The right thing to do or 'political stunt'? Experts disagree on Franken resignation

In this image from video from Senate Television, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., speaks on the Senate floor of the Capitol in Washington, Thursday morning, Dec. 7, 2017. Franken said he will resign from the Senate in coming weeks following a wave of sexual misconduct allegations and a collapse of support from his Democratic colleagues, a swift political fall for a once-rising Democratic star. (Senate TV via AP)

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., became the second prominent Democrat this week to resign in disgrace under pressure from his own party after being accused of sexual misconduct Wednesday, a development the outgoing senator eagerly contrasted with the Republican National Committee boosting support for a Senate candidate facing allegations of predatory behavior.

In a defensive speech on the Senate floor, Franken maintained that many allegations against him are untrue and he believes he would have prevailed in an Ethics Committee investigation, but he acknowledged he cannot effectively serve his constituents while fighting that battle. He will therefore resign “in the coming weeks.”

Earlier in the week, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., announced he was retiring immediately amid growing sexual harassment claims against him. Some Democrats are also pressing Rep. Ruben Kihuen, D-Nev., to step down over alleged improper behavior toward a campaign fundraiser.

Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, has so far not faced similar calls from his GOP colleagues over harassment allegations made by his former communications director. That case was settled using taxpayer funds, and Farenthold has vowed to reimburse the settlement fee since it was made public.

GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore remains favored to win a special election in Alabama on December 12 just weeks after reports emerged that he made sexual advances on a 14-year-old when he was in his 30s and he dated several other teens who were barely above the age of consent. Moore has denied any wrongdoing and claimed the women accusing him are liars.

Moore was initially castigated by many prominent Republicans, but after President Trump explicitly endorsed him recently, the RNC resumed providing financial support for his campaign.

Trump himself was accused of harassment and unwanted sexual advances by over a dozen women before the 2016 election. Also revealed before the election was a 2005 recording of Trump bragging about being able to sexually assault women because he is a celebrity. He has denied actually doing what he described and dismissed his words as “locker room talk.”

Until this week, it seemed as if men in politics were weathering the storm of sexual misconduct allegations gripping the country more successfully than those in entertainment and business. While some filmmakers, actors, and executives faced expulsion or suspension promptly after accusations were made public, several politicians held onto their seats.

That changed with Conyers heeding calls for him to step down Monday, and a swarm of Democratic senators turning against Franken Wednesday. After Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., demanded Franken resign, dozens of her colleagues followed suit, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

“I have spent a lot of time reflecting on Senator Franken’s behavior,” Gillibrand said in a Facebook post. “Enough is enough. The women who have come forward are brave and I believe them. While it’s true that his behavior is not the same as the criminal conduct alleged against Roy Moore, or Harvey Weinstein, or President Trump, it is still unquestionably wrong, and should not be tolerated by those of us who are privileged to work in public service.”

One day earlier, Gillibrand—who also made headlines recently by declaring that President Bill Clinton should have resigned over his affair with Monica Lewinsky—had dodged questions about whether Franken should step down.

According to Vanessa Tyson, an assistant professor of politics at Scripps College, the tide turning against Franken was likely not as abrupt as it seemed.

“I don’t know that it was necessarily all of a sudden,” Tyson said. “My guess is that the women of the Senate in particular and a certain number perhaps in the House were speaking about it confidentially among themselves.”

Politico reported that several female Democratic senators had agreed that they would seek Franken’s resignation if one more credible allegation emerged, which is indeed what happened Wednesday when a former congressional aide said Franken tried to forcibly kiss her in 2006.

“When you think about certain women in the Senate on the Democratic side who have taken strong stands regarding sexual violence, particularly Kirsten Gillibrand, there seems to be a deep-seated anger, and rightfully so, toward people who abuse their power in such a way that it becomes sexual predation,” Tyson said.

Democratic strategist Matt McDermott suggested Franken’s resignation sends a powerful signal that the party will no longer tolerate such behavior.

“Democrats have drawn an important line in the sand: no one who has demeaned, degraded, harassed, or assaulted women should hold political office,” he said.

After calls for his resignation intensified Wednesday, some unexpected allies rose to Franken’s defense. On Fox News, host Laura Ingraham and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich blasted the Democratic “lynch mob” targeting him.

Ingraham cast the ouster of Franken and Conyers as part of a plot to take down Moore and Trump. Gingrich echoed that theory and complained Democrats are not affording Franken due process.

“This isn't principle. In fact, it is the most cynical kind of politics,” said Tucker Carlson on his own Fox show Wednesday, accusing Gillibrand of hypocrisy for supporting Bill Clinton in the past and standing against sexual abuse now.

Tyson, who has worked with victims of sexual abuse for years, said it seems more likely that women on Capitol Hill are as fed up with male predation as women across the country.

“I don’t think this is about political expediency,” she said. “I think this is about an anger that is kind of under the surface that women are preyed upon simply as they try to participate in government, in entertainment, in the society they live in. How are we supposed to be equal participants if we constantly have to defend our bodies and ourselves from others who are protected by the system?”

