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'New Yorker' Takes A Closer Look At The Case Against Al Franken


Al Franken served in the U.S. Senate for just under a decade, representing the state of Minnesota. But in late 2017, when Franken was accused by several women of touching or kissing them in inappropriate ways, his career was derailed. There was all kinds of pressure on him to resign, and eventually, he announced on the Senate floor that he would do just that.


AL FRANKEN: 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.

MARTIN: Al Franken has stayed out of the public eye ever since, but he's now gone on the record with his first major interview since his resignation. He talked with New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer, who joins us now. Hi, Jane.

JANE MAYER: Hi. How are you?

MARTIN: I'm well. Thanks for being here. So you asked former Senator Al Franken flat-out whether he regrets his decision to walk away from the Senate. What did he say?

MAYER: He said he absolutely regrets that he resigned. And it was interesting to me. Seven senators who called on him to resign told me that they also regret it and considered a - one of - in some cases, in the case of Senator Leahy, one of the worst mistakes that they've made since being in the Senate. So there's been a kind of a reassessment going on.

MARTIN: Why? I mean, especially Patrick Leahy, who's served for decades in the Senate, he's saying it's the biggest mistake of his political career? How come?

MAYER: I guess he feels that - he came out of the legal world. He was a prosecutor. And what he said to me was he felt that it was a mistake to rush to judgment without getting the facts first. And I think that pretty much reflects the thinking of most of the senators who expressed regrets to me. It was the sense that they didn't take the time to get the facts before rendering a judgment.

MARTIN: So Senator Franken had wanted an ethics inquiry into the allegations and that never happened. Can you just explain, for those who don't remember, the gist of the allegations? I mean, it centered - the primary one came from a woman named Leeann Tweeden.

MAYER: Right. She said that when she performed in a skit with Al Franken, back when he was still a comedian, in 2006, for a tour that the USO had, that he forcibly kissed her against her will and stuck his tongue in her mouth. And then when she rejected his advances, that over the course of that two-week trip, that he subjected her to kind of a campaign of harassment that included taking a humiliating photograph of her while she slept that looked almost like he was groping her breasts. She was wearing a flak jacket. But it was sort of a, you know, kind of a mock picture of a leering, lecherous man.

MARTIN: So after her allegation came out, seven other women came forward with their own allegations about sexual misbehavior or what they perceived to be sexual misbehavior on the part of the Senator. Did you, in the course of your reporting, discover that these allegations were not true?

MAYER: Well, so what I tried to do was (laughter) take a second look at the case, since Al Franken had never gotten the Ethics Committee investigation and hearing that he asked for. The whole thing happened very, very fast. It all happened within three weeks. His first accuser came out; three weeks later, he resigned. And so I thought it would be interesting to go back and sort of see if an investigative reporter could do the kind of the second look, see what the facts were, and that's what I was trying to do. And we don't still have all of the facts because not every witness was willing to speak up.

But I did take a close look at as many of these allegations as I could. And, you know, what I found was that his principal accuser, Leeann Tweeden, who is a conservative talk radio host, had a ton of holes in her story. It didn't hold up very well, and it turned out that she had never been subjected to any fact-checking. She had never produced any corroborators. And I spoke to eight people on that USO tour who had no political agenda. Most of them were in the military, and they were right there, and they just didn't see it the way she saw it.

MARTIN: So Jane, just in the last 24 hours, though, since your piece came out, there's been a lot of pushback. Several writers were critical of your reporting on this story, including an opinion piece in The Washington Post suggesting that your piece seeks to explain away Franken's behaviors and to call into question this one accuser's motives. Similar critiques all over Twitter. Were you prepared for that kind of critique?

MAYER: Yeah, I figured that we were sort of, you know, poking a stick in the hornet's nest. It's a very touchy issue and a really important conversation in the country, but it's very inflamed. So the thing is, for me, this is not so different from the work I've been doing for decades. I wrote a book about Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas. It took me three years to figure out the facts then, and I try very much to do the real reporting and to approach it with an open mind and to let the facts sort of guide me to where things are - you know, where it makes sense, where the truth seems to lie.

And so all I was trying to do was the same thing that I've always done, which is just do the reporting, talk to all sides, put out the facts. It's a nuanced story. I think a lot of the critics probably haven't read it.

MARTIN: What do you think your story, your investigation of these facts, says about the #MeToo movement?

MAYER: Well, I mean, I close with a quote from a really heroic lawyer in the #MeToo movement. She's the lawyer for Christine Blasey Ford. Her name is Debra Katz. And so she is as good a supporter of the #MeToo movement as exists in this country.

MARTIN: We should just remind people, Christine Blasey Ford was the accuser against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

MAYER: That's right, yeah. And so Debra Katz says - and I thought that it made a lot of sense - was that, for the #MeToo movement to not be turned into something trivial, it's important that it keep in mind proportionality and due process and fairness and take into account the context of the various kinds of allegations that are being made.

MARTIN: Jane Mayer, staff writer at The New Yorker, thank you so much for talking with us.

MAYER: Great to be with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAE AND CHRISTIAN'S "THE HUSH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.