Power

Why are these people defending Al Franken?

The left has conspiracy theorists, too.
Power

Why are these people defending Al Franken?

The left has conspiracy theorists, too.

The allegations that Sen. Al Franken forcibly kissed and groped radio host Leeann Tweeden in 2006 and groped another woman in 2010 came at an unfortunate time for Democrats. Instead of addressing the numerous (and more severe) allegations against Alabama Senate candidate and accused pedophile Roy Moore, the right could simply ask why Franken, who until the allegations were revealed was a much-loved and respected congressman, wasn’t also disqualified from serving in Congress. Trump himself used this defense on Twitter, tweeting “The Al Frankenstien [sic] picture is really bad, speaks a thousand words. Where do his hands go in pictures 2, 3, 4, 5 & 6 while she sleeps?” Fortunately, the vast majority of liberals did condemn Franken’s behavior. Within a few hours of the Tweeden allegations, The New York Times, Slate and Vice all published op-eds demanding that Franken resign. Actress Alyssa Milano, who started the #MeToo hashtag in response to the Weinstein revelations, tweeted that Franken “should not be in a position to represent the female constituents in [his] state.” Even CNN’s Chris Cillizza, the most milquetoast man alive, went in on Franken that day. It was a heartening display of ideological consistency and, naturally, it was shortlived. Democrats, perhaps unable to cope with the thought of the downfall of one of their strongest members, began backtracking almost immediately, creating yet another example of hypocrisy over sexual misconduct within their own ranks.

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Congressional Democrats — including Franken himself — responded to the allegations only by calling for an ethics investigation into the senator’s behavior. This made for a good sound bite for Sen. Chuck Schumer and company, but it doesn’t necessarily mean Franken will suffer any consequences. Franken already admitted to the offenses, making an investigation somewhat pointless, and the events in question took place three years before he was admitted to the Senate. And, as Nate Silver pointed out, the last time an ethics investigation actually resulted in an expulsion from Congress was in 1862, when ten Southern senators essentially ghosted their jobs. Franken has no intention of vacating his seat voluntarily, and it seems unlikely that he will be removed.

Some liberals were not satisfied with the slap on the wrist Franken received for his behavior. Did they want him to be punished more severely? No, Franken had to become the victim. Because Tweeden, a radio host, is a Republican, some prominent liberals took a page from the other side of the aisle and immediately assumed she lied about their encounter and was engaging in a conspiracy against Democrats. Forget that she had photographic proof, or that Franken admitted that he behaved inappropriately toward Tweeden. Forget that the first woman to accuse Roy Moore of sexual misconduct was also a Republican, or that a genuine ratfucking scheme would have aimed higher than “forced kissing 11 years ago.” In this mindset — the same one that prevents Trump or Moore supporters from confronting reality — a middling center-left senator from Minnesota becomes an unassailable hero. Franken is a Democrat, and, like Bill Clinton before him, he can do no wrong.

This argument proved popular among centrist Democrats, who really ran wild with it. Numerous bloggers at Daily Kos thought it wise to question Tweeden’s story and suggested that she actually enjoyed having Franken’s tongue thrust down her throat. In a post titled “More Photos Emerging From Franken & Tweeden's USO Tour. They speak for themselves,” a Kos blogger dug up a 2006 picture of Franken and Tweeden smiling next to each other and captioned it “Tweeden looking miserable sitting next to her assailant.” The argument here, which rules out that anyone might maintain a professional demeanor around a lecherous colleague out of necessity, could just as easily be used to defend Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby. As of this writing, that post has 301 “recommends.” Others on Daily Kos and Twitter decided that the picture was edited and began analyzing it pixel by pixel for misplaced shadows and JPEG artifacts.

Twitter’s most irritating conspiracy theorists and ultrapartisan Democrats were enamored with the idea that there might be something to analyze in the Franken story. Seth Abramson, a journalist infamous for weaving amateur Trump-Russia theories in essay-length tweetstorms, did what he always does. “I just went down the rabbit hole of computer experts analyzing the Franken-Tweeden pic,” he tweeted, referring to random #Resistance accounts drawing circles on the Franken picture in MS Paint. He continued with a classic “just asking questions” routine: “I'm trying to back away slowly, because a) I don't understand any of it and b) that something isn't right feels like it's clear pretty quickly—but I need to wait until smarter people weigh in.” Sally Albright, a former Newt Gingrich staffer who ingratiated herself to the upper echelon of establishment liberals with frequent denunciations of Bernie Sanders, observed that “Berners are piling on, calling for Franken to drop out so he can't run against Bernie in 2020. Sad.”

Keith Olbermann, who should really know better, became the first prominent figure to buy into this Pizzagate-level nonsense when he quoted a video of “Al Franken/Leeann Tweeden” performing onstage in 2003 and captioned it “So, this “forced kiss” sketch was performed in the 2003 tour but per @LeeannTweeden, Franken didn’t write it until the 2006 tour? The photo is what it is. Her backstory seems to conflict with her...video.” The video, originally posted by a user selling a self-published book called “The Trump Tweet Scrapbook,” shows them performing the comedy routine Tweeden described. She reads off some moderately risqué lines, asks a volunteer from the audience to come onstage, and then performs the now-infamous kiss with him. The audience member grins and pumps his fist. Where is the “conflict”?

Not only does the video in question not prove anything about what Franken did in the rehearsal room, it isn’t even of LeeAnn Tweeden. The woman, it turns out, is Karri Turner, who played Harriet Sims in JAG. She even references JAG several times during the routine. Olbermann confidently described this as “her video,” meaning Tweeden’s, but he didn’t bother to check whether Tweeden was actually in it. It has nothing to do with her. This is, in the most literal sense, fake news, and for the sole purpose of smearing a victim of sexual assault. This would be unconscionable coming from Fox News, and it is unconscionable coming from whatever website Keith Olbermann pretends to still have a TV show for.

Trump’s anti-intellectualism and contempt for the media has created an opening for liberals to position themselves as the sole arbiters of truth, honesty, and decency. They seized that opportunity with aplomb, adopting pompous slogans like “Facts first” (CNN) and “Democracy dies in darkness.” (The Washington Post). It might be a tad embarrassing, but this is all for the best, because Trump’s signature arguing tactic, “whataboutism,” relies on a plentiful supply of hypocrisy. The most daring (and disgusting) use of this strategy was Trump’s decision to invite the victims of Bill Clinton’s sexual misconduct to the second presidential debate. The point Trump he was attempting to make wasn’t wrong — Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party spent decades covering for Bill’s Trump-like treatment of women, and that fact undermined their platform. More than two decades later, Democrats are beginning to reckon with their rank hypocrisy over Bill Clinton’s crimes; unfortunately, this newfound self-awareness has not yet extended to the newly revealed sexual improprieties committed by other members of their party.

The best possible thing Democrats can do in this situation is set a good example. Stooping to Trump’s level doesn’t work. In this case, it accomplishes nothing and gives Republicans a new, legitimate target for whataboutism. By borrowing Sean Hannity’s tactic of smearing victims of sexual assault in order to protect politicians, Keith Olbermann has created a new way of dodging questions about Sean Hannity: What about Keith Olbermann? By allowing Franken to remain in office, Democrats have created a similar question: What about Al Franken? If the party had taken a firmer stand on sexual assault, it might have given itself a satisfying answer.

Alex Nichols is a contributing writer at The Outline. He last wrote about Dennis Hastert