Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The case for Al Franken - when the U. S. Senate said no to due process

This morning the Daily Star carried two stories, one on line, about the forced resignation of Senator Al Franken in 2017. The headlines tell only a small part of the story. Franken says he ‘absolutely’ regrets resigning from Senate claiming that the sexual misconduct allegations were false. Sen. Kristen Gillibrand counters Female senators unfairly blamed for Franken exit. The story is deeper and more nuanced. I went beyond the headlines in order to understand allegations, why they were made, and what the outcome was. This is a long post but the original sources are far longer.

The short version of the story is provided by Aaron Blake of the Washington Post: Al Franken gets the defense he never offered himself.

The New Yorker published an extensive article [a week ago] Monday about the sexual misconduct allegations that forced Al Franken’s resignation from the Senate in 2017. And, given Franken’s expedited, semi-voluntary ouster, at which point the details of the accusations became less pressing, the article has provided an opportunity for a debate that was never really had in full, with the added benefit of two years of festering resentment from his most devoted supporters.

It also provides the defense of Franken that he, to his detriment, never really gave himself.

For those who need a refresher, around Thanksgiving 2017, model and broadcaster Leeann Tweeden went public with an allegation that Franken forcibly kissed her while rehearsing a sketch on a USO tour in 2006. She also provided a picture showing Franken mock-groping her while she slept on a military plane. Soon, seven more women — some of them granted anonymity — came forward with allegations of varying degrees of inappropriate sexual conduct and contact by Franken.

Jane Mayer’s piece [excerpted below] focuses extensively on Tweeden’s account. It pokes holes in some of the contentions she made in her initial version of events, including that Franken told her he had written the sketch as a pretext to kiss her (he had performed almost the same sketch on previous USO tours with other actresses). She also said that she felt he had intended for the photograph to intimidate and humiliate her once she returned home and saw it (others present dispute this). It also points rather suggestively in the direction of the role of politics in Tweeden’s accusation, probing Tweeden’s friendship with Fox News host Sean Hannity and the conservative bent of the radio station at which she was working, which published her allegation.

Jane Mayer, writing in the New Yorker, investigates The Case of Al Franken in which she takes “A close look at the accusations against the former senator.”

I’me going to cherry pick some passages to reinforce some impressions formed after I read Mayer’s report. One is that there was an astounding absence of any semblance of due process - for then Sen. Al Franken. This seems to me to have been a rush to judgment in the absence of any serious investigation. In addition, politics both left and right played a big role in the spread of biased information. On the left, the Senate Dems appeared to want to avoid the appearance of defending alleged inappropriate sexual advances in the age of #MeToo. One way of looking at it, is that Franken was railroaded out of the Senate to preserve the Senate Dems’ support for #MeToo. On the right Tweeden was working at a conservative radio show and enjoyed a close association with Fox News’ Sean Hannity - who appears to have contributed to the spread of Tweeden’s account in the media with no balance in the reporting at all. Had the Senate investigated the matter, they would have revealed that much of the behaviors of both Franken and Tweeden occurred in in the context of a ribald comedy skit presented in a USO show to troops in the field. Tweeden took Franken’s skit and turned it against him. None of that was considered in the short time between Tweeden’s complaint and Franken’s resignation. In the end I cannot help believing that conservative forces scored a big one by getting rid of a rising Democratic star in the U. S. Senate - and that a lot of people were duped into going along with it.

Franken’s fall was stunningly swift: he resigned only three weeks after Leeann Tweeden, a conservative talk-radio host, accused him of having forced an unwanted kiss on her during a 2006 U.S.O. tour. Seven more women followed with accusations against Franken; all of them centered on inappropriate touches or kisses. Half the accusers’ names have still not become public. Although both Franken and Tweeden called for an independent investigation into her charges, none took place. This reticence reflects the cultural moment: in an era when women’s accusations of sexual discrimination and harassment are finally being taken seriously, after years of belittlement and dismissal, some see it as offensive to subject accusers to scrutiny. “Believe Women” has become a credo of the #MeToo movement.

