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Inside Al Franken’s blood feud with Ted Cruz, ‘the guy who microwaves fish’ in the office

Al Franken is the latest senator to go after Ted Cruz (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

There are few people in the halls of Congress who would dispute that the most hated man among them is Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.).

Since he took office in 2013, Cruz seems to have made only enemies. Although the Capitol, and the Senate in particular, is a place where civility and decorum are supposed to be the norm, many of Cruz’s detractors have not bothered to hold back.

Bad blood: John Boehner and his tormentor Ted Cruz

He has been publicly called a “wacko bird” and a “jackass” by senior lawmakers. His fellow Texas senator, Republican John Cornyn, said it was a mistake for him to show up at the Republican National Convention last year. “If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody would convict you,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) once opined.

Harsh words, to be sure.

But no lawmaker, Democrat or Republican, has been as outspoken about his contempt for Cruz as Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who in the past few weeks has ripped into the junior senator from Texas in a string of media interviews and public appearances.

Franken has been promoting his new, sarcastically titled memoir, “Al Franken, Giant of the Senate,” which contains an entire chapter detailing his grievances against Cruz. He has used the free publicity from the book, released Tuesday, to trash his Republican nemesis.

“I probably like Ted Cruz more than most of my other colleagues like Ted Cruz, and I hate Ted Cruz,” Franken quipped in interviews on CNN Wednesday, using a line that appears in his book.

“He’s kind of a toxic guy in an office, the guy who microwaves fish,” he told Anderson Cooper.

“Ted doesn’t get anything done,” Franken said in an earlier appearance on CNN’s “New Day.” “His big accomplishment was shutting down the government.”

He made similar digs in an interview with USA Today and during a book talk at an event hosted by New York Magazine last month.

The jabs continued in a recent town hall discussion with The Hill, where Franken told a story about how some lawmakers tried to avoid drawing Cruz in the Senate’s “secret Santa” gift exchange.

“I’ve had people pick out Cruz’s name and then drop it on the floor,” he said. “I’ve actually had that happen.”

Cruz has taken the bait.

Last week, he told Politico that Franken had “decided that being obnoxious and insulting me is good for causing liberals to buy his books.”

On Wednesday, he used President Trump’s extraordinary Twitter typo to strike back again. When Trump asked his followers to “figure out the true meaning of ‘covfefe,'” Cruz responded: “Hard to say, but I hear Al Franken’s new book is full of it.”

On the surface, it all has the feel of a schoolyard beef, and there’s no denying it makes for good publicity for both men. Cruz, in his four years in the Senate, has reveled in his fellow lawmakers’ disdain, as The Washington Post has reported. And Franken, known as much for his career in comedy as his work in the Senate, seems giddy at the opportunity to show off his comedic skills at Cruz’s expense. (He drew laughs at a variety show in Minnesota last year when he called Cruz “the love child of Joe McCarthy and Dracula.”)

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) took aim at Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) in an appearance at the 2016 MinnRoast in Minneapolis, Minn. (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

But beneath the made-for-meme insults and witty burns, Franken holds some serious objections to Cruz’s conduct in the Senate. In short, it’s not just Cruz’s politics that Franken finds disagreeable. More than anything, Franken hates Cruz because, he says, he’s a nightmare of a colleague.

“Ted Cruz isn’t just wrong about almost everything. He’s impossible to work with. And he doesn’t care that he’s impossible to work with,” Franken writes in his new book.

When Cruz and Trump were vying for the GOP nomination last year, Franken writes, establishment Republicans were so put off by his behavior over the years that they refused to rally behind their counterpart in the Senate.

“Even if you like what he stands for, the most he’ll ever be able to accomplish is being an obnoxious wrench in the gears of government,” Franken writes, citing the Cruz-led government shutdown in 2013. “Real senatoring requires that you build productive relationships with your colleagues. And Ted just isn’t that kind of guy.”

The chapter on Cruz in Franken’s book is called “Sophistry.” For the uninitiated, that means deceitful or fallacious argument. Franken says the title came from an interaction with Cruz after the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school shooting, in which a gunman killed 20 children and 6 adults.

As the story goes, Franken was deciding whether to co-sponsor a bill reviving a ban on assault weapons when Cruz approached him on the Senate floor and told him that anyone who favored the ban was “engaged in sophistry.” When Franken challenged him about the statement some days later, Cruz pretended the exchange never happened.

“A flat denial,” Franken writes. “That’s when I realized that Ted Cruz was really something special.”

The rest of the chapter recounts a number of episodes, most of which took place on the Senate floor or in hearing rooms, highlighting what Franken says is Cruz’s duplicity, dishonesty and self-righteousness.

“I could fill several chapters with Ted Cruz awfulness,” Franken writes.

It’s not all negative, though. Cruz is extremely smart, Franken allows, citing his stint as a clerk for the late William Rehnquist, former chief justice of the United States, and his skills as a lawyer and polemicist. He also says Cruz has a sense of humor. In one anecdote, he recalls how Cruz came into the Capitol after a week-long recess and raved about how funny he found one of Franken’s famous Stuart Smalley skits on “Saturday Night Live.”

But for Franken, none of that saves Cruz from denunciation and ridicule. Cruz, he writes, has broken “unwritten rules” of civility in the Senate, namely the one that says don’t “repeat in public a conversation you’ve had with a colleague in private if that conversation makes your colleague look bad in any way.” The prime example, he said, was a now-notorious episode in 2015 when Cruz accused Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) on the Senate floor of lying to Congress and the press.

“It was the sort of thing that just isn’t done, a breach of decorum so shocking that even I haven’t committed it,” Franken writes.

Franken’s criticisms seem to echo much of what other lawmakers and Republican officials have said about Cruz in the past, though typically with much more restraint (and sometimes anonymity).

“Cruz is a grandstander, they say, who trashes fellow Republicans for his own gain,” reported The Post in 2015, describing the views of some of Cruz’s colleagues.

A story in the Atlantic last year drew similar conclusions, saying Cruz’s “lack of regard for his colleagues, and for the niceties that have traditionally governed the upper chamber,” were a recurring problem for him.

Cruz has signaled time and again that he’s unfazed. Indeed, he uses it to showcase his anti-Washington credentials. “I’m not serving in office because I desperately needed 99 new friends in the U.S. Senate,” he once said.

With all that in mind, perhaps Franken is using his celebrated wit to channel not just his own frustrations about Cruz but those that others have more quietly harbored all along.

“To get things done in the Senate, you’ve got to be able to get along with people. It’s like you’re living in a town of 100 people,” Franken told CNN on Wednesday. “You’ve got to be a good colleague.”

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