Four women now say Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota groped them without their consent, allegations that have prompted calls for a Senate ethics investigation.
After the first woman came forward with her account of being kissed aggressively and groped while she was asleep, Franken said he recalled their interactions differently. He then said he would cooperate with a Senate investigation.
Morning news anchor Leeann Tweeden first accused Franken of misconduct last week, dating back to 2006 when he was a comedian headed to entertain US troops overseas along with other celebrities. Her public statements prompted three other women to come forward with accounts that Franken groped them during photo ops or political events.
Lindsay Menz told CNN that Franken grabbed her butt in 2010 as they were taking a photo together at the Minnesota State Fair.
Two other women spoke anonymously to to HuffPo, saying Franken also touched them inappropriately during photos. One said Franken similarly grabbed her butt as they were taking a photo together in 2007 at an event hosted by the Minnesota Women's Political Caucus. The other said that Franken cupped her butt during a 2008 Democratic fundraiser in Minneapolis and suggested they go to the bathroom together.
"My immediate reaction was disgust,” she told the HuffPo. “But my secondary reaction was disappointment. I was excited to be there and to meet him."
The wave of accusations began with a first-person post on talk radio KABC's website, where Tweeden wrote that Franken, the headliner for the show organized by the USO, wrote her into his script without asking for her input. "When I saw the script, Franken had written a moment when his character comes at me for a ‘kiss’. I suspected what he was after, but I figured I could turn my head at the last minute, or put my hand over his mouth, to get more laughs from the crowd," Tweeden writes.
But Franken repeatedly insisted, according to Tweeden, on rehearsing the scene beforehand, making her uncomfortable.
"I said ‘OK’ so he would stop badgering me," Tweeden writes. "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."
"I immediately pushed him away with both of my hands against his chest and told him if he ever did that to me again I wouldn’t be so nice about it the next time."
At a press conference last week, Tweeden elaborated: "I pushed him off with my hands and I just remember I almost punched him. Because every time I see him now my hands clench into fists," she said.
When Tweeden returned to the US, she said she was looking through a CD of photos provided by a photographer on the trip and found one of the now-senator groping her while she was asleep. Tweeden's post includes the photo, which shows Franken smiling and touching her breasts while posing for the camera.
"I took that as the final ‘I got the last laugh.’ He knew I wouldn't see it until I got home and I was away from everybody else," Tweeden said of the photo, during Thursday's press conference. "To know it in the context of the entire trip and what happened in the entire two weeks is telling to me."
Tweeden said she "made sure never to be alone with him again" for the rest of the two-week tour, but that Franken made "snide comments" and sometimes defaced photos of her, printed for autograph signing after their performances, with devil horns.
She said the final incident, when Franken touched her breasts while she was sleeping, left her feeling particularly disempowered because she couldn't confront Franken in person about it in the moment.
"In context of assaulting me back stage and all the little petty things he was doing to belittle me and how he treated me in succession and then it ended with that, and how I was left to feel without being able to say whatever I needed to say to his face," she said. "Great. While I was sleeping do you that to me and I can't even say anything to him."
In a statement, Franken at first said he had a different account of the rehearsal and regrets taking the picture.
“I certainly don’t remember the rehearsal for the skit in the same way, but I send my sincerest apologies to Leeann. As to the photo, it was clearly intended to be funny but wasn't. I shouldn't have done it.”
He later put out a more detailed statement, saying he would "gladly cooperate" with an ethics investigation, which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already called for. He also apologized and said he understands "why we need to listen to and believe women’s experiences."
"Coming from the world of comedy, I've told and written a lot of jokes that I once thought were funny but later came to realize were just plain offensive," Franken said. "But the intentions behind my actions aren't the point at all. It's the impact these jokes had on others that matters. And I'm sorry it's taken me so long to come to terms with that."
Franken also said he doesn't remember the rehearsal for the skit and elaborated on the picture Tweeden shared.
