Journalist Jane Mayer On The 'Many Mysteries' In The Accusations Against Al Franken
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In a new article in The New Yorker, titled "The Case Of Al Franken," my guest Jane Mayer investigates the accusations of sexual misconduct that led Franken to resign under pressure from the Senate. She's found that the story told by Franken's chief accuser, Leeann Tweeden, is full of holes. Mayer also looked into the accusations against Franken made by seven other women who came forward after Tweeden.
Three weeks after Tweeden's accusations, Franken resigned after being pressured by some of his fellow senators. Seven of those senators told Mayer they now regret having called for Franken's resignation. An eighth came forward after the article was published.
Mayer is one of the leading journalists who's been reporting on sexual harassment and assault, from Anita Hill's accusation against Clarence Thomas to the accusations against Brett Kavanaugh. Last year, Mayer joined with Ronan Farrow to break the story of four women who accused New York's Attorney General Eric Schneiderman of physical abuse. Three hours after the story was published, Schneiderman resigned.
During my interview with Mayer, we're going to hear a recording of Leeann Tweeden in which she talks about Al Franken's behavior when they did a USO tour together in 2006. And we'll hear an excerpt from my 2004 interview with Al Franken about the USO tour he'd just completed. Listening back to that interview now puts Tweeden's accusations in a different context.
Jane Mayer, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Why did you want to write this piece, and why now?
JANE MAYER: Well, both Al Franken and his central accuser, Leeann Tweeden, had called for independent investigations of their charges, and they never got them. So I was just interested in what you would find if you ever went back and took a look at it.
GROSS: So his main accuser, Leeann Tweeden, was on a USO tour in 2006. She made her accusations public in 2017. Can you sum up what her accusations are?
MAYER: They're sort of a twofold - two main parts of it. The first was that in 2006, on this USO tour, she acted in a skit with Al Franken and that he had written a skit just for her as a way of forcing her to kiss him and that when there's a kiss scene in the skit - that he took advantage of her and stuck his tongue in her mouth. So it was a description, basically, of a kind of a sexual assault that was this forced sexual kiss that came out of a skit that she said he wrote just for her.
And she said as soon as she saw the skit, she suspected what he was up to. And then he went ahead and made her rehearse when she didn't want to. And he overpowered her and sort of basically assaulted her. So that was one part of it.
The second part of her accusation was that he asked a photographer to take a picture humiliating her and had it released and sent to her in a CD of some sort. And that was sent to her to make her feel humiliated. And what the picture showed was that when she was asleep on an air transport plane and she was wearing a helmet and a bulletproof vest - that he did this kind of mock lechery thing where he approached her with his hands above her breasts - not quite touching them, but quite close - and made it look like he was leering at her.
GROSS: OK. I want to play Leeann Tweeden, in her own words, describing a little bit of what happened. And later, we'll hear Al Franken describing a similar sketch that he did on an earlier tour. So this is Leeann Tweeden, recorded in November of 2017 on KABC in LA. This is the AM station that she was working on. So at this point, she's talking about how she and Franken were alone backstage, going over their lines one last time.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
LEEANN TWEEDEN: He's like, well, we need to practice the kissing scene. And I'm like, yeah, OK, whatever. And I just sort of blew him off because I didn't - like, we don't need to practice the kissing scene. It's just a quick little thing, you know? And then he persisted. And he's like, no, we really need to practice the kissing scene. And - like, OK, Al. You just turn your head right. I'll turn my head right. We got this, you know? Whatever.
And he kept persisting, and I'm like, Al, this isn't "SNL." We - we're not really going to kiss, so we don't really have to practice. And he just kept persisting. And it just reminded me of, like, the Harvey Weinstein tape that you heard the girl when she was wired up for the NYPD and he - just persistent and badgering and just relentless, you know?
And so I was just like, OK, fine - just so he would shut up, you know? And he just sort of came at me. And we did the line, and he came at me. And before you even know it - I mean, you kind of get close. And he just put his hand on the back of my head, and he mashed his face against - I mean, it happened so fast. And he just mashed his lips against my face, and he stuck his tongue in my mouth so fast.