One of Tweeden’s charges was that Franken wrote the skit just so he could kiss her. Lots of evidence against that charge was uncovered by Mayer.

… Two actresses who had performed the same role as Tweeden on earlier U.S.O. tours with him, Karri Turner and Traylor Portman, immediately recognized that Tweeden was wrong to say that Franken had written the part in order to kiss her. Both women told me that they fully supported the #MeToo movement and could speak only to their own experiences. But Turner confirmed that she had acted in the same skit in 2003. Video footage of her performing it, which can be seen online, shows that the script was altered for Tweeden only by cutting references to “JAG,” a TV show in which Turner starred. In a statement, Turner said that “no woman should have to deal with any type of harassment, ever!” But on her two U.S.O. tours with Franken, she said, “there was nothing inappropriate toward me,” adding, “I only experienced a person that was eager to make soldiers laugh.”

It was “surreal,” Franken told me, that Tweeden had publicly said of him, “I think he wrote that sketch just to kiss me”; her language was essentially borrowed from his skit. Moreover, her fighting him off and expressing anger had also been scripted by him. But it seemed impossible to relay such nuances to the press. Explaining that her accusations appropriated jokes from comic routines that they’d performed together would be as dizzying as describing an Escher drawing.

Tweeden participated in other ribald U.S.O. skits. In one routine, she tells the audience that, as a morale booster, she has agreed to have sex with a soldier whose name Franken will pull from a box, explaining, “These are extraordinary circumstances.” The gag is that every name she picks is Franken’s, because he’s stuffed the raffle box. In a 2005 U.S.O. show with Robin Williams, Tweeden 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.

Many people who worked in comedy with Franken defended his behavior more strongly than he did himself. Jane Curtin, who regards him as one of the few non-sexist men she worked with at “S.N.L.,” said, “They were doing a U.S.O. tour. They’re notoriously burlesque. The photo was funny because she’s wearing a flak jacket, and he’s looking straight at the camera and pretending he’s trying to fondle her breasts. But the humor is he can’t get to them—if a bullet can’t get them, Al can’t get them.” James Downey said, “Much of what Al does when goofing around involves adopting the persona of a douche bag. When I saw the photo, I knew exactly what he was doing. The joke was about him. He was doing ‘an asshole.’ ” Christine Zander, who wrote for “S.N.L.” between 1987 and 1993, said, “It was a mockery of someone acting in bad taste,” adding, “It’s so absurd she turned something that was written—these were trunk pieces, old sketches—into something improvised just for her.” Zander went on, “It’s tragic. All the women who know him from ‘S.N.L.’ and in New York and L.A.”—thirty-six in all—“signed a petition, but it wasn’t enough.” She added, “It makes you feel terrible and depressed, especially when there are people running the country who need to be charged.”

So Franken is no serial abuser. Even this one incident charged by Tweeden is open to innocent interpretation. So why did Tweeden make her charges?

A big part of Franken’s political problem was the way the story broke. KABC-AM released Tweeden’s material on its Web site, giving it the look of a proper news story. In reality, the station, which is owned by Cumulus Media, was a struggling conservative talk-radio station whose survival plan was to become the most pro-Trump station in Los Angeles. Three top staffers there had been meeting secretly for weeks, after hours, with Tweeden to prepare her statement, but it hadn’t been vetted with even the most cursory fact-checking. Nobody contacted Franken until after the story had been posted online. The station gave Franken less advance warning than it gave the Drudge Report, which it tipped off the previous day. After posting the story, Tweeden embarked on a media tour, starting with a live press conference and proceeding to interviews with CNN’s Jake Tapper (who had been alerted the previous day), Sean Hannity, and the cast of “The View.”

