Leeann Tweeden made the allegations in an online post for KABC, where she works as a news anchor.
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WASHINGTON – Congress may be gridlocked when it comes to policy battles – but the the condemnation from lawmakers after allegations Sen. Al Franken harassed a TV host and sportscaster was incredibly swift on both sides of the aisle. So was the Minnesota Democrat’s apology. An ethics investigation already appears to be in motion. And by the end of the day, the accuser already accepted his apology.
Leeann Tweeden’s post that Franken kissed her against her will – and photograph of him groping her while she was sleeping on a cargo plane in a flak jacket during a Middle East trip to entertain U.S. troops in 2006 – sent shock waves through Washington on Thursday. But lawmakers’ unity, and quick reaction, was notable for Capitol Hill, which has struggled to get anything passed all year on taxes or health care.
“We are at a watershed moment and now is the time for Congress to overhaul how it deals with the issue of sexual harassment,” Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the top House Democrat, said in a statement.
In a mid-morning post, Tweeden, who is now a morning news anchor on KABC Radio in Los Angeles, described how Franken, who was a comedian at the time, “put his hand on the back of my head, mashed his lips against mine and aggressively stuck his tongue in my mouth.” Tweeden said the incident took place back stage when the two were practicing their lines for a comedy skit written by Franken.
No one asked whether Tweeden was telling the truth.
A national conversation about sexual harassment is ricocheting from Hollywood – where movie producer Harvey Weinstein stands accused of harassment and rape – to the halls of Congress. Franken is the first sitting lawmaker to be publicly accused of harassment.
And notably, no lawmakers on Thursday chose to defend the accused along party lines.
The Republican party in particular faces a test on the issue of sexual harassment as Senate candidate Roy Moore, an Alabama Republican who won his party’s primary, stands accused of assaulting and harassing teenage girls when he was in his 30’s. A number of Republican senators have said believe the women, while Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has called on Moore to withdraw from the race.
Now Democrats, with the allegations against Franken, are similarly calling out their own. Several Democrats issued statements condemning Franken’s behavior, including vulnerable Democrats like Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Joe Donnelly of Indiana. “Comedy is no excuse for inappropriate conduct, and I believe there should be an ethics investigation,” said McCaskill.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said she plans to donate the campaign donations she received from Franken’s PAC to Protect Our Defenders, a group that works on ending rape and sexual assault in the military. Her senior adviser, Glen Caplin, said that amounted to $12,500.
McConnell and Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., both called on the Senate Ethics Committee to investigate Franken’s conduct.
Within hours of the first news reports, Franken also issued a statement apologizing to Tweeden – and called for an ethics investigation of himself. Tweeden later said she accepted his apology.
The quick action may be a lesson in how to respond to such allegations in the months and years to come, as more women feel emboldened to out their assaulters or harassers. “I really to think the tide has turned… there’s strength in numbers,” Tweeden said at a news conference.
Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University, said Franken is unlikely to be the last member of Congress to be accused of harassment, especially in an environment in which women across the nation are taking to social media to share stories of unwelcome sexually charged comments to assault in the workplace.
“There’s a heightened sensitivity that we haven’t seen in years,” said Bystrom. The U.S. is at the beginning of a period of exposing bad behavior that has been tolerated in workplaces across the nation, including in the U.S. Capitol, where staffers tend to be young and lawmakers often spend long stretches away from family members who reside back in their home states or districts.
As recently as Tuesday, two female House lawmakers, Barbara Comstock, R-Va., and Jackie Speier, D-Calif., warned there are male lawmakers guilty of harassment who have yet to be publicly named.
Still, few seemed eager on Thursday to expand on their written statements or to discuss in depth the impact of underlying culture that has tolerated harassment on Capitol Hill.
“It’s changing for the better,” shouted Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska. “It’s not a partisan issue and I think it’s very important that we have a process,” said Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., declining to discuss the scope of the problem in Congress.
There’s still, clearly, a long way to go.
While a number of GOP senators said they believe the women accusing Moore of assault, Bystrom noted that initially, many Republicans equivocated by saying Moore should step aside if the allegations by several now-grown women that Moore stalked and groped them as teenage girls were substantiated. The “if true” qualification was a theme of many Republicans’ early reactions. Further, many local Alabama officials continue to stand by Moore, despite the growing number of women accusing him of bad behavior.
It’s also possible that the photo of Franken on the airplane made a difference in the case here. Despite the wave of accusations against Moore, none have photographic evidence other than a signed high school yearbook that Moore claims is phony.
The national conversation now underway about sexual harassment is likely to be far more sweeping than it was in the aftermath of the 1992 confirmation hearings of Justice Clarence Thomas that put a spotlight on his sexual harassment of his former employee Anita Hill, according to Bystrom, who worked with Hill at that time.
In the 1990s, she said, “Women were sharing stories and more complaints were filed,” she said. “Then things settled down.”
The national conversation has more recently picked up steam. It spiked again during the 2016 presidential campaign with the publication of an Access Hollywood audio tape of Donald Trump bragging about grabbing women by their genitals. Trump, who was a candidate at the time of the release, was later elected president.
The wave of celebrity and other women’s allegations against Weinstein, said Bystrom, gave the discussion new life.
“One of the things that changed the narrative was conservative voices jumping in and saying ‘look at all these liberals in the entertainment industry. It’s not just President Trump.’ They’ve opened the door to have a dialogue on this,” Bystrom said.
At a minimum, Congress is poised to change its policies on harassment awareness. Last week, the Senate passed a bipartisan resolution requiring senators and their staff to take training to prevent sexual harassment. There is also a recent letter signed by more than 1,500 former Congressional staff members who’ve urged lawmakers to require mandatory training on sexual harassment.
In a statement, Franken apologized and said the national discussion taking place on harassment means Americans “have been forced to take a good, hard look at our own actions and think (perhaps, shamefully, for the first time) about how those actions have affected women.”
Indeed, some lawmakers seemed to suggest Franken really didn’t realize he was doing anything wrong at the time. “If you’re doing something you thought was (wrong), you wouldn’t take a photo of it,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Contributing: Jessica Estepa