And all I can remember is that his lips were really wet, and it was slimy. In my mind, I called him Fish Lips the rest of the trip because that's just what it reminded me of. I don't know why. And he stuck his tongue down my mouth, and I remember I pushed him off with my hands. And I just remember I almost punched him so - 'cause every time I see him now, like, my hands clench into fists, and I'm sure that's probably why.
And I said, if you ever do that to me again, I'm not going to be so nice about it the second time. And I just walked out away from him, and I walked out. And I just wanted to find a bathroom, and I just wanted to rinse my mouth out because I was just disgusted, you know?
It was just one of those - I don't know. I was violated. I just felt like, you know, he betrayed my trust. And it - obviously, that is not what I wanted. And that's - I felt like he wrote that just to get that piece in because he knew he wasn't going to get it on stage, and that was why he was badgering me to do it then when we were alone because that's what he wanted.
GROSS: OK. So that's an excerpt of what Leeann Tweeden said on her station KABC after she made her accusations public, and that was recorded in 2017.
So Jane, when I heard Leeann Tweeden's accusations and when I saw the photo that she talked about, accusing Al Franken of touching her breasts - and by the way, in that photo, she's wearing a Kevlar vest, and his hands don't seem to be touching - all of it reminded me of a sketch. I mean, like, the photo seemed like a callback to a sketch that he told me about on the air in early 2004, just a couple of weeks after returning from a USO tour in Iraq and Afghanistan entertaining the troops. And he describes the sketch that I'm referring to in that interview. You quote an excerpt of that interview in your piece.
I want to play a slightly longer version for our listeners so they can hear what Al Franken said about this sketch. And he is positioning this sketch, like, in the manner of the old Bob Hope USO tours in which, like, Bob Hope would always be surrounded by beautiful women, like cheerleaders and models and gorgeous actresses. And he'd make a lot of double entendre kind of sexual innuendo jokes, knowing that he had an audience of young men who were the troops in the audience. And these were always broadcast on TV, so everybody who grew up in the '50s and '60s saw these tours on TV. And I'm sure Franken was in the audience for those as well.
So this was recorded in 2004 about the 2003 USO tour that he'd just come back from. Leeann Tweeden's tour - her USO tour with Al Franken - was a few years later in 2006.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
AL FRANKEN: You know, I did a very kind of Bob Hope or Mighty Carson Art Players attack on the show. I did really dumb, stupid stuff. And there's a lot of sex and a lot of stuff about the military. And the USO knows that I do that. They know that I've done that in the last three tours. And they know - they totally trusted me.
GROSS: Well, what's your material like when you're doing - what was your material like for this latest USO tour?
FRANKEN: So what we did was - again, we approached it sort of like a Bob Hope show. So what would happen is Karri would come out. And Karri Turner is an actress on "JAG," a show that goes on armed forces' television and that - the guys love it. I've never seen it. But it's a very popular show on CBS in its ninth season. And Karri is terrific. And she's a pretty blonde. And she would come out and say some very sincere thoughts of her own and then introduce me. And I'd come out, and my first line was, so anybody here from out of town?
FRANKEN: And then (laughter) - and then my next line was, boy, this Army chow is not agreeing with me. You know, these - I've had five of these MREs. Those are meals ready to eat. I've had five of these MREs, and none of them seem to have an exit strategy.
FRANKEN: And then I just do, like, but it's an honor to be here with Karri - nine seasons on "JAG." And she goes, well, yeah. I said, well, you must have had a lot of - thousands of guest hosts on - or guest stars on the show. She says, well, yeah, we - not thousands, but we've had a lot. We've been very lucky. I said, well, I noticed that I haven't been a guest on "JAG." And she said, well, you know, it's - we've been very lucky. And I said, well, I hope maybe by the end, now we've done this together, that I could be a guest. And she said, well, you know, it's a drama; it's not a comedy. And I said, well, actually, that's why I've taken the liberty of writing an audition piece...
FRANKEN: ...For my - as an - you know, for "JAG." And then it's just a piece in which I play a visiting prosecutor who's been sent to JAG ops by the Pentagon to shake things up - Lieutenant Lance Hargrove (ph). And in it - and it's just stupid. Honestly, I think I brought it so I could read...
GROSS: Oh, great. Oh, great.
FRANKEN: ...A little bit of it.
