Sorry, Al Franken: 7 senators regret pushing Franken to resign, as new reporting casts doubt on key allegation

Christopher Wilson
Senior Writer
Sen. Al Franken arrives at the Senate to announce his resignation over allegations of sexual misconduct, Dec. 7, 2017. (Photo: Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)

Seven Democratic senators have said they regret calling on former Minnesota Sen. Al Franken to resign over accusations of sexual harassment.

In a new story in the New Yorker, investigative reporter Jane Mayer found a number of holes in the story of Franken’s primary accuser. In November 2017, a conservative talk-radio station released a photo of Franken pantomiming grabbing radio host Leeann Tweeden’s breasts while on a 2006 USO tour. That was followed by seven additional allegations of groping or unwanted kisses, eventually leading to 36 Democratic senators calling for him to step down despite the fact that both Franken and Tweeden were calling for an independent investigation.

Mayer talked to a number of the Democratic senators who urged Franken to step down, and seven regretted it, with Sen. Patrick Leahy saying it was “one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made” in his 45-year Senate career.

“If there’s one decision I’ve made that I would take back, it’s the decision to call for his resignation,” said former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. “It was made in the heat of the moment, without concern for exactly what this was.”

“I made a mistake,” said Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico. “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.”

When Mayer asked Franken if he regretted resigning, he replied, “Oh, yeah. Absolutely,” and expressed the wish that he had appeared before a Senate Ethics Committee hearing. While Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York has faced much of the blame from donors for being one of the first Democrats to call for him to step down, Franken criticized Minority Leader Chuck Schumer for “not insisting to his caucus that an investigation was under way, and that due process required facts before a verdict.”

“Look, the Leader is called the Leader for a reason,” Franken said.

Franken resigned three weeks after the allegations first arose and was replaced by Democrat Tina Smith, who won reelection in 2018.

At the time of the Franken accusations, the #MeToo movement had just started, following the October 2017 reporting on producer Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual abuse. A special election for a Senate seat in Alabama was set for Dec. 12, with Democrat Doug Jones running against Roy Moore, who was accused of serial sexual misconduct with young women. Less than a year later, the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused of sexual assault, took place.

“I think I've said this before, but Al Franken remaining on the Judiciary Committee during the Kavanaugh hearings would have been a very ... interesting situation for the Democratic Party,” noted Mayer’s New Yorker colleague Osita Nwanevu.

According to Mayer’s story, parts of Tweeden’s accusations don’t hold up. Tweeden asserted that Franken wrote a skit expressly to allow him to kiss her, saying that the future senator said, “When I found out you were coming on this tour, I wrote a little scene, if you will, with you in it.” But Mayer found that exact skit was performed on previous USO tours, and two actresses who had previously performed it with Franken said they had done the same scene without incident.

Tweeden also alleged that Franken had an Army photographer take a photo of him mock-groping her while she slept on the plane and had it included on just her CD of images from the trip. According to Mayer’s reporting, others on the trip also received a CD with that photo on it.

While a number of Franken’s staffers and former “Saturday Night Live” colleagues told Mayer they had not seen him act inappropriately with women, there were seven additional allegations — two unnamed — of groping or unwanted kissing. Gillibrand said that with eight allegations, she felt Franken was entitled to request a process but that “he wasn’t entitled to me carrying his water, and defending him with my silence.”

“I’d do it again today,” said Gillibrand. “If a few wealthy donors are angry about that, it’s on them.”

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