WASHINGTON — A day after the latest in a dizzying series of sexual assault revelations enveloped Senator Al Franken and rattled the Capitol, politicians and comedians were left trying to assess the line between predatory behavior and an inexcusable mistake, as calls mounted for him to resign.
Mr. Franken, Democrat of Minnesota and a veteran of both comedy and politics — two industries under increased scrutiny for fostering cultures where sexual abuse is pervasive — was targeted by Republicans, including President Trump, who has himself been accused by multiple women of sexual harassment and assault. Republicans are grappling with their own senatorial scandal, as Roy S. Moore pursues a Senate seat amid accusations of assaulting teenage girls.
But that did not diminish their zeal as they called on Mr. Franken to step down.
On Twitter, Mr. Trump publicly hinted at a pattern of assault, and the political fallout continued as two Minnesota candidates for governor, both Democrats, called on Mr. Franken to resign. The conservative writer and activist L. Brent Bozell III said Mr. Franken had been “caught red-handed conducting lewd and unacceptable behavior,” adding, “there is a pervert in the United States Senate.”
By Friday evening, Mr. Franken had canceled a coming appearance at a book fair in Miami.
But while there was no widespread public showing of support for Mr. Franken, a number of his allies, including three former “Saturday Night Live” colleagues and 10 former aides, all women, said that they did not believe his behavior fit a pattern or was in the same realm of misconduct as other high-profile men accused of sexual abuse in the entertainment industry, including the comedian Louis C. K. and the producer Harvey Weinstein.
“I’m just so upset about this atmosphere and good people being dragged into it,” said Jane Curtin, a member of the original cast of “Saturday Night Live” with Mr. Franken from 1975 to 1980 who has been close with him since. “It’s just like the red menace. You don’t know who’s going to be next.”Continue reading the main story
Ms. Curtin said that in a comedy setting where women were at times not valued or dismissed because of their gender, Mr. Franken was a powerful ally who viewed female writers and comedians as his equal. But she was also among several who said they were disappointed by Mr. Franken’s conduct and were struggling with the episode, which happened during his comedy career.
“I was surprised,” Ms. Curtin said. “If he did that, that’s really stupid, but I have never seen him in a situation where he has been sexually aggressive with anybody.”
Others, including the woman who said he forcibly kissed her during a 2006 U.S.O. tour of the Middle East, grappled with his expressions of remorse. The woman, Leeann Tweeden, read an apology from the senator during a Friday appearance on “The View.”
In another appearance, on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Ms. Tweeden, a radio newscaster, said she had not told her story for political gain, and that his fate was up to the people of Minnesota to decide. She said she wanted women to feel more comfortable to share their experiences.
“Because if he did this to somebody else, or if anybody else has stayed silent, or anybody else has been the victim of any kind of abuse, maybe they can speak out and feel like they can come forward in real time and not wait a decade or longer,” she said.
As Washington wrestled with how to categorize Mr. Franken’s behavior, which was accompanied by a photo that showed him appearing to grope Ms. Tweeden as she slept on a military plane, even some ardent defenders of women’s rights said the senator’s offense was not so grievous as to require his resignation.
“This is not a Harvey Weinstein situation,” said Debra Katz, a civil rights lawyer who handles sexual harassment cases. “Harvey Weinstein was a serial predator who used his power to put women in very vulnerable situations. He abused that power by sexually assaulting women. That’s not what this is.”
Ms. Katz also drew a distinction between Mr. Franken’s role as a comedian and that of a senator.
“Context is relevant,” she said. “He did not do this as a member of the U.S. Senate. He did this in his capacity of someone who was still functioning as an entertainer.”
Victoria Jackson, who also overlapped with Mr. Franken on “Saturday Night Live,” said he did not have a history of acting in an inappropriate manner in that workplace, where humor was often bawdy. She remembered him telling her he was troubled she acted like “a ditz” in meetings when he knew she was smart, a comment that unsettled her but one that she ultimately did not feel was harassment.
“I have a lot of stories of sexually inappropriate things that have happened to me in my life from people in show business,” Ms. Jackson, 58, said in an interview. “As far as Al Franken, he never said or did anything inappropriate to me the six years I was on ‘Saturday Night Live.’”
Several of Mr. Franken’s former aides said that they believed Ms. Tweeden’s accusation, but that her account did not match what they experienced on Capitol Hill. They expressed disappointment in his actions but defended his track record as a lawmaker who promoted women in his office and valued their opinions.
Natalie Volin Lehr, a former aide who signed a joint statement in Mr. Franken’s defense, said in an interview on Friday that Mr. Franken was being judged unfairly, and that his track record in office had been one of defending women’s rights.
“He’s had unsavory jokes in the past that he’s regretted,” Ms. Volin Lehr said of Mr. Franken’s comedy career. She said the photo published Thursday fell into that category, “but it is hard to see how this is comparable to the other incidents that women have brought forward in the recent past.”
Those who knew him also said Mr. Franken was a dedicated husband to Franni Bryson, whom he married in 1975 and whose struggle with alcohol abuse has been publicly discussed by the couple. A former “Saturday Night Live” colleague, the writer Marilyn Suzanne Miller, cried as she defended Mr. Franken on Friday, saying, “He wouldn’t do it to Franni.”
The senator may not have welcomed all of his defenders. An Ohio Supreme Court justice, who is running for governor as a Democrat, shared his sexual experiences with “approximately 50 very attractive females” as he tried to defend Mr. Franken.
“Now that the dogs of war are calling for the head of Senator Al Franken I believe it is time to speak up on behalf of all heterosexual males,” the justice, Bill O’Neill, wrote Friday on Facebook in a post that has since been removed. “I am sooooo disappointed by this national feeding frenzy about sexual indiscretions decades ago.”Continue reading the main story