FRANKEN: She goes - I gave her the script. I say, it's your line. She goes, Lieutenant Hargrove, what are you doing here in JAG ops? I told you, Harriet. Call me Lance. They laughed at that. Lieutenant Hargrove, this is JAG ops. It's all business here. Is it? Then why are you wearing that negligee? And then they cheered that. She says, Al, my character would never wear a negligee in the office. You would if you were madly in love with Lieutenant Lance Hargrove. Al, I'm married on the show to Lieutenant Bud Roberts. I have two kids. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Keep reading.
And then she reads, Lance, I've been wearing this - I'm wearing this negligee because I want to be - tonight to be very special. I want to give myself to you completely. Now, kiss me. Then I kissed Karri. I just grabbed her and kissed her. And she fights me off. And she says, now, wait a minute, Al. You just wrote this so you could kiss me. And now they're cheering - the guys. And she says, if I could kiss anybody, it'd be a real soldier, like one of these brave men - now they're cheering - or women.
FRANKEN: Who wants to help me out? And then we get a volunteer - you, soldier. And then I go, OK, I guess we're here to entertain the troops. And then they'd read the script again, and the soldier would kiss her. And a real - you know, we wrote in the script, they kiss a long, deep kiss. And God, the guys went nuts. It was this - what I loved about this was as if each guy had kissed her.
And then I'd - after the kiss, I'd go wait, wait, wait, wait. It's not over. There's another line. And Karri says, there is? I said go ahead; read it to the soldier. And the soldier would read, you know, Harriet, a woman your age really should have a thorough breast examination every year.
FRANKEN: Lucky for you, Dr. Al Franken is here. And then Karri - and I'd approach her with my hands out. She'd go, Al, at ease. And I'd say, too late for that now. And she'd go, oh, get out of here, you know? So that was sort of the Bob Hope thing of getting a guy onstage to kiss a pretty girl.
GROSS: OK. So that was Al Franken on FRESH AIR, recorded in January of 2004. Leeann Tweeden's USO tour with him was several years later. That tour was in 2006. So this is three years before he toured with Leeann Tweeden.
And I know some people listening will think, that was, like, really sexist sounding, and Terry's laughing so much. And so I'll cop to that. Yeah, I was laughing a lot. This was during the Iraq War in 2003. And I thought Al Franken was kind of, A, mocking himself, and B, doing some meta comedy about Bob Hope's sexist jokes on USO tours.
Maybe that was a misreading of it. And now I'm also thinking about, well, I'm sure there were women who were in the military in the audience, too, during that. A lot of women were exposed to sexual harassment in the military. So maybe in that respect, too, these jokes might not have landed that well to the women in the audience. But I wasn't there. I don't know how it went over, though, online - 'cause there was a video of it - it seems to have played pretty well.
There's a lot more to talk about, but we have to take a short break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer, and she has covered sexual harassment issues from Clarence Thomas to Brett Kavanaugh. Her new piece is called "The Case Of Al Franken: A Close Look At The Accusations Against The Former Senator." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Jane Mayer, who has a piece called "The Case Of Al Franken: A Close Look At The Accusations Against The Former Senator" in the current issue of The New Yorker. And this piece has gone viral.
So Jane, you've heard Al Franken in 2003. You've heard Leeann Tweeden's comments about how she feels like she was sexually abused by him in 2006. So you say none of her accusations hold up. So run through some of her accusations that you checked out that don't hold up. Let's start with the sketch. Let's start with the connections between the accusations she's making and the jokes that Franken was trying to tell in the sketch.
MAYER: Well, so I'm the reporter. I'm trying to figure out what happened here, and I'm doing my research as a reporter. And one of the things I do is click on an interview that Al Franken gave to you back in 2003 in which he is describing the entire skit that Leeann Tweeden is claiming he wrote just for her in 2006. So clearly, there's some problem here. There's a factual issue because he didn't just write it for her in 2006. He is describing it to you three years earlier, and he's played it with a different actress.
And the picture that we've all seen that has - talk about something that's gone viral. That picture of Al Franken with his hands out towards Leeann Tweeden's breasts when she's in her bulletproof vest or whatever - that picture is exactly what he's describing is part of a skit. It's not what it looks like when they put it out. They put it out, and it looked like something that he was, you know, spontaneously doing. And she described it as unbelievably humiliating and not funny.
