Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) on Thursday announced that he will resign amid multiple allegations that he touched women inappropriately, a stunning political fall at a time when the issue of sexual harassment has exploded on Capitol Hill and enveloped both parties.
Yielding to pressure from other Democrats, Franken will now prepare to end a career that seemed just to be hitting its stride as he was emerging as a potent voice challenging the Trump administration — and was being seen as a potential presidential candidate in 2020.
Also Thursday, Republican Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona announced he was resigning after House officials learned that he had asked two staffers to bear his child as a surrogate. And the House Ethics Committee announced it has established an investigative subcommittee to further probe allegations that Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.) sexually harassed a former aide and then retaliated against her after she filed a complaint.
All of this came just two days after Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), the longest-serving member of Congress, became the first lawmaker facing harassment allegations to step down.
The resignations could increase pressure on other accused offenders in the House, including Farenthold and Ruben Kihuen (D-Nev.).
Farenthold, who settled with a former aide who accused him of sexual harassment in 2014, has denied wrongdoing. And Kihuen apologized after his former campaign finance director accused him of unwanted touching and advances last week. So far, he has defied calls from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to step aside.
The mounting pressure on Franken to leave the Senate reflected an effort by Democrats to gain the higher ground on the harassment issue as they seek to capitalize on allegations of misconduct against President Trump and Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore.
The political risks for Democrats came into focus this week in Alabama, where voters will cast ballots next week. Supporters of Moore, who is accused of pursuing romantic relationships with teenage girls while in his 30s, began to argue that Democrats could not decry his alleged misconduct given the scandals plaguing their own party.
In a defiant Senate floor speech Thursday, Franken noted that neither Moore nor Trump has been forced to step aside despite facing arguably more serious allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior.
“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.
Franken in his speech denied recent allegations that he groped and made unwanted advances toward more than a half-dozen women, most of whom said the episodes took place before Franken joined the Senate.
“I know there’s been a very different picture of me painted over the last few weeks, but I know who I really am,” he said, adding, “I know in my heart that nothing I have done as a senator — nothing — has brought dishonor on this institution.”
Franken’s departure from Capitol Hill is perhaps the strongest example yet from the world of politics of the reckoning over sexual harassment and misconduct taking place around the country. As women have come forward over the past two months to accuse powerful men of improper conduct, the standards of behavior tolerated in parts of government and the private sector have undergone sudden, sometimes unpredictable changes.
Before this week, Capitol Hill faced criticism for not punishing accused offenders as quickly as the private sector. On Thursday, as Democrats began to bid farewell to Franken, many affirmed the necessity of applying stricter standards to members of Congress, even those considered friends.
“In every workplace in America, including the U.S. Senate, we must confront the challenges of harassment and misconduct,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), a close friend of Franken’s, said in a statement. “Nothing is easy or pleasant about this, but we all must recognize that our workplace cultures — and the way we treat each other as human beings — must change.”
Franken entered the Senate in 2009 after a bitter recount battle in which he won his first election by 312 votes.
At first, Franken avoided speaking engagements and national political reporters, seeking to shed his reputation as a “Saturday Night Live” comic and radio talk show host for that of a serious policymaker. He took an interest in telecommunications policy, opposing major corporate mergers and becoming an advocate for “net neutrality,” an Obama-era policy to bar Internet providers from blocking or hampering certain websites.
Donald Trump’s presidency raised Franken’s national profile. He became popular among many Democrats for clashing with Trump Cabinet nominees, including Betsy DeVos, now education secretary, and then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), now attorney general.
Franken is expected to make his resignation effective at the end of the month, according to a person familiar with his decision-making. This timetable could allow him to cast several consequential votes on the Republican tax bill, funding the government and possibly the fate of many immigrants brought to the country illegally as children.
Once Franken officially resigns, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D) will pick a replacement to serve until a November 2018 special election. Another election for the seat will take place in 2020, the end of Franken’s current Senate term.
The Minnesota senator suggested Thursday that his replacement would be a woman, lending credence to expectations that Dayton will name Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, State Auditor Rebecca Otto, or state Reps. Tina Liebling or Erin Murphy to the seat. Dayton, in a statement, said he has not yet chosen who will fill the vacancy.
“Minnesotans deserve a senator who can focus all her energy on addressing the challenges they face every day,” Franken said in his floor speech.
The latest allegation against Franken had come in a report published Wednesday morning by Politico. According to a former congressional aide, whose name was withheld by the publication, Franken tried to forcibly kiss her after a taping of his radio show in 2006.
The woman claimed that Franken had told her, “It’s my right as an entertainer.” He denied these allegations outright, and said Thursday he was “shocked” and “upset” by women’s allegations against him.
Franken, who did not issue another apology in his floor speech, also said his previous apologies had been misinterpreted.
“I wanted to be respectful of that broader [national] conversation, because all women deserve to be heard and their experience taken seriously. I think that was the right thing to do,” he said. “I also think it gave some people the false impression that I was admitting to doing things I hadn’t done.”
Until Wednesday, no Senate Democrat had called for Franken to vacate his seat. Some said they were waiting for the conclusion of an investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee, which had Franken’s cooperation.
But after the most recent allegation surfaced, Senate Democratic women who had been privately discussing Franken’s need to resign said enough was enough.
“We need to draw a line in the sand and say none of it is okay, none of it is acceptable. We as elected leaders should absolutely be held to a higher standard, not a lower standard, and we should fundamentally be valuing women. That is where this debate has to go,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) told reporters at a news conference.
She rejected arguments that the Ethics Committee ought to finish its investigation before Franken’s fate was sealed.
“I think it would be better for the country for [Franken] to offer that clear message that he values women, that we value women and that this kind of behavior is not acceptable,” she said.
On Thursday, Democrats said they agreed with Franken’s decision and quickly pivoted to demanding Republicans reject members of their party who face similar allegations.
“Republicans must join Democrats in holding their own accountable,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said in a statement. “The American people should take notice of national Republicans’ support for a morally degraded Senate candidate in Alabama and a president in the Oval Office facing equally credible charges.”
It was an emotional scene Thursday on the Senate floor as Franken announced his plans.
More than 20 members of the Democratic caucus sat watching his speech, including many who had called for him to resign.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), sitting just behind Franken, removed her glasses twice to wipe tears from her eyes.
In the visitors gallery, Franken’s wife, Franni, sat with a group of friends, family and consultants, including Klobuchar’s husband, John Bessler, and Franken’s top political aide, Mandy Grunwald. Some clasped tissues; others held their heads in their hands.
When Franken concluded, several senators approached and hugged him. They included Klobuchar and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who slapped him on the back as they tightly embraced.
Franken then turned to the 26 aides seated behind him, shaking each of their hands and giving hugs. The final aide he greeted, a young woman, laughed and cried as they spoke.
But despite the warmth evident on the Senate floor, it became clear as the minutes passed that no senator would speak in tribute to Franken. None did.
Paul Kane and Ben Terris contributed to this report.