McIntyre, Tweeden’s former co-host at the station, told me that he had “bluntly” lobbied to give Franken more time to respond but was overruled by Drew Hayes, the station’s operations director, and by Nathan Baker, the news director, both of whom feared that the story would leak. McIntyre and Baker confirmed to me that nobody fact-checked Tweeden’s account. They evidently didn’t ask for the names of the people on the U.S.O. tour whom Tweeden said she had confided in at the time; in fact, they made no effort to reach anyone who’d been on the trip. They didn’t check the date of the photograph, or look at online videos showing other actresses performing the same role on earlier tours. They didn’t realize that although Tweeden claimed she never let Franken get near her face after the first rehearsal, there were numerous images of her performing the kiss scene with Franken afterward. Nor did they review the script or the photographs showing Tweeden laughing onstage as Franken struck the same “breast exam” pose.

Did Fox News use Tweeden’s story as a trap for Franken? Maybe.

There was a history of deep animosity between Fox News’ conservative hosts and Franken. Fox sued Franken over his 2003 best-seller, “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them,” which relentlessly disparages the network and its big star at the time, Bill O’Reilly. It includes a chapter mocking Hannity as, among other things, “an angry, Irish Ape-man.” Franken writes that, after having a greenroom shouting match with Hannity about Rush Limbaugh, in 1996, he “had never in my life hated a person more.” Fox dropped the suit, but O’Reilly reportedly threatened vengeance. When Andrea Mackris later sued O’Reilly for sexually harassing her while she was a producer at Fox News, she revealed that, in 2004, O’Reilly had told her, “If you cross Fox News Channel, it’s not just me, it’s Roger Ailes”—at the time the head of the network—“who will go after you… . Ailes operates behind the scenes, strategizes and makes things happen so that one day BAM! The person gets what’s coming to them but never sees it coming. Look at Al Franken, one day he’s going to get a knock on his door and life as he’s known it will change forever. That day will happen, trust me.” When Tweeden accused Franken, one of his wife’s first thoughts was of O’Reilly’s prediction.

Several far-right news sites appear to have known about Tweeden’s story shortly before it broke. In Southern California, a gossip Web site, Crazy Days and Nights, was contacted by an anonymous tipster who predicted that Franken was about to get caught in a sex scandal. There was a link to an online message board where someone calling himself Sam Spade was claiming that Franken had “groped” his aunt on a New York City subway in the nineteen-seventies. (Asked about this, Franken joked, “Ah, yes, Aunt Gertrude—I remember her well.”) Archives show that “Sam Spade” separately posted a message saying that he “hoped Al Franken would die a slow painful death.”

At 1 a.m. on November 16th, Roger Stone, the notorious right-wing operative, announced, on Twitter, “It’s Al Franken’s ‘time in the barrel.’ Franken next in long list of Democrats to be accused of ‘grabby’ behavior.” After Tweeden’s story was posted, Alex Jones, the extremist radio host, boasted on his show that Stone had told him, in advance, “Get ready. Franken’s next.” Stone told me that an executive at Fox who was friendly with Tweeden had tipped him off.

Sean Hannity exulted when the news broke. Tweeden called in to his radio show live, and Hannity described her as “a longtime friend.” Hannity, who, when Ailes died, celebrated him as one of America’s “great patriotic warriors,” pronounced the Franken photograph “disgusting”—and declared that Franken had been accused of “sexual molestation.” Trump joined the fray on Twitter, insinuating that the photograph documented an assault in progress: “Where do his hands go in pictures 2, 3, 4, 5, & 6?”

All this, and other allegations, prompted some senators to demand action against Franken.

On December 1, 2017, seven female Democratic senators—Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Claire McCaskill, Mazie Hirono, Patty Murray, Maggie Hassan, and Catherine Cortez Masto—met with Chuck Schumer to tell him that most of them were on the verge of demanding Franken’s resignation. At least one of them had already drafted such a statement, and the group’s resolve hardened further when some of its members learned of an impending Politico story that contained a seventh allegation, by a former Senate staff member. The accuser, whose name is being withheld at her request, was known to some of the seven female senators. The woman said that, in 2006, when Franken was still a comedian, he had made her uneasy by looking as if he planned to kiss her. The senator she had worked for hadn’t known of the allegation at the time, but vouched for her credibility.

