WASHINGTON — Al Franken announced Thursday he will resign his Senate seat, falling to a whirlwind of sexual misconduct allegations like those that have enmeshed other politicians, business leaders and media figures across the country in recent months.
The Minnesota Democrat, a second-term senator once seen as a potential presidential candidate in 2020 or beyond, earlier had said he would not leave office but would submit to a Senate ethics investigation into his behavior. He had acknowledged some misconduct, but denied other allegations.
His fate appeared sealed, however, on Wednesday, when more than half of Senate Democrats issued calls for his resignation in an uprising led by female senators. The choreographed move came as yet another woman came forward to accuse Franken of unwanted advances before he was elected to the Senate, and Senate Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer of New York privately met with Franken to tell him the time had come to quit.
Franken’s announcement marked the second departure this week of a once-heralded Democrat caught in unsavory accusations. On Tuesday, the senior member of the House, Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, quit after multiple complaints by aides that he had sexually harassed them.
The departure marks the end of the legislative career that began when Franken squeaked into office on an exceptionally narrow win, was reelected more easily and had emerged as a well-regarded member of the party’s growing liberal wing.
Franken’s resignation will not change the balance of power in the Senate, where Republicans hold the majority with 52 seats. Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, a fellow Democrat, will appoint a replacement to serve until a special election can be held in November 2018. The winner of that election will hold the seat until what would have been the end of Franken’s second term, in January 2021.
Franken had recent star turns on Capitol Hill: It was his questioning of then-Sen. Jeff Sessions at Sessions’ nomination hearing in early 2017 to become attorney general that spurred the Alabamian to assert that neither he nor others on the Trump campaign had any conversations with Russian officials during the campaign. That has been shown to be false. Sessions and Franken had another televised go-around at a hearing last month that centered on Russia’s involvement in the election.
A politician with an unusual entree into politics — an occasionally raunchy comedy career that included his years on “Saturday Night Live” — Franken’s fall was as swift as his rise.
The first claim against him came from Los Angeles radio host Leeann Tweeden, who on Nov. 16 accused him of aggressively kissing and groping her during a 2006 USO tour of the Mideast in which the two worked as performers. She also made public a picture taken of Franken with his hands outstretched near her breasts while she slept on a military plane as the performers returned from overseas, as if mocking the act of groping her.
Franken issued two statements apologizing to Tweeden and expressing disappointment with his own actions.
“I respect women. I don’t respect men who don’t,” Franken said. “And the fact that my own actions have given people a good reason to doubt that makes me feel ashamed.”
Four days later, a woman named Lindsay Menz said that Franken placed his hand on her buttocks as they posed for a picture at the Minnesota state fair in 2010, when he was a senator.
Franken, in a statement, said that he had taken thousands of pictures at the fair and did not specifically remember Menz. He was sorry that she felt “disrespected,” he said.
Additional accusations continued through Wednesday, when Politico reported that a former congressional aide had come forward to claim that Franken had kissed her when she accompanied her boss to an appearance on Franken’s radio show in 2006. The incident, like Tweeden’s, occurred before Franken was elected senator.
The allegations against Franken came as a conversation about sexual harassment spiraled nationally. Since early October, when movie producer Harvey Weinstein was forced out of his company after accusations of sexual harassment, abuse and rape surfaced, charges of sexual misconduct have ended — or severely damaged — the careers of many prominent men. On Capitol Hill, women have recounted numerous incidents of groping and unwanted advances from men, including officeholders, and said that Congress does not sufficiently protect them.
Besides Conyers and Franken, Rep. Ruben Kihuen of Nevada, another Democrat, has been accused of sexual aggression against a former campaign aide. He issued a limited apology and said that he would not resign.
Another member of Congress, Texas Republican Blake Farenthold, allegedly harassed an aide who received an $84,000 taxpayer-financed settlement, which was revealed last week. Farenthold told a Texas television station that he did nothing wrong but would try to repay the money, and Republicans in the House have not pressed for his departure.
The subject of harassment was a central issue in last year’s presidential campaign after Donald Trump was accused by more than a dozen women of inappropriate behavior, including sexual assault. Trump has consistently denied the accusations, despite saying on a 2005 video made by “Access Hollywood” that he had groped women in a predatory manner. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed again last month that the president contends that all of his accusers are lying.
In recent weeks Trump flung insults at Franken via Twitter.
“The Al Frankenstien picture is really bad, speaks a thousand words. Where do his hands go in pictures 2, 3, 4, 5 & 6 while she sleeps?” Trump tweeted, misspelling the name of the fictional character, after Tweeden released the photo of Franken.
The Democrats’ handling of Franken unspooled slowly. Several senators immediately condemned him and said they would return campaign donations from Franken, who had transferred his pre-political celebrity into a high-profile fundraising role for party candidates. Few initially said that he should resign, instead either remaining silent or arguing that his case should be heard by the Ethics Committee.
But the timing of the Franken accusations was highly uncomfortable, coming in the midst of a Democratic effort to defeat Roy Moore, the Republican Senate candidate from Alabama who has been accused of making advances on and molesting teenagers as young as 14 when he was a local prosecutor in his 30s. One of the women has accused him of sexual assault. Moore faces voters on Tuesday.
As the number of women accusing Franken rose, female Democratic senators in particular reached what one of them called a judgment that “enough is enough.” They unleashed their demands on Wednesday, and then waited for his Thursday response.