By Elana Schor and Seung Min Kim
Sen. Al Franken said on Thursday that he would resign after seven women came forward in recent weeks and said he groped or tried to forcibly kiss them, capping a stunning fall from grace for one of the Democratic Party’s most popular and high-profile politicians.
The second-term Minnesota Democrat, a prolific fundraiser once viewed as a possible White House hopeful, quickly lost support of most Democratic senators after a fresh set of allegations hit this week. Franken is the second Democratic member of Congress to quit — Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the longest-serving member of the House, also resigned this week — amid a heightened consciousness and debate across the nation about the heavy toll of workplace sexual harassment.
The 66-year-old senator, a famous comedian and talk show host in his former life who was first elected in 2008, needled President Donald Trump and Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore while announcing his departure “in the coming weeks.” An aide said Thursday that an exact resignation date has yet to be determined.
“I, of all people, am aware that there is some irony in the fact that I am leaving while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office and a man who has repeatedly preyed on young girls campaigns for the Senate with the full support of his party,” Franken said, referring to Trump’s comments captured on tape about grabbing women’s genitals and to Moore’s multiple allegations of sexual assault or harassment of women in their teens.
“But this decision is not about me,” Franken added in his floor speech, which began shortly before noon on Thursday. “It’s about the people of Minnesota. It’s become clear that I can’t pursue the Ethics Committee process and at the same time remain an effective senator for them.”
About two dozen Democratic senators attended Franken’s address, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, fellow Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar, and several of the female senators who triggered the flood of resignation calls. Many members of Franken’s staff sat behind him on the chamber, with a handful appearing very emotional — as did Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who removed her glasses at least twice to wipe her eyes.
Only one Republican was in the chamber for Franken’s speech (aside from Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska, who was presiding at the time): Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, an outspoken Trump critic who called Franken a “friend” who “did the right thing.” Also watching the speech from the Senate gallery were Franken’s wife, Franni; longtime Democratic consultant Mandy Grunwald, a friend of Franken; and John Bessler, Klobuchar’s husband.
After he concluded his address, no one applauded, as usually happens during a senator’s farewell speech. No other senator stood up to make remarks about Franken’s tenure. Instead, Democratic senators walked over to Franken’s desk and lined up to embrace him, including women such as Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, who demanded his ouster.
Not all Democratic senators agreed with Franken’s decision to step aside, however.
“You know, I just felt the process should’ve proceeded,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said after a long pause. “I thought that Al should’ve been able to go through the process and in the process, he would’ve been able to make the statement he had to make today [that] he was forced to make, without resigning.”
Franken’s popularity among his party’s liberal base has stoked some anxiety on the left over the party’s decision to push him out. His political stardom skyrocketed earlier this year as he emerged as one of the toughest questioners during confirmation hearings for top Trump administration officials, including now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
He was close with Schumer, who led the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee during Franken’s 2008 Senate bid, which prompted a recount that left the former “Saturday Night Live” star victorious by just 312 votes and handing Democrats the all-critical 60th vote in the Senate.
Though a gregarious personality in the Senate, Franken tried to keep his profile down in some ways, eschewing the national press in favor of home-state media. But he was an outspoken force on several key issues, including on education and net neutrality.
For fellow Democrats however, particularly the women in the caucus, the tide of allegations against him became too great to ignore.
POLITICO reported Wednesday morning on the seventh woman to come forward about Franken, a former Democratic congressional aide who said he tried to forcibly kiss her in 2006. Within hours, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) called for his resignation, followed by a half-dozen fellow female Democrats and, eventually, a majority of the caucus.
Schumer quietly urged Franken on Wednesday to step aside following the publication of the POLITICO story, and other Democratic senators privately spoke with the embattled senator before he made his announcement on Thursday.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who spoke with Franken on the phone on Wednesday, said he told him that “it matters to me that you called me personally, and I will also do the right thing.”
“I said, ‘Look, I think this behavior, you’re a wonderful senator and you’ve done so much good for so many but I just think the behavior is wrong and resignation is really the only alternative now,'” Kaine recalled. “It was a hard conversation.”
Still, Franken offered no apology on Thursday to the seven women who have alleged sexually improper behavior. He noted in his speech that in responding to the women, he “wanted to be respectful” of the broader national conversation about sexual harassment “because all women deserve to be heard and their experiences taken seriously.”
“I think that was the right thing to do,” he added. “I also think it gave some people the false impression that I was admitting to doing things that, in fact, I haven’t done. Some of the allegations against me are simply not true, others I remember very differently.”
Franken’s seat may be in play in an expected special election next year, given that President Donald Trump lost Minnesota by an unexpectedly slim margin in 2016. The state’s Democratic governor, Mark Dayton, is expected to appoint Lt. Gov. Tina Smith as a caretaker for the seat, paving the way for a potential open primary race in a 2018 special election to serve out the two years remaining in Franken’s term.
Pushing Franken out, after Conyers resigned on Tuesday amid misconduct allegations from several former aides, also puts Democrats on firmer political ground on the issue of sexual harassment the as the GOP prepares for Moore’s potential arrival in the Senate.
Moore, the Republican nominee in Alabama’s Dec. 12 Senate special election, faces multiple allegations of sexual assault or harassment from women and girls as young as 14. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has signaled he plans to pursue expulsion proceedings against Moore, but the Alabaman’s endorsement by Trump is driving a wedge within the GOP.
“One of the serious issues we have to face is, what is the appropriate price to pay if you are guilty of such misconduct? To make every case resignation is not fair,” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois said. “To ignore the problem is certainly unacceptable. So we have to work this out as an institution, in terms of our ethics committee, its authority and the standards that we’re going to use to grade ourselves and others.”