This post has been updated to add comments Franken gave to reporters Monday on Capitol Hill.
A week-and-a-half and four accusers later, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) keeps issuing apologies without acknowledging or denying he touched women inappropriately.
We still have no clear statement from the senator on claims that he grabbed women's buttocks while taking photos on the campaign trail and that he forcibly kissed broadcaster LeeAnn Tweeden while abroad in 2006.
So far his only consistent message has been: He doesn't remember any of it, but it's possible it happened. It's even possible more women will say it happened to them.
"I take a lot of pictures in Minnesota, thousands of pictures — maybe tens of thousands of pictures — so these are instances that I do not remember," Franken told Capitol Hill reporters on Monday. "From these stories, it's been clear that there are some women — and one is too many — who feel that I have done somethign disrespectful, and that's hurt them, and for that I am tremendously sorry."
It's slippery, politician-y language that could allow Franken to have it both ways: give his accusers the benefit of the doubt (so as to be seen on the right side of this sexual harassment allegations wave sweeping Washington), while keep his political career intact (because he maintains he didn't intentionally grope these women).
Confusing, I know. Actually, pretty much everything Franken has said about his accusers has been extremely confusing. In one breath, he sounds like he's admitting to all of it. “I’m not going to make any excuses. I am embarrassed and ashamed, of some of what has come out,” Franken told Minneapolis CBS affiliate WCCO's Esme Murphy in an interview Sunday from his daughter's home in Washington, D.C.
In the other breath, he seems to make those very same excuses he swore off. Franken issued a Thanksgiving Day statement saying he was just a sloppy hugger and the women misinterpreted him.
As I wrote then, his attempt at clarifying what happened only raises a zillion more questions: Did he grab these women's buttocks or not? If he did, how, exactly, was it unintentional? Does he not know the difference between a woman's waist and her buttocks?
The effect of all this is that Franken has not once denied actually grabbing women inappropriately. And yet he maintains his innocence.
But there's another problem with Franken's defense: While his accusers' stories are sharply similar and clear, Franken's explanation of what he thinks happened is filled with holes.
In that WCCO interview, Murphy did a good job of pressing Franken on this. Here's a critical part of their exchange:
MURPHY: “Are they mistaken that their butt was grabbed is that what you are saying?”
FRANKEN: “I am not saying that. As I said, I take thousands of photos. I don’t remember these particular photos.”
MURPHY: “With all due respect, people are going to find it hard to believe that someone such as yourself wouldn’t know that they were grabbing someone’s butt.”
FRANKEN “I can understand how some people would see it that way.”
MURPHY: “But have you ever placed a hand on some woman’s butt?”
FRANKEN: “I can’t say that it hasn’t happened. In crowded chaotic situations, I can’t say that I have not done that. I am very sorry if these women experienced that.”
As Murphy points out how, exactly, is it possible he grabbed women's buttocks — cupped them, according to some of his accusers — in a professional setting and doesn't remember?
And three of his accusers, two of whom remain anonymous, didn't ask for hugs. They said he groped them while posing for photos. So were the women mistaken?
Perhaps, Franken is saying. The only thing Franken has unequivocally acknowledged he did is what one of his accusers provided photographic proof of: that he put his hands over Tweeden's breasts while she slept.
“The picture was inexcusable and that is what I am most ashamed for,” he told Murphy. (Watch the entire interview here.)
With each subsequent statement or interview, Franken seems to be going out of his way to give his accusers the benefit of the doubt. It's something he didn't do right off the bat, despite being on the record that victims of sexual harassment should be believed.
In another interview, this time with Minnesota Public Radio, Franken said: “What my intention was doesn't matter. Some women said I had crossed the line, and for that I am very sorry ... I think we have to listen to and respect what they are saying.”
“Respect” what his accusers say happened, but don't admit to what he's accused of.
It remains to be seen whether that evasive explanation satisfies a Senate ethics investigation, or his constituents. Since Franken seems intent on trying to keep his job rather than step down over these allegations, it looks like we'll get to find out.