Updated on November 16 at 12:54 p.m.
Leeann Tweeden, a Los Angeles radio host and former model, says Senator Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, kissed her against her will and groped her during a 2006 USO trip to Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
In a post on the website of KABC, where she is a morning anchor, Tweeden writes that she was in a skit with Franken in which his character tried to kiss her. She writes that she expected a stage kiss in which she turned her head, but that backstage he insisted they needed to practice the kiss. She demurred, but he insisted, she said.
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.
She said she pushed him away and warned him never to do it again.
“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,” Tweeden wrote. “I felt disgusted and violated.”
She said she decided not to make a big deal of the incident so that the tour could go on, but that she was angry and told a few other people on the tour. Then when she returned to the U.S. and received a CD of photos from the trip, she saw one that depicted a grinning Franken either groping or pretending to grope her breasts as she slept on a flight.
“I’m still angry at what Al Franken did to me,” Tweeden wrote. “Every time I hear his voice or see his face, I am angry. I am angry that I did his stupid skit for the rest of that tour.”
“I certainly don’t remember the rehearsal for the skit in the same way, but I send my sincerest apologies to Leeann,” Franken said in a initial statement. “As to the photo, it was clearly intended to be funny but wasn’t. I shouldn't have done it.”
After that statement, backlash mounted. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called for a Senate Ethics Committee investigation, and several of Franken’s Democratic colleagues joined in. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York labeled Franken’s apology insufficient and supported calls for an investigation, and Claire McCaskill and Patty Murray did the same.
Franken then released a second, longer statement. “The first thing I want to do is apologize: to Leeann, to everyone else who was part of that tour, to everyone who has worked for me, to everyone I represent, and to everyone who counts on me to be an ally and supporter and champion of women,” he said. “There’s more I want to say, but the first and most important thing—and if it’s the only thing you care to hear, that’s fine—is: I’m sorry.”
He added, “I respect women. I don’t respect men who don’t,” and said he was “ashamed.” He said he also supported an ethics investigation and would cooperate.
Although the allegations elicited immediate demands for Franken to resign, his statements offered no indication he planned to do so, and his colleagues’ call for an ethics investigation falls well short of a call to resign—and could provide Franken cover and time to try to ride the story out. Democrats, who have spent days savaging Roy Moore, may feel pressure to force Franken out to avoid the appearance of hypocrisy.
Franken has served in the Senate since 2009, and wrote in his recent book Al Franken: Giant of the Senate that he had decided to run for office during the USO tour.
Tweeden’s story is the latest in a long string of allegations of sexual abuse, harassment, and assault against powerful men in a range of industries. They come as Republicans seek to force Roy Moore, their party’s U.S. Senate nominee in Alabama, out of his race. Female members of Congress and staffers have described Capitol Hill as rife with sexual harassment, as my colleague Michelle Cottle reported.
The Franken allegations are different for a couple reasons: First, they come against a sitting senator. Second, they include not just Tweeden’s account but also a deeply disturbing photo. Third, they demonstrate yet again that sexual-harassment claims are a bipartisan issue.
Franken has previously faced criticism over things he said during his comedy career, and has dismissed critics for taking his words out of context and misunderstanding comedy. A bawdy column in Playboy titled “Porn-O-Rama,” dealing with online bestiality material, became an issue during his first run for office in 2008. Republicans criticized Franken, a former Saturday Night Live star and comedian, for the piece, but he defended it as merely satire, and defenders said he’d been taken out of context.
“I learned something, which is you can't litigate comedy,” Franken said in an interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross earlier this year. “You can't litigate a joke. And in politics, when you're explaining, you're losing. So I had to let that go. And that was hard for me because I'm very proud of my career in comedy. And I had to just, at a certain point—I mean, I tried—I learned it by trying to litigate jokes. And it just—it's—you can't do it. You've got to let go.”
During a hearing on Wednesday, Franken scolded Don Willett, a nominee for federal court, for an old tweet about marrying bacon. “I don’t get it,” Franken said. “But sometimes when you don’t get a joke, it’s because it wasn’t a joke.”
A 2005 NPR story suggests that unwanted kisses from Franken were a staple of his USO shows. Describing a skit with Traylor Howard of the show Monk, he said:
We do this thing where, you know, I have written up this audition piece for me for Monk, 'cause she's—'cause I want to be on the show, and it's all an excuse to kiss her. And then I kiss her and the guys, like yell, and she says, “Wait a minute. If I were going to kiss anybody here, it'd be one of these brave men.” And everyone goes, “Whoo, whoo,” and then she goes, “Or women.” And then they actually get louder. And then we pick a guy from the audience and he ends up kissing her. You know, that kind of thing.
A 1995 piece in New York quoted Franken discussing a potential SNL skit in which Andy Rooney talks about drugging and raping fellow 60 Minutes personality Lesley Stahl.
As a senator, Franken has called for greater protections for victims of sexual harassment.
Franken had been mentioned as a potential Democratic candidate for president in 2020, though he has tried to dampen speculation. But Tweeden’s story and photo almost certainly end that, and Franken’s career in the Senate now looks precarious. If he resigned, Governor Mark Dayton, a Democrat, would appoint a replacement.
Not too many years ago, Franken’s actions might have been forgiven. Bill Clinton set a precedent for politicians riding out scandals, since followed by other officeholders, like Senator David Vitter of Louisiana. But there is now much lower tolerance for this sort of behavior, and the senator will be hard-pressed to laugh it off as just comedy.