What We Learned From The New Yorker’s Al Franken Story

Former U.S. senator Al Franken. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

In November 2017, TV host Leeann Tweeden accused Senator Al Franken of groping and kissing her without her consent. Over the next several weeks, seven more women came forward to accuse Franken of unwanted sexual contact, including more groping and attempted kissing. Under pressure from his own caucus, its female members in particular, Franken resigned in early December that year.

The scandal unfolded in the early days of the #MeToo movement, a time when names such as Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, and Louis C.K. were dominating headlines. But in a more-than-12,000-word article published by The New Yorker Monday, reporter Jane Mayer aims to give the story the fact-checking it didn’t get at the time and describes how, in her words, Franken “got railroaded.” Here, what we learned from Mayer’s article:

Franken regrets resigning

When Mayer asked Franken if he regrets his decision to resign, he said, “Oh, yeah. Absolutely.” He regrets not hanging on until he could appear before the Senate Ethics Committee, where he believes the truth about his interactions with Tweeden would have come out.

“The idea that anybody who accuses someone of something is always right — that’s not the case,” Franken said. “That isn’t reality.”

Franken continues to deny forcibly kissing Leeann Tweeden

The reality, according to Franken, is that he never forced his tongue down Tweeden’s throat while they were rehearsing a scene for the USO tour, as she claims. And plenty other parts of her story, he believes, would have fallen apart in committee hearing.

Franken feels bad about this picture

Al Franken and Leeann Tweeden. Photo: Courtesy of Leeann Tweeden

The above picture was taken at the end of the 2006 USO tour. A decade later, Tweeden would write that the image showed Franken groping her “without my consent, while I was asleep.” She added: “I felt violated all over again. Embarrassed. Belittled. Humiliated.”

The picture was a key part of the case against Franken and something that, he told Mayer, he continues to feel bad about.

“What’s wrong with the picture to me is that she’s asleep,” he said. “If you’re asleep, you’re not giving your consent.” When he saw the image that November morning, he said, “I genuinely, genuinely felt bad about that.”

Sean Hannity wanted to release the photo in 2007

Tweeden befriended Sean Hannity more than a decade ago and showed him the picture above. Hannity wanted to make it public in 2007, during Franken’s first Senate run, but “he deferred to Tweeden, who feared that, because she had been a lingerie model, her credibility would be attacked.”

Tweeden was wrong about Franken writing a skit especially for her

In Tweeden’s telling, Franken wrote a scene that included a kiss between them when he found out she would be joining the USO. tour. The scene was about an older male officer trying to get a younger female to kiss him during an audition. It was during a rehearsal for this scene that Tweeden said Franken forced his tongue down her throat.

But Mayer spoke to two actresses who’d previously done the same scene with Franken. She also cited NPR interviews from 2004 and 2005 in which Franken described the skit prior to the tour with Tweeden.

Tweeden was okay with other “ribald USO skits”

Mayer reports that Tweeden gamely participated in the skit that included Franken kissing her. Also, one time during a 2005 USO show with Robin Williams, she “jumped into his arms, wrapped a leg around his waist, and spanked his bottom as he suggestively waved a plastic water bottle in front of his fly.”

None of this, of course, has anything to do with Franken’s alleged harassment.

Some Democrats who called for Franken’s resignation wish they hadn’t

“Seven current and former U.S. senators who demanded Franken’s resignation in 2017 told me that they’d been wrong to do so,” Mayer writes. Among them are Patrick Leahy, Tammy Duckworth, and former senator Heidi Heitkamp.

Patrick Leahy, the veteran Democrat from Vermont, said that his decision to seek Franken’s resignation without first getting all the facts was “one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made” in forty-five years in the Senate. Heidi Heitkamp, the former senator from North Dakota, told me, “If there’s one decision I’ve made that I would take back, it’s the decision to call for his resignation. It was made in the heat of the moment, without concern for exactly what this was.” Tammy Duckworth, the junior Democratic senator from Illinois, told me that the Senate Ethics Committee “should have been allowed to move forward.” She said it was important to acknowledge the trauma that Franken’s accusers had gone through, but added, “We needed more facts. That due process didn’t happen is not good for our democracy.” 

Franken has a lot of character witnesses

Among the ways Franken is described by those who think he could have never sexually assaulted someone:

• The “self-appointed hallway monitor” figure at Saturday Night Live. — Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad, in their book, Saturday Night

• Someone who didn’t ogle Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders on a previous USO tour. — actress Traylor Portman, who went on USO tours with Franken

• A guy who often adopts “the persona of a douche bag.” — former SNL writer James Downey

• “One of the few non-sexist men she worked with at SNL.” — Jane Curtin

• “He’s sort of clumsy.” — Gabrielle Zuckerman, Franken’s former co-worker at Air America

• “He has no sexuality.” — Sarah Silverman

Franken’s friends say he wasn’t a harasser. He was a clumsy oaf who liked to kiss people.

It takes a few thousand words, but once Mayer gets around to addressing the seven accusations against Franken that didn’t come from Tweeden, a common defense emerges. The butt grabbing and unwanted kissing that women perceived as harassment was just Al being Al.

He tended to hug many people, and kiss some, even on the mouth. “It was the New York hello-goodbye kiss,” a longtime adviser told me. The talk-show host Randi Rhodes and the comedian Sarah Silverman have described Franken as a social — not a sexual — “lip-kisser” …

“I’m a very physical person,” he said. “I guess maybe sometimes I’m oblivious.” He added, “I’ve been a hugger all my life. When I take pictures, I bring people in close.” 

One accuser made Franken cry

One woman who accused Franken of trying to force a kiss on her after she accompanied a senator she used to work for to an Air America taping told Mayer that she has no regrets about coming forward. Her allegation was the last one before Frank resigned and the one that, he said, “killed me.”

“I didn’t end his Senate career — he did,” the woman responded. That made Franken cry:

Franken was stricken when I related her comments to him. “Look,” he said. “This has really affected my family. I loved being in the Senate. I loved my staff — we had fun and we got good things done, big and small, and they all meant something to me.” He started to cry. “For her to say that, it’s just so callous. It’s just so wrong.” Rubbing his eyes beneath his glasses, he said, “I ended my career by saying ‘Thanks’ to her — that’s what she’s saying.”

The article has gotten some criticism

What We Learned From The New Yorker’s Al Franken Story