The growing list of powerful men accused of sexual misconduct now includes a sitting U.S. senator, Al Franken (D-Minn.). Leeann Tweeden, a broadcaster and former model, is accusing Franken of unwanted kissing and groping during a USO tour they both embarked upon in 2006 — shortly before Franken launched his ultimately successful 2008 campaign for Senate.
Particularly damning is a photo that shows Franken placing his hands over the breasts of an apparently sleeping Tweeden. Tweeden says she discovered the photo later and was horrified. She says Franken also forcibly kissed her while rehearsing a sketch on the trip, but that nobody else saw it.
Tweeden says it amounted to “sexual assault,” while Franken is playing down the whole thing. But severely complicating Franken's effort to cast doubt on Tweeden's version of events are his own past comments on how sexual assault accusers should be treated.
Here's Franken's response: “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.”
Update: Franken has offered a fuller response in which he again apologizes and calls for an ethics investigation. But Franken reiterates that he doesn't recall things as Tweeden does. "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."
Franken's desire to suggest this wasn't as serious as Tweeden alleges makes sense. If perceived as sexual assault, it would threaten his political career. (Franken has even been talked up by some as a potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidate.)
But Franken has previously suggested — including very recently — that women like Tweeden who accuse men of sexual assault are mistreated. Just last month, in response to the Harvey Weinstein saga, Franken posted on Facebook that responses doubting female accusers are “disappointing.”
“As I’ve listened to their experiences, I’ve realized that the disappointing responses women often face when they go public both embolden harassers and encourage victims to stay silent,” Franken said.
Franken has also worked on legislation to assure that sexual assault accusers who work for defense contractors don't have to get through arbitrators and would have their cases heard in the courts. His work on sexual assault issues continued as recently as last month.
He has also called women who shared #MeToo stories — a hashtag Tweeden used Thursday — “courageous.”
Franken also said that Americans need to stand with and support survivors of sexual assault.
Franken has never said directly that all sexual assault accusers should be completely believed, but his example does show how complicated it can be to talk about standing with victims of sexual assault and not doubting their stories. He is clearly casting doubt on how Tweeden is presenting their interactions back in 2006, which is the kind of thing he just last month labeled “disappointing.”
Hillary Clinton ran into this during the 2016 presidential campaign as well. She at one point tweeted that sexual assault survivors deserve to be “heard, believed and supported.” As plenty noted at the time, back in the 1990s Clinton defended then-President Bill Clinton from several accusations of sexual assault (and worse) by casting doubt on the women's stories.
It's not difficult to make an accusation of hypocrisy, and that's making an already difficult situation for Franken even more difficult.