Sen. Al Franken is embarrassed, ashamed … and ready to get back to work.
For days, Franken has been out of sight — reflecting, he said, on his behavior and the accounts of women who say he groped and demeaned them.
“I’ve let a lot of people down and I’m hoping I can make it up to them and gradually regain their trust,” said Franken, who broke an eight-day silence Sunday to talk by phone about what he’s done and what he’ll be doing next.
For starters, he said, “I’m looking forward to getting back to work tomorrow.”
But while the Senate debates Republican tax cuts and vets the Trump administration’s pick for Minnesota’s 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, Franken will face lingering questions about whether he can still do his job when many people now associate him with a grinning face in an 11-year-old photo, hands hovering suggestively over a sleeping woman’s chest.
Franken said he hopes his own experiences, and the ethics investigation he has called into his own behavior, will eventually make “a positive contribution to the conversation, so I can be a better public servant and a better man.”
The photo Franken took with Leeann Tweeden, a fellow performer on a 2006 USO tour, was “inexcusable,” he said. But while he apologized for making several women feel uncomfortable as they had their pictures taken with him, he stopped short of apologizing for behavior he says he doesn’t remember.
Franken, who said he has posed for “tens of thousands of photos” over the years, says he does not remember any that included his hand sliding down to cup women’s backsides, as several have alleged.
“I don’t remember these photographs, I don’t,” he said. “This is not something I would intentionally do.”
Franken said he has spent the past week “thinking about how that could happen and I just recognize that I need to be more careful and a lot more sensitive in these situations.”
Asked whether he expects any other women to step forward with similar groping allegations, Franken said: “If you had asked me two weeks ago, ‘Would any woman say I had treated her with disrespect?’ I would have said no. So this has just caught me by surprise. … I certainly hope not.”
Franken has been communicating with his constituents and the media mainly through terse written statements since Nov. 16, when Tweeden, a Los Angeles radio broadcaster, accused him of forcibly kissing her during a 2006 holiday USO war zone tour. Her #metoo tweet was accompanied by a photo of Franken, then months away from launching his Senate bid, mugging for the camera with his hands hovering suggestively over her chest as she slumped, apparently asleep, on a military transport.
Franken skipped the rest of that Thursday’s Senate votes and retreated from public view as the Senate adjourned for the weeklong Thanksgiving recess. In the days that followed, three other women reached out to national media with accounts of uncomfortable encounters with Franken.
Lindsay Menz told CNN that Franken grabbed her buttocks while they posed for a photo at the Minnesota State Fair in 2010 — an encounter she documented on social media at the time. Two other women shared anonymous accounts of similar experiences with Huffington Post. One woman said Franken groped her as they posed for a photo at the Minnesota Women’s Political Caucus in 2007. Another said Franken cupped her backside with his hand and suggested the two of them visit the bathroom together at a Democratic fundraiser in Minneapolis in 2008.
“I’m a warm person. I hug people,” Franken said. “Some women found my greeting or my embrace or hug for a photo inappropriate and I respect their feelings about that. … In recent days, I’ve been thinking about how that could happen and I just recognize that I need to be more careful and a lot more sensitive in these situations. I feel terrible that women have felt bad and I’m very sorry for that.”
Franken’s past as a founding member of “Saturday Night Live” returned to haunt him during his first Senate campaign, where he found himself apologizing for raunchy writing and off-color jokes — including at least one rape joke pitched during a late-night session in the SNL writers’ room. Those apologies, Franken said, were sincere, and he set out to prove “that I knew the difference between being a comedy writer and a comedian and being a senator, and that I was going to take being a senator very seriously, and I have.”
Over the past eight years, Franken built up a reputation as an advocate for women’s issues, a foil to Trump administration appointees, and a powerhouse political fundraiser who could draw crowds and donations across the country.
These allegations brought that image crashing down. A rape survivor asked him to remove his name from legislation he’d sponsored in her honor. Other politicians donated contributions from his political action committee to shelters for battered women. President Donald Trump — who has been accused of sexual harassment himself by more than a dozen women — gleefully mocked Franken on Twitter.
“The Al Frankenstien [sic] picture is really bad,” the president tweeted.
Franken allies have released a series of supportive statements from women. Two earlier ones came from women who worked with him at SNL, and from female former staffers. On Sunday, a letter signed by 65 DFL women expressed “disappointment” about the allegations but praised Franken as a “steadfast supporter of women’s rights.” Signees included Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, former Secretary of State Joan Growe and former State Auditor Judi Dutcher.
Franken says he can still be an effective senator and an advocate for women.
“I’ve been a champion for women, and I know this makes this all the harder,” he said. “I know I’m not going to regain their trust immediately. There’s no magic words I can say here to make that happen.”
This week, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold hearings on Trump’s nomination of Minnesota Supreme Court Justice David Stras to the 8th Circuit Court. Franken, who viewed Stras as highly qualified but too conservative for the post, blocked the nomination. Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley overruled Franken and announced Stras’ hearing the same day the Tweeden allegations went public.
Franken has asked the Senate Ethics Committee to look into his behavior, but he resisted comparisons between his behavior and that of Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, who has been accused of propositioning a number of teenage girls over the years.
“I’m going to take responsibility. I’m going to be held accountable through the ethics committee,” Franken said. “And I’m going to hopefully be a voice in this that is helpful. … Again, I respect women. What kills me about this is it gives people a reason to believe I don’t respect women.”
Winning back the public’s trust won’t be easy, he said.
“This is not going to happen quickly,” Franken said. “I have to earn this over time and that’s what I plan to do.”
Franken spent the holiday week at his daughter’s home in Washington with his wife, Franni, and their grandkids.
“My family has been one of the best things of all [this] week,” he said. “Franni is a rock. … On Thanksgiving we had a tremendous amount to be grateful for. I met Franni 48 years ago and we’ve been through some stuff, as you know. … The love there is something I’m so grateful for.”