Former Sen. Al Franken, who resigned in late 2017 after multiple women accused him of unwanted touching or kissing, received a measure of redemption Monday with the release of a lengthy and much talked about article in the New Yorker magazine that questions the severity and circumstances of the allegations.
Seven current and former senators told reporter Jane Mayer that they regret calling for Franken's resignation, among them former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, both Democrats.
Franken, in his first interview since leaving the Senate, said he regrets resigning: "Oh, yeah. Absolutely."
Franken's comments immediately revived speculation about his re-entry into politics. Franken's publicists did not respond to requests for comment Monday, and he has declined repeated interview requests with the Star Tribune for several months, as he divides his time between Washington and Minneapolis.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., appearing at a Washington Post candidate forum Monday, said she has received no indication that Franken is mulling another run for public office. "That's going to be his decision," she said, "but I think he's made it pretty clear to me that that's not what he plans right now."
The bulk of the New Yorker article takes up the accusation made by Leeann Tweeden, now a conservative media figure, who made the first allegation that led to Franken's downfall. In a photo that eventually doomed Franken, he can be seen reaching for her breasts while she is asleep while wearing a flak jacket aboard a military plane on the way home from a USO tour to entertain soldiers.
Tweeden also alleged that Franken wrote a skit with her in mind in which she was forced to kiss him. She also alleged that he gave her an ugly, unwanted open-mouth kiss during a "rehearsal."
But several actresses recall to the New Yorker that they performed the same skit with Franken in prior years — and without incident — calling into question Tweeden's claim that Franken wrote it for her alone.
The radio station where Tweeden worked also released the piece about her allegations without reaching out to Franken, a violation of basic journalistic practice.
Tweeden declined to comment for the New Yorker article.
A number of women who worked on Franken's staff describe him as physically clumsy and prone to giving awkward hugs and kisses, but in no way predatory.
Although he had agreed to a Senate ethics investigation of his behavior, Democrats were battling in late 2017 for a Senate seat; Republican candidate Roy Moore of Alabama had been accused of serious sexual misconduct with underage girls. Mayer's piece implies Democratic senators who forced Franken out had the Alabama special Senate election on their minds.
The allegations against Franken also hit at the peak of the #MeToo movement, which saw a number of high-profile men in business, politics and the media fall to accusations of sexual impropriety.
U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., was the first to call for Franken's resignation and has tried to pitch this as a principled stand against sexual harassment, but she has struggled to gain traction in her presidential campaign.
The passage of time also has seen a reassessment of the case against Franken, who was widely seen as one of the Democrats' most effective questioners in the Senate. The issue was raised in the Democratic presidential primary in early June when South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg said he would not have "applied pressure" on Franken to resign.
Gillibrand later defended her position, telling a Fox News town hall, "If a few Democratic donors are angry because I stood by eight women, that's on them."
The internal Democratic debate has forced Klobuchar to thread a political needle. "I have made it clear that — it's historical record — that we are friends," she said at Monday's forum. "I did not call for him to step down publicly, but I did condemn his behavior. I felt strongly that it should go through the ethics process"
The article divided progressives Monday. Some thought it was a revealing reappraisal of the unfair downfall of a liberal stalwart whose wrongdoing seemed to pale in comparison to the likes of Harvey Weinstein.
Others believed Franken's behavior still counted as disrespect toward women that should be punished.
"Whatever sympathy you feel for Franken, please spare a thought today for the all the women who see Mayer's piece and decide again that the story of the powerful man who made them feel cheap and small isn't worth telling," tweeted Ana Marie Cox, a nationally known liberal pundit and resident of Minneapolis. The sum total of the piece Cox suggested, was that "He is more important than she is."
Some observers took note of Franken's pull among progressive Democrats who grew up with him in the 1970s and 80s as a writer and performer on "Saturday Night Live." Another generation tuned in to his satirical writings, his talk show on Air America Radio, and more recently, a website and podcast.
Tweeted Rolling Stone writer Ej Dickson: "If you didn't read the Jane Mayer piece yet, allow me to sum up for you: Boomers really, really like Al Franken."
Mayer's piece also described the personal toll of Franken's resignation, quoting him saying, "It got pretty dark, I became clinically depressed. I wasn't a hundred per cent cognitively. I needed medication."
Even if the New Yorker piece rehabilitates Franken's image, his future in Minnesota politics is unclear. Now 68, he lives in the congressional district of U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, who has become a national figure and significant fundraiser. U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, a Democrat, is running for a full six-year term in 2020, and Klobuchar just won a six-year term in 2018.
Franken holds out his website, alfranken.com, as his current political platform. "When I left the Senate, I said that while I was giving up my seat, I would not give up my voice," he wrote on the site. He also vowed to remain a top nemesis of President Donald Trump: "Also, Trump. Since I left, I've had so many folks ask me to re-enter the fray. Fray, here I am!"
Staff Writer Torey Van Oot contributed to this report. J. Patrick Coolican • 651-925-5042