On Thursday, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) called for a Congressional ethics investigation into his own behavior after a woman accused him of groping her. In an expanded explanation of the incident, Franken stated “I understand why we need to listen to and believe women’s experiences.” He said, “I am asking that an ethics investigation be undertaken, and I will gladly cooperate.” Franken, a former entertainer and comedian, was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2008.

Franken’s mea culpa came on the same day that television host and sports broadcaster Leeann Tweeden claimed that he grasped her breasts while she was asleep on a military plane during a 2006 USO tour. On KABC, Tweeden published a photograph that showed Franken groping her breasts and smiling for the camera while they were both on a USO tour. Tweeden also recalled that the future senator kissed her against her will while they were rehearsing a performance for the troops.

“You knew exactly what you were doing. You forcibly kissed me without my consent, grabbed my breasts while I was sleeping and had someone take a photo of you doing it, knowing I would see it later, and be ashamed,” Tweeden wrote. Tweeden said she was only expected to emcee the USO tour but Franken had written her into a skit, prescribing the two to kiss. She claimed that Franken insisted that they rehearse the kiss before the show. When she finally agreed, he “mashed his lips against mine and aggressively stuck his tongue in my mouth.”

“I felt violated all over again. Embarrassed. Belittled. Humiliated,” Tweeden wrote. “How dare anyone grab my breasts like this and think it’s funny?” 

According to the USO, the photo was captured by Owen Franken, the senator's brother who is an acclaimed photojournalist and graduate of MIT.

Here follows an excerpt of Tweeden's article:

"Not long after, I performed the skit as written, carefully turning my head so he couldn’t kiss me on the lips.

"No one saw what happened backstage. I didn’t tell the Sergeant Major of the Army, who was the sponsor of the tour. I didn’t tell our USO rep what happened.

"At the time I didn’t want to cause trouble. We were in the middle of a war zone, it was the first show of our Holiday tour, I was a professional, and I could take care of myself. I told a few of the others on the tour what Franken had done and they knew how I felt about it.

"I tried to let it go, but I was angry.

"Other than our dialogue on stage, I never had a voluntary conversation with Al Franken again. I avoided him as much as possible and made sure I was never alone with him again for the rest of the tour.

"Franken repaid me with petty insults, including drawing devil horns on at least one of the headshots I was autographing for the troops.

"But he didn’t stop there.

"The tour wrapped and on Christmas Eve we began the 36-hour trip home to L.A. After 2 weeks of grueling travel and performing I was exhausted. When our C-17 cargo plane took off from Afghanistan I immediately fell asleep, even though I was still wearing my flak vest and Kevlar helmet.

"It wasn’t until I was back in the US and looking through the CD of photos we were given by the photographer that I saw this one:

"I couldn’t believe it. He groped me, without my consent, while I was asleep.

"I felt violated all over again. Embarrassed. Belittled. Humiliated.

"How dare anyone grab my breasts like this and think it’s funny?

"I told my husband everything that happened and showed him the picture.

"I wanted to shout my story to the world with a megaphone to anyone who would listen, but even as angry as I was, I was worried about the potential backlash and damage going public might have on my career as a broadcaster.

"But that was then, this is now. I’m no longer afraid.

"Today, I am the news anchor on McIntyre in the Morning on KABC Radio in Los Angeles. My colleagues are some of the most supportive people I’ve ever worked with in my career. Like everyone in the media, we’ve been reporting on the Harvey Weinstein sexual misconduct allegations since they broke, and the flood of similar stories that have come out about others.

"A few weeks ago, we had California Congresswoman Jackie Speier on the show and she told us her story of being sexually assaulted when she was a young Congressional aide. She described how a powerful man in the office where she worked ‘held her face, kissed her and stuck his tongue in her mouth.’

"At that moment, I thought to myself, Al Franken did that exact same thing to me.

"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.

"I’m still angry at what Al Franken did to me.

