Consider Al Franken’s latest round of public relations a no sale in the Twin Cities. When Leeann Tweeden went public with allegations of sexual harassment and worse almost two weeks ago, the editorial board of the state’s largest newspaper noted that Franken had avoided any admission of guilt on the more serious of Tweeden’s two charges. The Star Tribune strongly advised Franken to resign rather than parsing out non-admission apologies, but then dropped the matter as other allegations emerged.
The Minnesota Democrat said in one interview it was important “that we listen to women,” but then refuted the story of Leeann Tweeden, the USO entertainer who accused him of shoving his tongue down her throat during a rehearsed “kiss.” He recalls “a normal rehearsal,” but didn’t elaborate. On the subsequent allegations of women who say he groped them during photos — specifically, that he grabbed their buttocks — Franken apologized, but for what, exactly?
He said he does not recall groping and said he “would never intentionally” squeeze or grope a woman but often hugs people. Is he suggesting these women could not distinguish between a friendly embrace and groping? Or that at his age he somehow groped unintentionally? Can one credibly apologize for acts without acknowledging they occurred?
With a Senate ethics investigation looming, Franken remains on politically shaky ground. It’s debatable whether he is, as he said, “holding myself accountable.” Without saying he didn’t do it, he nevertheless has countered every allegation except the one that carries indisputable proof — the infamous photo of him appearing to grab at Tweeden while she slept.
This is the question that Franken has avoided for almost two weeks. Most of the national media seems ready to let him off the hook, with few asking for Franken to get specific on how his memory differs from that of his accusers. The Strib’s editors — who will never be mistaken for conservative political activists — deserve credit for pointing out the holes in Franken’s story and demanding answers to them.
However, they’re still not calling for his resignation, at least not yet:
Franken is right — he has much to do to regain Minnesotans’ trust. It may not be possible. As he continues his reflection, we urge the senator to consider what is best for Minnesota and to weigh that more heavily than what might be best for his political career.
Eleven days ago, the Strib’s editors explicitly urged Franken to consider resigning to allow Gov. Mark Dayton to appoint a Democrat with more credibility to fill out Franken’s term. Today’s conclusion softens that a bit, but essentially delivers the same message. They’re not buying Franken’s attempts to dodge culpability with platitudes and clever, Clintonian parsing.
Even so, as the Hill notes, that is precisely Franken’s strategy:
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) sought to head off calls for his resignation on Monday by apologizing once again over allegations that he inappropriately kissed or touched as many as four different women. …
It comes as he faces growing calls from the left and right for his resignation.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) urged Franken on Sunday to step down, but so far no Democrat in the Senate has joined him. That could change, however, because of pressure from liberal activists such as Credo Action and Indivisible.
A spokesman for Credo said Monday that the group didn’t have anything to say when asked whether Franken had taken adequate responsibility with his apologies.
Of course he hasn’t, as the Strib’s editors gamely point out. He’s issued nothing but non-admission statements about taking “responsibility,” all while calling into question the truthfulness of his accusers. He’s getting away with it too, I argue in my column for The Week, thanks to a national media willing to play along and Capitol Hill colleagues who don’t want to feed calls for more transparency:
There’s a good (if highly cynical) reason for Franken to stick with his “admission-free apology” strategy. It’s working.
The editorial board of the Star Tribune, the largest newspaper in Minnesota, has gone silent (until today) about Franken’s credibility as a senator even as more allegations emerge. His Democratic colleagues have not raised the issue further after Franken agreed to the referral to the Senate Ethics Committee. Local and national media have mostly played along, perhaps in part because the allegations against Franken are arguably qualitatively different than those in other scandals, notably Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), who faces a number of allegations of abusing his staff and taxpayer funds. …
If Tweeden’s more serious allegation of assault was false, why not simply say so? Why not give his own version of those events and let the chips fall where they may? The Star Tribune editorial board noticed this dodge immediately, but thus far no one has pinned down Franken and demanded his version of those events, or those of the groping charges later leveled by other women.
This strategy may fail if more serious allegations of misconduct arise, but for now Franken has blazed a path for politicos to follow when accused of sexual harassment. Offer ambiguous contrition, mouth platitudes about respecting women while claiming to recall events differently, and hope that the media gets tired of asking questions. Its unfortunate success might well get Franken off the hook, but if so, it will speak volumes about the political and media environment for accountability.