Franken sex scandal: Damning optics and a tepid first apology

The U.S. senator faces sharp criticism for his behavior during a 2006 USO tour in which a fellow performer says he assaulted her. His second apology invited an ethics panel investigation.

Another woman has come forward with a story of sexual misconduct—against a surprising target.

This time the accused is Democratic junior U.S. senator from Minnesota and former “Saturday Night Live” cast member Al Franken. The progressive politician took two tries to find the proper response—and some still find his statements lacking and are calling for his resignation.

In a post published by her radio station, Leann Tweeden described how, during a 2006 tour with the USO, Franken kissed her during a sketch rehearsal, forcing his tongue in her mouth against her will.

Tweeden wrote:

He repeated that actors really need to rehearse everything and that we must practice the kiss. I said ‘OK’ so he would stop badgering me. We did the line leading up to the kiss and then he came at me, put his hand on the back of my head, mashed his lips against mine and aggressively stuck his tongue in my mouth.

I immediately pushed him away with both of my hands against his chest and told him if he ever did that to me again I wouldn’t be so nice about it the next time.

I walked away. All I could think about was getting to a bathroom as fast as possible to rinse the taste of him out of my mouth.

I felt disgusted and violated.

Tweeden also posted a photo from the trip showing Franken groping her chest while she slept.

In Franken’s first response, he said he recalled a different sequence of events from Tweeden’s account and asserted that the photo was a regrettable joke.

The BBC reported:

“I certainly don’t remember the rehearsal for the skit in the same way, but I send my sincerest apologies to Leeann,” he said in a statement.

“As to the photo, it was clearly intended to be funny but wasn’t. I shouldn’t have done it.”

Franken’s Democratic colleagues expressed shock and disappointment and called for an ethics investigation.

The Hill reported:

“The behavior reported today is unacceptable and deeply disappointing,” [Senator Elizabeth] Warren said in a statement, joining a number of other Democrats in condemning the reported behavior.

“I am glad Senator Franken has acknowledged as much and has agreed to cooperate with an ethics investigation. Women who come forward are brave and deserve to be respected,” Warren continued.

Democratic Sen. Kristen Gillibrand of New York said she believes Tweeden’s story.

The Hill reported:

Gillibrand told reporters that she didn’t think Franken’s response that the photo was supposed to be a joke is sufficient.

“They are deeply concerning, and I expect to hear more from Sen. Franken,” she said of the allegations.

Gillibrand also said she would donate to charity all money received from Franken’s super-PAC.

Many on Twitter saw Franken’s apology as less than satisfactory.

CNN’s Chris Cillizza wrote an op-ed condemning Franken’s apology:

No matter what your political affiliation, you have to see how inadequate Franken’s first apology is. He a) insists that Tweeden is misremembering an episode in which he grabbed the back of your neck and stuck his tongue in her mouth during a “rehearsal” for a kissing scene and b) minimizes a photo in which he appears to be fondling her breasts while her eyes are closed as simply a joke — albeit one in poor taste.

Franken seemed to get the message and penned a longer statement in which he concedes that the photo was grossly inappropriate and inexcusable and says he is ashamed of his actions.

His statement invited an ethics investigation with which he said he would cooperate.

For her part, Tweeden has accepted Franken’s apology.

The Hill reported:

“The apology, sure I accept it, yes. People make mistakes and of course he knew he made a mistake,” Leeann Tweeden said. “So yes I do accept that apology. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t accept his apology.”

She said it’s up to Congress to decide if it wants to have an ethics investigation into Franken’s behavior, adding that she isn’t calling for Franken to step down, unless more women come forward.

“People make mistakes. I’m not calling for him to step down. That’s not my place to say that,” Tweeden said.

Franken’s actions occurred during his time as a radio host on Air America, before he launched his campaign for public office in February 2007.

He is the latest from the entertainment world to admit he behaved inappropriately toward female colleagues. Louis C.K. publicly addressed accusations that he masturbated in front of five women, and Hollywood continues to reel under the reckoning unleashed by the Harvey Weinstein allegations.

His response is the latest in an ongoing struggle for public figures to properly address allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct. His response, like Kevin Spacey’s, denies the facts as specifically outlined by the accuser, and offers an apology. However, like Louis C.K., Franken also admits that inappropriate behavior occurred, though the photograph of the incident forces the issue.

In what seems to be a Capitol Hill first, Franken has invited an investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee into his conduct.

Franken is the first sitting lawmaker in Washington to face sexual harassment allegations in the post-Weinstein climate. The accusations also come amid the backdrop of conservative firebrand Roy Moore’s senate run: Multiple women have accused the candidate of initiating sexual contact when he was in his thirties and they were teenagers, some legally underage.

The tide of allegations—and responses—seems unlikely to ebb anytime soon.

Bloomberg wrote:

The swiftly lowering threshold for those accused of harassment is almost sure to touch other lawmakers, said John Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California.

“It’s pretty likely other senators have done something at least as bad as Al Franken,” Pitney said. It will be hard to revert to the earlier mindset that placed a higher burden on accusers and focused on lawmakers’ conduct while in office, he said.

“The Senate may have to hold itself to a much higher standard,” he said.

Others note that the public has yet to land on what punishment fits these past transgressions. Whether Franken’s misdeeds will lead to his removal from the Senate could be a bellwether for others facing future misconduct allegations.

Then again, Donald Trump faced far more numerous sexual misconduct accusations—as well as backlash from the “Access Hollywood” audiotape—and he’s now occupying the Oval Office.

The Daily Beast wrote:

Right now, the court of public opinion is faced with the awkward task of assigning degrees of severity to sexual misconduct, because, while they all cause harm, they don’t all cause the same amount of harm and thus don’t merit the same punishment. Furthermore, punishment varies by the power the offender wields. A senator, for example, should have a much higher moral threshold than, say, a comedian. Writing in The New Yorker this week, Masha Gessen treads lightly in making this point, warning that the #MeToo moment could devolve into “sex panic” if we’re not careful. “The distinctions between rape and coercion are meaningful, in the way it is meaningful to distinguish between, say, murder and battery,” Gessen writes.

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