MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Former Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota told The New Yorker magazine in a story published Monday that he “absolutely” regrets resigning from the Senate after several women accused him of unwanted kissing or touching.
In the same article, seven current or former senators say they regret calling for Franken’s resignation in December 2017. Franken resigned his seat after conservative talk radio host Leeann Tweeden and seven other women accused him of sexual harassment.
The article, Franken’s first interview since leaving the Senate, calls into question some of the assertions against Franken and quotes several female former staff members and close friends who described him as physically clumsy but not predatory.
Franken said at the time that the allegations were false, and he repeats that in The New Yorker article. A former comedian who made his name on “Saturday Night Live,” Franken resigned amid a national wave of sexual harassment allegations against men in powerful positions as the #MeToo movement was gaining momentum.
Both Franken and Tweeden had called for an independent investigation at the time, but none was conducted before fellow Democrats forced Franken to resign three weeks after Tweeden made her claims.
Asked by The New Yorker whether he regretted stepping down, Franken said: “Oh, yeah. Absolutely.”
“I can’t go anywhere without people reminding me of this, usually with some version of ‘You shouldn’t have resigned,'” he told the magazine.
Tweeden alleged in 2017 that Franken told her during a USO tour to entertain soldiers in 2006 that he had written a comedy skit with her in mind that required her to kiss him. She said Franken forcibly kissed her and stuck his tongue in her mouth during a rehearsal of the sketch before they performed it in Afghanistan.
The New Yorker cited two actresses, Karri Turner and Traylor Portman, who had played the same role as Tweeden on earlier USO tours with Franken. Both told the magazine that they had performed the same role as Tweeden on earlier tours with Franken and that there was nothing inappropriate about his behavior.
Tweeden also released a photo showing Franken, who was then a comedian, reaching out toward her breasts, as if to grope her, as she slept in a flak jacket while on a military aircraft during the USO tour. The New Yorker reported that the pose echoed another USO skit in which a “Dr. Franken” approaches Tweeden’s character with his hands aiming at her breasts.
Tweeden, during her KABC-AM radio show in California on Monday, briefly reacted to The New Yorker article by saying she wishes she had been among the women who performed the kissing skit with Franken and didn’t feel like they had been harassed.
“I wish I was in that group,” she said.
Seven senators who had called for Franken’s resignation said they’d been wrong to do so. They are Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, now-former Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, independent Sen. Angus King of Maine, Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Democratic Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico and now-former Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida.
Leahy said that seeking Franken’s resignation without first getting all the facts was “one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made” in his 45-year Senate career.
U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York was among the first to call for Franken’s resignation. Some Democratic donors have turned away from Gillibrand because of that, hurting her 2020 bid for the presidency.
“I’d do it again today,” Gillibrand said in the article. “If a few wealthy donors are angry about that, it’s on them.”
Asked at an event in New York late Monday if she regretted calling for Franken’s resignation, Gillibrand said she “could have told” any of the senators who are now expressing remorse that “there is no prize for someone who tries to hold accountable a powerful man who is good at his day job. But we should have the courage to do it anyway.”
“So no,” Gillibrand added. “I do not have any regrets.”
She also noted that female senators like herself were hounded every day about whether they would call for Franken’s resignation while their male colleagues were not.
“Let’s be clear, there is absolutely a double standard,” Gillibrand said. “Women are asked to hold accountable their colleagues; the men are not. Who is being held accountable for Al Franken’s decision to resign? Women senators, including me. It’s outrageous. It’s absurd.”
Franken was replaced in the Senate by Tina Smith, a Democrat appointed by Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton who had been serving as his lieutenant governor. Smith won a special election in 2018 and is running in 2020 for a full six-year term. Several Republicans are weighing bids to challenge her.