WASHINGTON — Sen. Al Franken, a rising political star only weeks ago, reluctantly announced Thursday he’s resigning from Congress, succumbing to a torrent of sexual harassment allegations and evaporating support from fellow Democrats. But he fired a defiant parting shot at President Donald Trump and other Republicans he said have survived much worse accusations.
“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.
The 66-year-old Minnesotan, a former “Saturday Night Live” comedian who made a successful leap to liberal U.S. senator, announced his decision in a subdued Senate chamber three weeks after the first accusations of sexual misconduct emerged but just a day after most of his Democratic colleagues proclaimed he had to go. His remarks underscored the bitterness many in the party feel toward a GOP that they say has made a political calculation to tolerate Trump and Alabama GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore, who’ve both been accused of sexual assaults that they’ve denied.
In largely unapologetic remarks that lasted 11 minutes, Franken said “all women deserve to be heard” but asserted that some accusations against him were untrue. He called himself “a champion of women” during his Senate career who fought to improve people’s lives.
“Even on the worst day of my political life, I feel like it’s all been worth it,” he said.
Franken’s departure, which he said would occur in “coming weeks,” made him the latest figure from politics, journalism and the arts to be toppled since October. That’s when the first articles appeared revealing sexual abuse allegations against Hollywood titan Harvey Weinstein and energizing the #MeToo movement in which women have named men they say abused or harassed them.
Democratic Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton will name a temporary successor, who will serve until a special election next November.
Franken’s comments appended a melancholy coda to the political career of the one-time TV funnyman who became one of his party’s most popular and bellicose liberals.
Just two days earlier, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., a civil rights hero who’d been the House’s longest-serving current member, resigned after facing sexual harassment allegations of his own. The two departures underscored the party’s determination to show no tolerance for such behaviour, a strategy that can bring stunningly fast conclusions to political careers but that party leaders believe could give them high moral ground on a subject that’s shown no sign of fading.
Later Thursday, Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., resigned as well, effective Jan. 3, after admitting he had asked two female staff aides about becoming a surrogate mother. The House Ethics Committee late Thursday also opened an investigation into Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, for allegations he sexually harassed a former staff aide and retaliated against her for complaining of discrimination.
On a 2005 audio tape released shortly before last year’s presidential election, Trump is heard talking about grabbing women, and several women accused him of sexual assaults. Women in Alabama have accused Moore of unwanted sexual contact and pursuing romantic relationships when they were teenagers and he was in his thirties during the 1970s.
Asked about Franken’s comment about him on Thursday, Trump merely replied, “I didn’t hear it, sorry.”
At least eight women had accused Franken of inappropriate sexual behaviour. Until this week, he’d said he’d remain in the Senate and co-operate with an investigation into his behaviour.
The breaking point came Wednesday, when a former Democratic congressional aide said he forcibly tried to kiss her in 2006, an accusation he denied. Hours later, another woman said he’d inappropriately squeezed “a handful of flesh” on her waist while posing for a photo with her in 2009.
The accusations started last month when Leeann Tweeden, now a Los Angeles radio anchor, accused him of forcibly kissing her during a 2006 USO tour in Afghanistan. She also released a photo of him with his hands at her breasts as she napped aboard a military plane.
On Thursday, Franken walked to the Senate chamber shortly before noon, hand-in-hand with his wife of 35 years, Franni. As he spoke, members of his family watched from the visitors’ gallery, some sobbing. Franken said that thanks to them, “I’m going to be just fine.”
Almost two-dozen colleagues listened silently at their desks, some dabbing their eyes. Those watching were nearly all Democrats and many were women, including New Yorker Kirsten Gillibrand, who released the first of what became a flood of public statements Wednesday calling for Franken’s resignation. Also present was Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, who one Democrat said had spent much of Wednesday persuading his friend to leave.
After Franken spoke, many of his colleagues lined up to hug him.
He said he was leaving because he couldn’t handle an ethics panel investigation while representing his state effectively. He said he’d remain an activist: “I may be resigning my seat, but I am not giving up my voice.”
A star on “Saturday Night Live,” the Harvard-educated Franken was elected to the Senate in 2008 by 312 votes. In Washington, he distanced himself from his comedic background, largely avoided national reporters and burrowed into consumer issues. He found his voice as a sharp critic of Trump administration officials and has been listed as a potential 2020 presidential contender.
His announcement prompted immediate manoeuvring for his seat.
Among the possibilities for Minnesota Gov. Dayton’s temporary appointment is Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, a trusted Dayton ally. The winner of a special election in November 2018 would serve through the end of Franken’s term in January 2021.
Midterm elections are often difficult for the party that holds the White House, and Trump is deeply unpopular. But Hillary Clinton defeated Trump by just 1.5 points in the state, preserving a four-decade run for the Democrats in presidential elections.