"I don't know what was in my head when I took that picture, and it doesn't matter," he said. "There's no excuse. I look at it now and I feel disgusted with myself. It isn't funny. It's completely inappropriate. It's obvious how Leeann would feel violated by that picture. And, what's more, I can see how millions of other women would feel violated by it — women who have had similar experiences in their own lives, women who fear having those experiences, women who look up to me, women who have counted on me."
Before Franken's second statement, McConnell said in statement that the "Ethics Committee should review the matter." "I hope the Democratic Leader will join me on this," McConnell said. "Regardless of party, harassment and assault are completely unacceptable — in the workplace or anywhere else." Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement that he supports the call for an ethics committee investigation. "Sexual harassment is never acceptable and must not be tolerated."
Should the Senate Ethics Committee take up an investigation into Franken’s conduct, it’s unlikely that any information or findings will be made public. The committee very rarely takes any action on the cases before it and rarely announces it when they do.
The committee has not taken action against a single senator, since 2011 when it referred then-senator John Ensign to the Justice Department and the Federal Election Commission, amid a scandal over his affair with a staffer and alleged use of his position to benefit her husband. The committee has only published two statements since then, one in 2012 that included two letters of “admonition” related to the Ensign scandal, and one in 2014 announcing that they’d hired a new staff member.
Aside from those releases, the committee puts out an annual report noting the number of cases that have been put before the committee and the number they acted on, with no details about the inquiries themselves. In its 2016 report, the committee said that it had received 63 allegations of some kind of violation of Senate rules. Of those, the committee reported that it took a “preliminary inquiry” of five of them and then dismissed three. The other two were apparently left unresolved.
In a statement responding to reporters' questions about Franken's conduct in the workplace, eight women who were former Franken staffers, called him a "champion for women."
"Many of us spent years working for Senator Franken in Minnesota and Washington. In our time working for the Senator, he treated us with the utmost respect," the statement said. "He valued our work and our opinions and was a champion for women both in the legislation he supported and in promoting women to leadership roles in our offices."
Asked about the allegations against Franken, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said during Thursday's press briefing that the White House supports the Senate investigating the matter.
"It appears that the Senate is looking into that which they should, and we feel that's an appropriate action," she said.
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and the state's Democratic Farmer Labor party both echoed calls for an ethics investigation. In a statement, the party chairman said he was "incredibly disappointed" in Franken.
Tweeden did not immediately respond to BuzzFeed News for comment. The USO did not respond to a request for comment. Franken is the first sitting lawmaker in the aftermath of the allegations against Hollywood tycoon Harvey Weinstein to be named by an accuser of sexual misconduct.
Tweeden decided to tell her story after listening to California Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier talking about being sexually assaulted as a young congressional aide.
"At that moment, I thought to myself, Al Franken did that exact same thing to me," Tweeden wrote. "I had locked up those memories of helplessness and violation for a long time, but they all came rushing back to me and my hands clinched into fists like it was yesterday."
"Senator Franken, you wrote the script. But there’s nothing funny about sexual assault."
Tweeden told Good Morning America on Friday that it wasn't her intention for Franken to step down from the Senate.
"I didn't do this to have him step down," Tweeden said. "I think Al Franken does a lot of good things in the Senate. You know, I think that's for the people of Minnesota to decide. I'm not calling for him to step down. That was never my intention."
Tweeden's account is not the first allegation of sexually inappropriate behavior against Franken. The Minnesota Democrat's first Senate campaign, in 2008, was damaged by revelations that he had made a joke in a Saturday Night Live writer's room meeting about raping the television journalist Lesley Stahl.
“I give the pills to Lesley Stahl. Then when Lesley is passed out, I take her to the closet and rape her," Franken said, according to a 1995 article in New York magazine. "Or ‘That’s why you never see Lesley until February. Or, ‘When she passes out. I put her in various positions and take pictures of her.’”
In his 2017 memoir, Franken wrote that he "wasn't sorry" for the joke, which he called "stupid." "I was just doing my job," he said.
Vera Bergengruen contributed to this report.
Journalist Lesley Stahl's name was misspelled in a previous version of this post.
Tarini Parti is a politics reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Tarini Parti at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Molly Hensley-Clancy is a politics reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Molly Hensley-Clancy at email@example.com.
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