Army vet: Franken groped my breast on a 2003 USO tour

And then there were five. Army veteran Stephanie Kemplin had been an Al Franken fan while stationed overseas in 2003, and she tells CNN of her excitement when learning that the then-comedian would be part of a USO tour. When she got in line to get her picture taken with Franken, however, Kemplin had a much different experience than she’d imagined — and now becomes the fifth woman to accuse Franken of sexual misconduct.

Kemplin said while she was stationed in the Middle East during the Iraq War, she met Franken — at the time, a comedian and writer — as he was visiting American troops with the USO. A longtime fan of “Saturday Night Live,” Kemplin got in line to take a photo with Franken.

“When he put his arm around me, he groped my right breast. He kept his hand all the way over on my breast,” Kemplin said in an interview. “I’ve never had a man put their arm around me and then cup my breast. So he was holding my breast on the side.”

Kemplin repeatedly used the word “embarrassed” to describe her immediate reaction at the time.

“I remember clenching up and how you just feel yourself flushed,” she said. “And I remember thinking — is he going to move his hand? Was it an accident? Was he going to move his hand? He never moved his hand.”

Kemplin provided the picture of her encounter with Franken, which shows his hand on her side. She explains that she twisted awkwardly towards him to pull his hand off her breast when the picture was taken, and the pose does appear a little strained. Normally people stand more shoulder to shoulder in these shots; willing hugs wouldn’t usually have that much separation. She didn’t complain to her Army colleagues at the time, but she told family members contemporaneously to the event, which CNN’s MJ Lee corroborated for the report. At the very least, the picture shows that she and Franken posed for the picture and that something odd may have been taking place.

Franken issued a denial through a spokesman, echoing the same non-admission language Franken used earlier this week with reporters while trying to rescue himself from scandal.

“As Sen. Franken made clear this week, he takes thousands of photos and has met tens of thousands of people and he has never intentionally engaged in this kind of conduct. He remains fully committed to cooperating with the ethics investigation.”

As I wrote on Tuesday at The Week, that has been Franken’s modified limited hangout since Day One of his scandal, and it seems to be 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.

Still, one odd omission exists within the “respect women’s experiences” standard that Franken himself set. No one has asked about the inherent contradiction within Franken’s passive denials, which is this: If Franken keeps saying that his memories of these incidents are different, he’s inevitably implying that the women aren’t telling the truth. Franken manages to say that passively in order to avoid tripping over the “respect” standard, but that’s the inescapable conclusion Franken wants voters to draw. …

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.

Matt Lauer even tried a version of it this morning, although he allowed that there was “enough truth” in some allegations for him to do some “soul searching.”

Does Kemplin’s story change that calculus? Probably not, although it has nothing to do with whether or not she’s telling the truth. The incident is fourteen years old, from long before Franken’s electoral career. It’s not much different from the more recent allegations of groping, including at least one from when Franken was already in the Senate. The Senate Ethics Committee is not likely to consider this more significantly than Franken’s behavior as a senator.

Meanwhile, Franken’s modified limited hangout still applies. He took too many pictures to remember any of them, he never would have done that but hey, misunderstandings happen! And gosh, he feels very badly if women walked away feeling disrespected, but he denies doing anything that would have made them feel that way. And no one can prove any different, despite what five women have now said about him. He’ll stick to that strategy to the bitter end.

However, if Kemplin is telling the truth, and there’s little reason at the moment to conclude she’s not, then Franken seems to have a habit of bad behavior on USO tours. That may come up again, and if it does, that modified limited hangout may not hold together for long. After all, Franken is uniquely expendable to Democrats as a backbencher with no leadership positions and no real national constituency. Minnesota has plenty of options for replacements with a Democratic governor, including several women who can carry the flag for empowerment better than the handsy jokester in the grotesque groping photo. No, the other photo.