WASHINGTON – Sen. Al Franken’s high-profile sparring with President-elect Donald Trump’s attorney general nominee last week offered a nationally televised glimpse of a side the Minnesota senator worked hard to shed for most of his time in office — the sharp, relentless provocateur of Republican foes.
With a fellow showman about to enter the White House, Franken is grappling with one of the biggest challenges of his political career: Does he use the megaphone afforded by his own showbiz past to fight for progressive values in Trump’s Washington? At risk in that scenario is the Democratic senator’s ability under total Republican rule at the federal level to effectively represent Minnesota, a state Trump came close to winning.
“I will take it one day at a time, believe it or not,” Franken said in an interview. “I would like to have a good working relationship with the White House and a good working relationship with the Cabinet departments, but I don’t want them cutting Medicare and I don’t want them block-granting Medicaid, so we’ll see how this goes.”
In several tense back-and-forth exchanges last week in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Franken interrogated Trump’s attorney general nominee, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions. He took Sessions to task on his controversial civil rights record, questioned his support for Trump’s views on Russia and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and drew him out on Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the country.
“To my mind it’s absolutely extraordinary to see a president-elect refuting, and without evidence, the assessment of our intelligence agencies,” Franken told Sessions. “Why do you think President-elect Trump has been so unwilling to acknowledge Russian involvement in the hacking?”
Sessions responded that he respects the FBI but said, “I’m not able to comment on the president-elect’s comments.”
After several days of hearings, Franken announced Friday morning he would vote against Sessions. His fellow Minnesota Democrat, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, said she would do the same.
Franken also delivered an impassioned late-night speech last week in defense of the Affordable Care Act, saying Minnesotans were scared and calling the Republican votes this week moving toward its repeal a “life and death” issue.
“Show us your plan. You know, your health care plan. You must have one, we would like to hear it,” Franken said from the Senate floor, in a somber, sarcastic deadpan. “We would like to see it. Now. You can understand the question, right?”
Franken and his fellow Democrats find themselves in the Senate minority, though Republicans lack the filibuster-proof majority that would prevent Democrats from blocking votes — like Supreme Court nominations, another looming Capitol battle likely to involve Franken, who sits on the Judiciary Committee.
Despite widespread Democratic distaste for Trump and his early decisions, Norman Ornstein — a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a personal friend of Franken’s — said he doesn’t think Democrats will obstruct Congress the way Republicans did under the Obama administration. In their nature, Ornstein said, Democrats believe more in government and governing.
“But governing doesn’t just mean rolling over for things that will be bad and especially it doesn’t mean erasing or rolling back or dramatically diluting the things you believe in,” Ornstein said. “You pick your fights and you back them up with powerful evidence and then you move to block things that will be destructive and you explain everything back home.”
Franken, whose hero is the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, is aware that many Democratic and progressive voters nationally want to see liberals in the U.S. Senate challenge Trump, his policies and appointments at every turn.
“The expectation is that Senator Franken will lead the loyal opposition and that means not normalizing the unacceptable actions and behavior of Donald Trump and the people around him,” said Dan McGrath, executive director of the progressive organizing group TakeAction Minnesota. “I don’t envy any Democrat in federal office right now. I think this is a moment to take the long view and to figure out how to work with an emboldened movement of people who are aghast.”
To that end, Franken is equally aware that a wave of support for Trump in Minnesota left the wealthy businessman trailing Democrat Hillary Clinton by fewer than 45,000 votes out of more than 2.6 million cast — nearly vanquishing Minnesota’s four-decade history of backing Democrats for president.
In four years, if they both run again, Franken and Trump would be on the same Minnesota ballot, testing their drastically different worldviews with voters.
The new administration is unknown territory for Franken, who said he enjoyed regular talks during the Obama years with top officials like Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell and former Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
“If I wanted to get trade adjustment assistance for miners who had been laid off on the [Iron] Range, I would call Tom Perez directly,” Franken said, in reference to Obama’s labor secretary. “That was nice.”
By contrast, at least so far, Franken has no relationship with Trump. Despite a number of years as fellow big names in New York City’s media-entertainment universe, Franken said they only had one significant run-in.
It was the early 2000s, and Franken — not yet a Minnesota senator — took his wife to Radio City Music Hall for a premiere party for the HBO television drama “The Sopranos.” The Frankens, there with some 6,000 other VIPs, were seated directly behind Donald Trump.
Well-known then for wielding sarcasm like a hammer, Franken blurted loudly: “That is the worst comb-over I have ever seen!”
Trump turned around and glared, Franken recalled. But he stayed in his seat and ignored Franken the rest of the night.
The exchange was a harbinger of Franken’s bearing toward candidate Trump. On the campaign trail last year, Franken brutally swiped at Trump — questioning his temperament and, at the Democratic National Convention, calling him a megalomaniac. At an Ohio event for Clinton, Franken said it was “clear that we are dealing with a borderline personality … a narcissist. He is so mean, dark and ugly.”
Franken doesn’t think the famously thin-skinned new president will take partisan jabbing too seriously.
“I think that he might put me in a weird category,” Franken said. “I have a feeling he’ll just say, ‘you’re SNL’ ” — meaning “Saturday Night Live,” the show that made Franken famous, and which Trump himself has hosted.
“I have no clue how it’s going to go, but I can’t worry too much about it,” Franken said.