Al Franken is the junior senator from Minnesota, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and author of the number-one bestseller, Al Franken: Giant of the Senate. The interview has been edited and condensed.
Jon Wiener: For a long time you were really funny. But around 2008, you stopped being funny. What happened?
Al Franken: I was running for office, and I had thought that comedy would be an asset. But Republicans, right away, started putting everything I’d ever written or said through this $15 million machine called “The DeHumorizer.” It had been built with advanced Israeli technology to take out all the irony and context and hyperbole, just suck it out and leave you with something offensive. So it became very clear, very early in that race, that humor wasn’t going to be the thing. I had to let people know that I was serious about serving the people of Minnesota in the Senate. And it worked—barely—but it worked.
JW: You beat the Republican incumbent, Norm Coleman. How’s he doing these days?
AF: He landed on his feet. He now continues to serve the people of Minnesota—as a paid lobbyist for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
JW: I got the impression from your book that you don’t like Ted Cruz very much.
AF: Ted’s kind of a toxic coworker. He’s the guy who microwaves fish in the lunchroom. One thing you should know about Ted Cruz is that I like Ted Cruz probably more than most of my colleagues like Ted Cruz, and I hate Ted Cruz.
JW: What do you think about a political party whose final two candidates for the nomination were Ted Cruz and Donald Trump?
AF: Neither of them were terribly popular with establishment Republicans, and I think that Trump voters liked that. They’re mad at government, big government, and think there’s no difference between Republicans and Democrats. They look at big government as a self-serving entity that has no interest in their lives. I understand how they feel, and I think they’re wrong, but there are aspects of the way things work in Washington that they’re right about. Very often, these big corporate interests capture regulatory agencies. Citizens United means that they’ve captured campaign finance in our election system. So that’s why, very often, people who voted for Bernie in the primaries voted for Trump.
JW: Very often?
AF: I think so, or somewhat often. And there are a lot of people who voted for me in 2014 in Minnesota and voted for Trump in 2016.
JW: Bernie won the Democratic caucuses in Minnesota by quite a bit: he got 62 per cent. You were not a Bernie supporter. Let’s talk about the Bernie supporters in Minnesota.
AF: Minnesota has a caucus system, not a primary. There’s a big difference. There’s no perfect way to do all of this, but I think that primaries make sense after the Iowa caucus. If you just have a primary at the beginning, whoever has the most money can get on the air. But the Iowa caucus is different: Everybody in Iowa who cares about this expects to meet all of the candidates. Candidates should come in and fold your laundry, and stuff like that, so that you get to know them. But I think that after that, the rest should be primaries.
JW: You are a trained lie spotter.
AF: I am. That’s part of what I do.
JW: Would it be fair to call Jeff Sessions “a lying little weasel”?
AF: That’s not how I would characterize the attorney general of the United States. In his confirmation hearing before our committee, he answered a question I didn’t ask. It wasn’t a “gotcha” question, it was simply, would you recuse yourself if it turns out—Instead of answering that question, he said, “I didn’t meet with the Russians.” When we learned, about seven weeks later, that he did, in The Washington Post, that’s when he recused himself. I want him to come before the committee again. He is the head of the Justice Department, we’re the Judiciary Committee, we have oversight over the Justice Department. I think his answers about why he answered the way he did and his characterization of it have been inaccurate and false. He’s in a deep hole as far as I’m concerned.
JW: We’re all preoccupied with the health-care bill. Do you think we’re moving—eventually—towards a single-payer system, something like Medicare for all?
AF: There were some of us who were for single payer in 2009. Bernie was leading that. But you had to get 60 votes, and we were about 50 votes short. I’m hoping this Senate bill goes down. Seventeen percent of Americans support this Senate bill—that’s the exact number of Americans who’ve said they’ve seen a ghost. And they don’t like it for a reason, which is that this is taking health care away from people who need it. If this bill doesn’t go through, I hope that we can go through the regular committee process to shore up the exchanges. I would love a public option.
JW: You would love a public option?
AF: Yeah. And at one point in 2009, we were gonna lower the Medicare eligibility age to 55. That would have been very good. But Joe Lieberman kind of squashed that, because you needed every member of the caucus to vote for it.