And it turns out, as you could hear him describing on your own show, that in 2003, he wrote this skit, and she performed in it regularly - that is, several actresses performed it before Leeann Tweeden. They did it in 2003, 2004, 2005. And then in 2006, Leeann Tweeden comes along and plays the role. And then all these years later, in the middle of the #MeToo movement, in a statement that compares Al Franken to Harvey Weinstein, as you played earlier, she says, he just did this in order to basically sexually harass me.
So I'm trying to figure out, what's the story here? And one of the sort of pieces of evidence is your own interview here, which is so - it's interesting to me, you know? I mean - and so what do you do when you're a reporter and you're looking at this kind of thing? Well, you go see if you can reach the actresses who played the part to see what they thought of it and to see if they'll confirm this.
And so I did. I spoke - I got a statement from Karri Turner where she talks about it. And she, like I am, is a supporter of the #MeToo movement, and she wants to make that clear. But she also wants to say, I played that part. I had no problem with it, and I had no problem with Al Franken.
So I call up, then, the second actress who played that role - and she played it a couple of times - and that's Traylor Portman. And I - she speaks to me on the record in this piece, and she says, well, you know, I just have to say it's just not correct. Leeann Tweeden is not correct in saying that Al Franken wrote this for her because I played the same part a couple of years earlier. And I said, well, what was - you know, how did you feel about the kissing scene? Did you feel that it was taking advantage of you in some way? And she says, well, no. I mean, you know, of course you're going to rehearse. Professionals rehearse.
And, you know, certainly in her case, there was none of this kind of French kissing thing. I mean, that's not to say - and I'm very careful in the piece because we're in a period here - and I think we should have always been in a period where we listen to women and we hear what they say about whether or not they feel that they were sexually harassed.
So Leeann Tweeden didn't want to speak to me, but I put in the story, well, maybe she felt upset about it anyway. She's actually not an actress. She's a model - a lingerie model - and it could be that she wasn't accustomed to rehearsing the way these actresses were and that she did maybe feel surprised, even though she had read the script before. But at any rate, what you've got is a big hole in her story.
So I spoke to eight of the other people who went on that USO tour, including the military escort whose job it was to stay really close to Leeann Tweeden physically, make sure she was almost never out of her sight except when she was asleep. And Leeann Tweeden had described what she said was kind of constant harassment coming from Al Franken and a sort of - that he was getting back at her and humiliating her because she had rejected his sexual advance in the kiss scene. And so I said, you know, what was the dynamic like between them? And do you remember any kind of tension? She said, no, I never saw anything like that, and neither did any of the other eight people that I talked to who were on the USO tour.
And that's not to say that there might not be somebody. I've done enough of this kind of reporting to know that it takes a lot of digging and, you know, maybe there's somebody out there who saw something who I couldn't reach. And so I called Leeann Tweeden again, and I texted and talked to people who knew her and said, you know, I'm having trouble finding anybody who corroborates her story, and she mentioned there were a number of corroborators. I hoped that maybe she'd give me the names of someone who remembered her story and could corroborate it, and she never responded.
GROSS: My guest is Jane Mayer, a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her new article, "The Case Of Al Franken," investigates the allegations against him of sexual misconduct. After a break, we'll talk about some of the things Al Franken told Mayer, and we'll discuss what Mayer learned about the allegations seven other women made against Al Franken after Leeann Tweeden came forward. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Jane Mayer about her article "The Case of Al Franken" published in the New Yorker. Mayer investigates the allegations against Franken of sexual misconduct that led him to resign from the Senate under pressure in 2017. Mayer found that the story told by his chief accuser Leeann Tweeden was full of holes.
Tweeden is a conservative radio talk show host and former model who was with Franken on a USO tour in 2006 and performed in a sketch he wrote. She alleged that he wrote a new sketch that involved his character kissing her character, and that he wrote it just to have an excuse to kiss her. As a piece of evidence of his misconduct, she posted a now famous photo taken on a military plane during the tour, where she's asleep, dressed in a helmet, fatigues and a bulletproof vest, and he's standing over her with his hands above her breasts mugging for the camera with a comical, leering look on his face. But the photo appears to be a reference to a joke that was in the sketch.
