Trump's Risky, Unearned Sanctimony About Al Franken

The president’s jab at the Democratic senator for sexual harassment calls attention to his silence about Roy Moore—and his own past behavior.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

President Trump jabbed at Senator Al Franken in a pair of late-night tweets Thursday, poking at a Democrat whose career is in danger over past sexual harassment, but calling attention to his silence about Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore—and, moreover, to his own history, including his boasts about sexual assault.

On Thursday, radio host Leeann Tweeden wrote about two incidents during a 2006 USO tour to Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan. In one case, she said Franken—a Saturday Night Live alumnus and comedian who was not yet a senator—forcibly kissed Tweeden against her will during a rehearsal for a skit. And after returning home from the trip, Tweeden received a CD of photos that included Franken either groping or pretending to grope her over a flak jacket as she slept.

The story and photo threaten to end the career of a rising Democratic star, one who had even been mentioned as a potential 2020 presidential candidate. (Immediate reaction has been split: Some Democrats have called for Franken to resign, while many of his Senate colleagues have joined Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in calling for an Ethics Committee investigation.) The president jumped in, offering one of his trademark nicknames:

The latter tweet is a reference to a 1995 New York magazine piece in which Franken spitballs an SNL sketch, including lines in which Andy Rooney would talk about drugging and raping his 60 Minutes colleague.

Franken is fair game, and his behavior is unacceptable. But as with so many of Trump’s late-night and early-morning tweets, his strategy is unclear. While it’s no surprise that he’d take a shot at Franken, his tweets call attention to his silence with regards to Moore, the embattled Alabama contender.

Over the last eight days, a series of women—first four, then five, then six, and now others—have emerged with stories about Moore. They range from the alarming, about Moore’s apparent habit of dating high-schools girls, to the distressing, like rumors he was banned from the local mall for his pursuit of the girls, to the criminal. One woman says when she was 14, Moore brought her to his house, undressed, and guided her hand to touch his genitals. Another says he offered to give her a ride home, then locked her in his car as he groped her and tried to force her head into his crotch.

Moore has offered fiery and flat denials but has not specifically rebutted most of the allegations. He told Sean Hannity that he didn’t “generally” date teenage girls but didn’t deny he had; his lawyer delivered a rambling press conference about one accuser that didn’t really refute her account at all.

As these stories mount, an increasing number of Republicans, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have said they find Moore’s accusers credible and demanded that Moore drop out of the race. The National Republican Senatorial Committee and Republican National Committee have followed suit, and recent polls show Moore falling behind Democrat Doug Jones ahead of the December 12 election.

But Trump, who was in Asia when the scandal began, has remained silent. Trump supported Senator Luther Strange in the earlier GOP primary against Moore. The White House has said that if the allegations are true, Moore should step down, and left it at that. Politico reported that Republicans expected Trump to speak about the race on Wednesday, but he stayed mum instead.

Trump’s silence on Moore, and his quick reaction on Franken, stand out not just because of his party’s internal divisions over Moore. As Erin Gloria Ryan has written, declaring that all sexual harassment is unacceptable doesn’t preclude differentiating between levels of predation, and the allegations against Moore—involving teenagers, including a 14-year-old—are more serious and numerous than those against Franken. It’s true that Franken, unlike Moore, has acknowledged his inappropriate behavior; however, Franken has also apologized, unlike Moore.

More than Roy Moore, what Trump’s tweets call attention to is his own history. Not only has Trump faced accusations of sexual harassment (on various levels) from at least 16 women, but there is the matter of the infamous Access Hollywood tape from 2005, in which Trump boasted about sexually assaulting women.

“You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful—I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything,” Trump said. He added: “Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”

Trump’s self-described actions—the nonconsensual kiss—are reminiscent of Franken’s, yet worse, including the remarks about grabbing a woman’s crotch. They’re also worse than Franken’s awful Stahl joke. Nor has Trump apologized for his remarks. “I’ve said and done things I regret, and the words released today on this more than a decade-old video are one of them,” he said at the time of the video’s release in October 2016. He also noted former President Bill Clinton’s history of sexual misconduct, both documented and alleged.

One might expect that weighing in on the wave of sexual-harassment accusations would hardly help Trump, since it only calls attention to his own misdeeds. The cognitive dissonance of seeing powerful men fall swiftly just months after Trump’s election remains difficult to resolve. The White House’s official position remains that all 16 women who have accused Trump are lying, yet the president is quick to give credence to other men’s accusers. Trump weighed in on Harvey Weinstein last month, saying he was not surprised, although by then the film producer was entirely without defenders.

Trump’s sanctimony on Franken draws what my colleague Adrienne LaFrance has called the “Harvey effect” closer to himself in the political realm. The president seems to be gambling that because his own history of sexual harassment has already been litigated, reopening it will not hurt him politically. The calculation is that he is immune not only to the standard rules of politics but also to the present moment in American culture—or, put another way, when you’re president, they let you do it.