“… made her uneasy by looking as if …” Some of these senators, Harris in particular, are the toughest inquisitors on the planet. And this is the evidence they used?

Minutes after Politico posted the story, Senator Gillibrand’s chief of staff called Franken’s to say that Gillibrand was going to demand his resignation. Franken was stung by Gillibrand’s failure to call him personally. They had been friends and squash partners. In a later call, Gillibrand’s chief of staff offered to have Gillibrand speak with Franken, but by that time Franken was frantically conferring with his staff and his family. Franken’s office proposed that Franken’s daughter speak with Gillibrand instead, but Gillibrand declined.

Gillibrand then went on Facebook and posted her demand that Franken resign: “Enough is enough. The women who have come forward are brave and I believe them. While it’s true that his behavior is not the same as the criminal conduct alleged against Roy Moore, or Harvey Weinstein, or President Trump, it is still unquestionably wrong, and should not be tolerated.”

Minutes later, at a previously scheduled press conference, Gillibrand added insult to injury: she reiterated her call for Franken to resign while also trumpeting her sponsorship of a new bill that banned mandatory arbitration of sexual-harassment claims. She didn’t mention that Franken had originated the legislation—and had given it to Gillibrand to sponsor, out of concern that it might be imperilled by his scandal.

… The Rhode Island senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a friend of Franken’s, recalls being astonished that there had been no emergency meeting of the Democratic caucus. “A reasonably organized group of our caucus decided to do this without giving their own colleagues a heads-up,” he said. “This was about demanding that a member of our own caucus resign from the Senate. It was a big deal.” From that point on, he said, “it was like a slow-rolling stampede through the day, waiting to see who would bolt next, with no meeting, no hearing, no process.”

Franken asked to meet with Schumer, who suggested talking at his apartment in downtown D.C., in order to avoid the press. “It was like a scene out of a movie,” Franken recalled. Schumer sat on the edge of his bed while Franken and his wife, who had come to lend moral support, pleaded for more time. According to Franken, Schumer told him to quit by 5 p.m.; otherwise, he would instruct the entire Democratic caucus to demand Franken’s resignation. Schumer’s spokesperson denied that Schumer had threatened to organize the rest of the caucus against Franken. But he confirmed that Schumer told Franken that he needed to announce his resignation by five o’clock. Schumer also said that if Franken stayed he could be censured and stripped of committee assignments.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Franken told me. “I asked him for due process and he said no.”

The next day, Franken gave a short resignation speech. Gillibrand and other Senate colleagues flocked to hug him afterward. But Franken told me, “I’m angry at my colleagues who did this. I think they were just trying to get past one bad news cycle.” For months, he ignored phone calls and cancelled dates with friends. “It got pretty dark,” he said. “I became clinically depressed. I wasn’t a hundred per cent cognitively. I needed medication.”

The lawyer Debra Katz, who has represented Christine Blasey Ford and other sexual-harassment victims, remains troubled by Franken’s case. She contends, “The allegations levelled against Senator Franken did not warrant his forced expulsion from the Senate, particularly given the context in which most of the behavior occurred, which was in his capacity as a comedian.” She adds, “All offensive behavior should be addressed, but not all offensive behavior warrants the most severe sanction.” Katz sees Franken as a cautionary tale for the #MeToo movement. “To treat all allegations the same is not only inappropriate,” she warns. “It feeds into a backlash narrative that men are vulnerable to even frivolous allegations by women.”

Fine. But consider that the U. S. Senate treated Franken more poorly than when they questioned Brett Kavanaugh. Sure, investigations take time and may prove uncomfortable to all those involved. But the facts uncovered by Mayer needed to come out before punishment, not after. At the very least, Franken was convicted in spite of those facts raising reasonable doubt. Franken deserved due process but the senate, fronted by Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, pronounced an end to Franken’s career and said “no.”

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