You interviewed Al Franken. How did he describe the photo in question to you?
MAYER: He actually feels really badly about that photo because he said she's asleep, it's always wrong to take a picture of someone asleep because they're not consenting. You know, it was something that he's not proud of. But he also said that he did not sexually harass her. He said what it was, was they were busy towards the end of the tour. They were punchy, and it was a body tour. And it was a - they were goofing around, I think is the word that he used.
And I think you can, you know, many people would object to the pose, the taste, the look, the sexism of the joke and especially that she was asleep. But what he's saying is it was not harassing her. It was not malicious. It was being a dope. And his persona that he often plays as a comic, and he was a comic at the time, is to play the part of the jerk. And I think he did a pretty good job playing the jerk in that picture.
GROSS: And did he see that picture as a callback to a joke in the sketch that they'd done together?
MAYER: He did. I mean, you know, you can see it's exactly the same pose.
GROSS: And just one other thing about the sketch. You know, Tweeden says that he did the rehearsal just as an excuse to kiss her. In this sketch, the actress in the sketch says, Al, you wrote this line just so you'd get to kiss me. So that accusation in a way has an odd echo with the actual sketch.
MAYER: Yeah, completely. I didn't - and it was - I had a hard time even figuring out how to write about this because it was - what you've got is a woman who played a part that Al Franken wrote in which she says you wrote this part just to kiss me. And then all these years later, she comes out and accuses him of sexual harassment. And her line as she's talking to everybody about it is, he wrote this line just to kiss me.
So it is a complete sort of borrowing of the line from the skit that he wrote in which she's supposed to push back and be annoyed. And she is pushing back and being annoyed. So I finally settled on trying to describe it as kind of like he was in a position of having to sort of describe an Escher drawing. It's, like, you don't - it just sort of - it's dizzying, really. And he had a hard time figuring out what to say, he told me about all this. And he didn't want to accuse anybody falsely. But he also wanted to defend himself. So he was - he, I think - he and his staff, I interviewed all of them, they felt in kind of a bind and weren't - really weren't sure how to handle it.
GROSS: You learned about how Leeann Tweeden made her accusations public. At the time, she was working at KABC-AM, where she's still working, but then she was co-hosting a morning show. You described the station at the time as a struggling conservative talk station, whose survival plan was to become the most pro-Trump station in LA.
You say that people at the station helped her with the statement that she put on the website. How did they help her?
MAYER: Well, so I interviewed them. And they worked through the details with her in meeting after meeting. And they had these sort of secret meetings where the news director, whose name was Nathan Baker, and Doug McIntyre, who was her co-host on the morning drive-time show, both of them are quite conservative, but maybe not quite as conservative as the station, which has really become the pro-Trump station in LA. And they've both left since.
So I spoke to both of them about it, and I wanted to know as a journalist what was the level of care that they put into the journalism here. Did they check out her story? And what they told me was - and you can read the piece. They're on the record - what they told me was no. Both of them said they did no fact-checking. They did not call anybody else on the tour. They did not ask the names of any corroborators. They certainly didn't speak to any corroborators. They didn't look at the script. They didn't look at the photographs to see what the dates were on them. So they didn't recognize that there were all these holes in her story. They trusted her on faith because one of them, Doug McIntyre, said, you know, she's a person he knew, and he felt she was a person of integrity. And so they took her at her word.
But the other thing that they did that journalistically is so questionable if you ask me, and I've been a journalist for many decades, is that they never got any comment from Al Franken before they put this story online. So KABC sent a note, some kind of email to Al Franken after the story was already live on the internet, saying would you like to comment. By then, it was, you know, spreading everywhere. They actually literally gave it to the Drudge Report 24 hours ahead of the time when they contacted Al Franken.
So they wanted this - they thought through how to make this story spread everywhere. But they never asked Al Franken, you know, was it true, does he have anything to say about it. By the time he heard about this story, it was kind of a fait accompli.
GROSS: You mention in your piece that Tweeden was pro-Trump and was also a birther. Is that relevant to the story?
