Franken’s skit, in 2005. “It’s not accurate for her to say it was written for her,” Portman told me. She had rehearsed the kissing scene with Franken, and hadn’t objected, because “you’re going to practice—that’s what professionals do.” She said that the scene involved “what looked like kissing but wasn’t,” adding, “It’s just for comic relief. I guess you could turn your head, but whatever—it’s nothing. I was in sitcoms. You just play it for laughs.”

Portman went on, “I get the whole #MeToo thing, and a whole lot of horrible stuff has happened, and it needed to change. But that’s not what was happening here.” She added, “Franken is a good man. I remember him talking so sweetly and lovingly about his wife.” Portman recalled, “There were Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders there, and he didn’t pay any special attention to them. He had a good rapport with everyone. He was hilarious. He was just trying to get them to laugh. It was about entertaining people who were risking their lives.” Asked about the allegation that Franken drew “devil horns” on Tweeden’s head shot, Portman said, “It doesn’t sound out of line for him—but please. To get offended by that sounds ridiculous, like fourth grade.”