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Byron York: Can former Senator Al Franken be rehabilitated?

Columnist

Byron York

By Byron York

Al Franken, the Minnesota Democrat and former “Saturday Night Live” star forced out of the Senate in late 2017 by #MeToo allegations, is back in the news.

The New Yorker has published a long article suggesting Franken was “railroaded” — author Jane Mayer’s word — and reporting that several of Franken’s old Senate colleagues now regret calling for him to resign.

Two reactions: First, Franken was railroaded. Faced with a number of iffy allegations, Senate Democrats panicked and pushed him out before any investigation could be done. It was, as I wrote at the time, an example of the “kangaroo court justice of the college campus coming to the U.S. Senate.”

Second, it is striking that Mayer would come to Franken’s defense, and use the word “railroaded,” given that just last year she tried to railroad Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh with a flimsy, damning and unverified allegation of sexual misconduct. And, of course, in an earlier generation, Mayer tried to railroad Justice Clarence Thomas. The sheer partisanship would be funny if the results weren’t so serious.

Mayer’s new piece examines the most-publicized allegation against Franken, that he inappropriately kissed Leeann Tweeden, a radio host with whom Franken appeared in a series of USO shows in 2006. It was the most publicized because Franken posed for a gag photo in which he appeared to be grabbing Tweeden’s breasts as she slept on a flight home from the USO tour.

Mayer applies all of her investigative skills to the case and discovers a number of holes in Tweeden’s story. (The photo, however, is what it is, and Franken is still apologizing for it.) As for the other allegations — there were seven other women who said he behaved inappropriately — Mayer implies that maybe there’s not much to them, either.

Of course, nobody really checked out any of the allegations in November and December 2017, when the Franken frenzy erupted. At the time, Democrats were trying to capitalize on accusations against Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore in Alabama and did not want to complicate matters by appearing to shield one of their own. So they dispensed with even a hint of due process and hustled Franken out the door. Now, Mayer has found seven current or former Democratic senators who say they regret dumping Franken.

But the regrets don’t matter. Once Franken resigned, no matter how precipitously, he was out. And he has not adjusted well to life outside the Senate. From Mayer: “When I asked him if he truly regretted his decision to resign, [Franken] said, ‘Oh, yeah. Absolutely.’”

There are two types of villains in the Franken story, as Mayer tells it. First are the accusers, whom she suggests were conservatives targeting Franken for political reasons. Second are the senators who ran him out and still believe they did the right thing. Chief among them is Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, now a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president. Gillibrand has no regrets; she told Mayer the allegations against Franken were credible, and “he wasn’t entitled to me carrying his water, and defending him with my silence.”

Now, Mayer is the one carrying the water. It’s not clear what effect, if any, her work will have on the Franken case. What is clear, though, is that Mayer’s rescue mission is not playing well in progressive circles.

“Al Franken did the right thing by resigning; If he could remember that, everyone would be better off,” was the headline of a story in Vox.

“What drove the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer into Al Franken denialism?” asked Salon.

“What Jane Mayer gets wrong about Al Franken,” wrote Slate.

The articles all suggested that Mayer had minimized the seriousness of Franken’s conduct, and that she did not fully appreciate the importance of Senate Democrats setting a standard of behavior for themselves in the #MeToo era. Some could not imagine the bad optics, had Franken not resigned.

Judging from reaction to the New Yorker story, he is unlikely to regain the support he once had in the progressive world — no matter how hard some might try to rehabilitate him.

Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.

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