"Every time I hear his voice or see his face, I am angry. I am angry that I did his stupid skit for the rest of that tour. I am angry that I didn’t call him out in front of everyone when I had the microphone in my hand every night after that. I wanted to. But I didn’t want to rock the boat. I was there to entertain the troops and make sure they forgot about where they were for a few hours. Someday, I thought to myself, I would tell my story."

Franken's version

In an initial response on Thursday morning, the acerbic Franken said he did not remember the rehearsal for the skit "in the same way." He also extended his "my sincerest apologies to Leeann," and claimed that he should not have captured the photo, which he described as "clearly intended to be funny.."

Franken’s second statement followed widespread criticism that his initial response did not qualify as a real apology. In the second statement, he said, “The first and most important thing—and if it's the only thing you care to hear, that's fine—is: I'm sorry.” He wrote, “I respect women.  I don't respect men who don’t.” Franken continued, “And the fact that my own actions have given people a good reason to doubt that makes me feel ashamed.”

Franken reiterated his claim that he does not remember the rehearsal “in the same way” as Tweeden does. Nonetheless, he said that Tweeden "deserved to be heard."

“The truth is, what people think of me in light of this is far less important than what people think of women who continue to come forward to tell their stories,” Franken said. “They deserve to be heard, and believed. And they deserve to know that I am their ally and supporter. I have let them down and am committed to making it up to them.”

Franken is facing intense criticism from his legislative colleagues, many of whom also called for an ethics investigation. The controversy comes while Democrats and establishment media have focused on allegations being laid against Alabama Senate GOP candidate Roy Moore, who is facing accusations of harassment and assault brought by several women. 

Here is Franken's statement in full:

“The first thing I want to do is apologize: to Leeann, to everyone else who was part of that tour, to everyone who has worked for me, to everyone I represent, and to everyone who counts on me to be an ally and supporter and champion of women.  There's more I want to say, but the first and most important thing—and if it's the only thing you care to hear, that's fine—is: I'm sorry.

 “I respect women.  I don't respect men who don't.  And the fact that my own actions have given people a good reason to doubt that makes me feel ashamed.

“But I want to say something else, too.  Over the last few months, all of us—including and especially men who respect women—have been forced to take a good, hard look at our own actions and think (perhaps, shamefully, for the first time) about how those actions have affected women.

“For instance, that picture.  I don't know what was in my head when I took that picture, and it doesn't matter. 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.

“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.  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.

“While I don't remember the rehearsal for the skit as Leeann does, I understand why we need to listen to and believe women’s experiences.

“I am asking that an ethics investigation be undertaken, and I will gladly cooperate.

“And the truth is, what people think of me in light of this is far less important than what people think of women who continue to come forward to tell their stories. They deserve to be heard, and believed. And they deserve to know that I am their ally and supporter. I have let them down and am committed to making it up to them.”

Widespread response

Mark Joseph Stern, who writes on gay issues for Slate, wrote that Democrats' credibility on sexual molestation is in jeapordy. In an article titled, "Al Franken should resign immediately: Democrats' credibility on sexual harassment is at stake," Stern wrote:

"There is no rational reason to doubt the truth of Tweeden’s accusations, no legitimate defense of Franken’s actions, and no ambiguity here at all: Franken should resign from the Senate immediately. Democrats should call for him to step down straightaway. This revelation is a test of the Democratic Party’s consistency, honesty, and decency. If Democrats wish to preserve whatever moral standing they have today, they must exhort Franken to leave the Senate, with no hesitation or reservations."

In a tweet, Roy Moore contrasted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's statements about Franken, with McConnell's demand that Moore drop his Senate bid.


Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer joined  McConnell in calling for an ethics probe of Franken. “I’m shocked and concerned,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said Thursday. “The behavior described is completely unacceptable. Comedy is no excuse for inappropriate conduct, and I believe there should be an ethics investigation.

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Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat and the editor of Spero News.

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