When sexual-harassment allegations first emerged against Minnesota Senator Al Franken, I wrote in these pages that he shouldn’t resign. Seven new accusations later, I’d come to agree with prominent Democratic senators that Franken has to go. And on Thursday he agreed.
While claiming that “some of the allegations against me are simply not true. Others, I remember very differently,” Franken nonetheless resigned from the Senate. “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 noted.
It pains me to write this. The comedian turned politician has been an excellent senator, this year establishing that Attorney General Jeff Sessions lied about his contacts with Russian officials, which led to Sessions’s recusing himself from the investigation into collusion between Russian officials and the Trump campaign. Franken was also part of an earlier Resistance, against George W. Bush, in the dark days after Bush’s 2004 reelection. He raised progressive spirits and raised money for Democrats in the years leading up to the election of Barack Obama, when Franken was also elected to the Senate (after a protracted recount). I have written about him as the perfect foil for Trump. I’ve said I hoped he’d run for president. He assured me, back in May, that he would not—for one reason, he was extremely happy in the Senate.
But as the stream of allegations went on, it became obvious Franken couldn’t continue to be effective—and on Wednesday night, that apparently became obvious even to Franken.
Still, I would like to see Franken’s departure be not just another #MeToo moment but a long-delayed #TrumpToo moment. Now that Franken has left the building, why can’t the Democratic senators who’ve asked him to resign—an astonishing 35 out of 48 caucus members—now commit to holding hearings on Trump’s many sexual-abuse accusations? A Quinnipiac poll out Wednesday shows that 70 percent of Americans polled say they want Congress to investigate the allegations against Trump; only 25 percent are opposed. Given that Trump’s pathetic approval ratings normally show him with the backing of 35 to 40 percent of those polled, this means a significant number of Trump supporters also want these charges investigated.
I know: Democrats are in the minority, in both houses of Congress. Such hearings would hold limited power. But even in the minority, ranking congressional Democrats can still get congressional hearing rooms and media attention. They won’t have subpoena power, but they don’t need subpoena power to call Trump’s victims to testify.
I would like to see the Democrats get more aggressive with Trump, because they need to be honest with themselves about what Franken’s resignation will not do. It will not force GOP leaders to concede that Democrats have integrity when it comes to these claims, and that Republicans don’t. As Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick explains, that’s because “Republicans have built an unlevel playing field of morality.” Remember: Serial prevaricator Sarah Huckabee Sanders has already explained that the difference between Franken and Trump is that Franken admitted something happened, and apologized, while Trump denied all the charges against him.
To GOP hypocrites like Sanders—and so many more—all Franken’s resignation will mean is that the senator is guilty of sexual wrongdoing, while Trump is not. And that standard applies to the brazen child molester Roy Moore, accused of sexual predation by nine women—including one who said he molested her at age 14—and who may still be elected Alabama’s next senator. And on Fox Wednesday night, host Laura Ingraham and guest Newt Gingrich previewed a new way conservatives will use Franken against them, according to CNN’s Brian Stelter: by making them the party of “weird puritanism,” denying Franken “due process” over “minor stuff” and acting like a “lynch mob.” There is no bottom when it comes to the GOP.
Another thing Franken’s resignation won’t do: It will never establish any kind of equivalence between what the Minnesota senator is accused of doing, and the accusations against Trump, Moore, and Texas Representative Blake Farenthold. Even though Franken is the first among them to pay any political price, there is no comparison in terms of what they’ve been charged with. Let’s start with Farenthold, who used 84,000 taxpayer dollars to settle a sexual harassment claim with an employee. That woman told The Washington Post this week that Farenthold ruined her career. She left politics and now babysits and does other odd jobs. None of Franken’s accusers have said anything close to that happened to them as a result of his wayward hands.
Much like Farenthold’s accuser, the woman Moore molested at 14, Leigh Corfman, says Moore’s abuse took a serious toll on her life—on her romantic prospects, her friendships, her sobriety, her career. That’s a sadly common story for victims of child sexual abuse.
Donald Trump, meanwhile, doesn’t have eight accusers, like Franken; he has twice that, 16. Their charges range from his reaching up their skirts to touch their vaginas through their underwear, to multiple counts of unwanted kissing, to all kinds of creepy groping, kissing, and predation. Plus, there are the four young Miss Teen Universe contestants who told Buzzfeed that Trump walked in on them while they were changing.
For both that and the vagina-groping charge, we have Trump’s own voice in confirmation.”When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything,” he said on the Access Hollywood tape. “Grab ‘em by the pussy.” About his Miss Universe pageants, Trump told Howard Stern: “I’ll tell you the funniest is that I’ll go backstage before a show and everyone’s getting dressed. No men are anywhere, and I’m allowed to go in, because I’m the owner of the pageant and therefore I’m inspecting it. You know, they’re standing there with no clothes. ‘Is everybody OK?’ And you see these incredible looking women, and so I sort of get away with things like that.”
I think it would encourage demoralized progressives considerably if Democrats followed Franken’s departure with a strategy to bring Trump to public account for his serial abuse. And to shame House Speaker Paul Ryan for having the audacity to weigh in on now-retired Democratic representative John Conyers, while saying nothing about Farenthold. Democrats are doing the right thing, morally, but they really need to figure out the right thing, politically. This doesn’t end with Franken’s departure. It begins.