Bob Mann, a former Senate press secretary and a professor at Louisiana State University, said Democrats probably could have sustained their initial stance that the Ethics Committee should investigate the accusations against Franken and determine the consequences, if they were not simultaneously arguing that misconduct claims against Moore make him unfit for the Senate.

“I’ve got to think it has a lot to do with Roy Moore, and Democrats are taking this very strong position about the Alabama Senate race and what the allegations against him mean and the need to believe his accusers,” Mann said. “I think they had to take what they saw as a morally consistent position to hold Franken to a similar standard.”

According to McDermott, Democrats are just doing the right thing, but it does underscore a stark difference with Republicans.

“It's worth remembering that even as Democrats - particularly Democratic women of the Senate - stood up to call on Al Franken to resign, the Republican National Committee has embraced accused child molester Roy Moore in Alabama, funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars to his campaign ahead of next week's election,” he said.

Republican strategist Ford O’Connell took a more cynical view of what he deemed a “political stunt.”

“I would say the Democrats forcing out Sen. Franken is hardly a profile in political courage. It was an easy call. They lose nothing politically,” he said, noting that both Franken and Conyers will be replaced by Democrats.

None of this changes the political calculations for Republicans who are backing Moore, according to O’Connell, because they see through Democrats’ strategy.

“They want to make Roy Moore the hood ornament that they can tie around Republicans’ necks as they head into the 2018 elections,” he said.

Given how rare united Republican government is, surrendering a Senate seat over Moore would carry heavy political cost for the GOP. If Moore wins, O’Connell said Republicans could still adjudicate the allegations against him through the Ethics Committee, find some way to force him out, and let Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey appoint a Republican replacement.

“In a lot of ways, they feel that they’re making the right decision,” he said. “They’re not huge fans of Roy Moore, but they understand the stakes.”

Questions about the Republican response to accusations against Moore and Trump have grown in recent days, and Franken himself called out an apparent incongruity in his resignation speech.

“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,” he said.

Following Franken’s comments, Sen. Bernie Sanders took to Twitter to suggest Trump follow the Minnesota senator’s lead.

“We have a president who acknowledged on tape that he assaulted women,” he said. “I would hope that he pays attention to what's going on and think about resigning.”

The White House again deflected questions about the accusations against President Trump Thursday by claiming voters resolved the issue by electing him last November. A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday found that 70 percent of Americans want Congress to investigate allegations against Trump and 73 percent said it is hypocritical for him to criticize others accused of harassment, which he frequently does on social media.

According to O’Connell, Democrats are laying the groundwork to attack Trump on the issue in 2020.

“This is in the short-term primarily aimed at Roy Moore, but they’re trying to develop a long-term political strategy to reclaim the moral high ground and revive their ‘war on women’ theme,” he said.

How effective that strategy is may depend on how many more members of Congress face similar allegations in the months and years ahead.

“If this is the last one, the 2018 election is almost a year away, a lot is going to happen between now and then and I could see this issue fading into the background,” Mann said.

A prolonged ethics investigation of Moore or a messy attempted expulsion could guarantee that it stays on the front burner.

“’When are Republicans going to do the right thing?’ I think is a question that’s going to be asked a lot in the next few days and weeks,” Mann said.

While the RNC and the president have slowly come around to openly embracing Moore, some Senate Republicans remain uncomfortable with the idea of an alleged child molester joining their ranks on Capitol Hill.

“I did not endorse Roy Moore,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. “I would be better for him to step aside and he did not do that. We’ll see what ethics process is in Senate.”

Alabama’s senior senator, Richard Shelby, stood by his decision to write in another Republican’s name instead of Moore, and he distanced himself from Moore’s supporters in the party.

“That’s up to the Republican National Committee to do,” he said. “The president can do what he wants to. Anyone can do what they want to. I did what I thought was best.”

Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Ill., said he is disturbed by the allegations against Moore, Franken, and Conyers.

“We shouldn’t have people in elected office who have engaged in this type of activity,” he said. “That is wrong.”

Asked about Farenthold’s case, LaHood said only that he has concerns and that the congressman should reimburse taxpayers for the settlement funds.

“I think there’s a lot of my colleagues who have the same concerns,” he added.

Although some pundits and progressives have warned that Democrats holding themselves to a higher standard than Republicans on this issue amounts to unilateral disarmament, McDermott sees that as a familiar refrain that “Democrats are damned if they do and damned if they don't.”

“Ultimately, Democrats need to stand true to their values - and rid themselves of individuals who have demeaned others or who have used positions of power to take advantage of others,” he said.

While he views sexual harassment as a serious problem that needs to be addressed in politics and across the country, O’Connell is skeptical of Democrats taking a stand against their own members a week before the Alabama election.

“It’s just the timing of this seems a little too convenient,” he said.

Whether O’Connell is right or this moment represents a true paradigm shift in how Washington grapples with sexual misconduct will not be clear for a while, but Tyson believes the resignations of Conyers and Franken serve as a warning shot to other men in positions of political power.

“I definitely think that the dynamic has changed, that the environment and the climate on Capitol Hill has evolved rather rapidly in the last couple of months,” she said. “And I think that the elected officials, as well as members of staff, who clearly seem to abuse the power and position that they might be in are on notice.”

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