MAYER: Well, I mean, I think, you know, everybody's political agendas are interesting to know. They - I think that in this case, you've got a woman who is very much a political opponent of Al Franken. She's an outspoken conservative. She's been a fan of Trump, and I have her talking about that.
And Al Franken is, of course, a big opponent of Trump's. He was one of the most, sort of, liberal and outspoken anti-Trump senators. He was a very aggressive questioner of Trump administration figures when he was in the Senate.
So you've got a kind of, you know, it's, again, trying to flesh out who are these people, what happened here.
GROSS: When KABC-AM, the radio station where Leeann Tweeden works and where she first posted her statement, when they posted her statement, her accusations against Franken, did it look like one woman's personal statement? Or did it look like a reported story that they were posting, like, you know, a reported news story?
MAYER: Well, I mean, they put it out under the banner of the station. So it looked like a legitimate news story, which one would ordinarily think had been checked and that maybe they'd, you know, at least gotten comment from the person than it was about. And so I think that was part of the problem. When I looked back at this to try to figure out, well, what happened, I mean, one of the things I wondered was why didn't Franken, if he feels that this story was so wrong - which he really does, he thinks it's - he thinks that she wasn't telling the truth - why didn't he push back harder, I wondered.
And I think when I talked to his staff and him about this, part of the problem was by the time they learned about this story, they felt that it was almost impossible to turn the media narrative around about it. It had come out, and he was already being besieged by press reports. And the reporters were not doing what I did here, which is take a long time to go see what lay behind these charges. They rushed to get it right up on the internet.
And he - and so he began to think, and his staff began to think that the only way that they were going to be able to try to get the truth out as he saw it was to have a hearing in the Senate Ethics Committee. And he could bring his witnesses. And he could call the photographer in who took that picture. And he could bring in the actresses and the other people who were on tour with him. And that's what he was trying to do and wanted to do, but the story just kind of got a life of its own and took off.
GROSS: My guest is Jane Mayer, the New Yorker's chief Washington correspondent. Her new article is titled "The Case of Al Franken." After a break, we'll talk about the accusations made by the seven other women who came forward after Leeann Tweeden and accused Al Franken of sexual misconduct. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Jane Mayer, a staff writer for the New Yorker, whose new article is titled "The Case of Al Franken." She investigated the allegations of sexual misconduct that led Franken to resign under pressure from the Senate in 2017.
So after Leeann Tweeden made her accusations against Al Franken, seven other women came forward. Can you sum up their accusations?
MAYER: Yeah. I mean, you know, it's a big number. And it makes it pretty hard to imagine that Al Franken did nothing. You know, as a reporter looking at this, a lot of what reporting on sexual harassment comes down to is looking for patterns of behavior. By the time you've reached, you know, the additional seven women, you're thinking something must be wrong here, you know?
And so what was it? And so what I did was try to take a look at the other cases. I'm not, you know, his defense lawyer. I'm just trying to sort of scrutinize what's going on here. And I guess if you tried to summarize what they are, you've got two other cases of women who felt that he was about to kiss them, one of whom he kissed on the cheek because she turned her head away, and the other who said it looked like he was going to kiss her.
And then you've got four other women who were posing for photographs with him and said he touched them in some way that made them uncomfortable while they were posing - maybe either touched a breast, touched their rear ends, touched their waist. And they felt that it was in a creepy way. And then there's one more accusation, which is a woman who said that at a fundraiser, he somehow touched her - I think it was maybe on the breast - and then she excused herself to go to the bathroom. And she says that he said can I come with you. It was in, sort of, the middle of a crowded fundraiser.
Almost all of these, you know, if you could go through them, they took place in crowded places in public. And these were moments that lasted - I asked the women, those who I could reach, how long did this go on. And it was usually sort of three to four, maybe five seconds. So these were sort of fleeting touches and, you know, sort of weird. So I tried to figure out what that was.
GROSS: When you say weird, what do you mean by weird? Who's weird? Like...
MAYER: Well, I just, you know, I - it - I think this came down to kind of a close look at a subject that we as a culture are grappling with right now, which is sort of the politics of touching. You know, are these touches harassment? Are these touches friendly? Are they molestation? Are they accidental? Are they sexual advances that are being made on people?
I thought probably the only way you could begin to figure this out is by talking to the women as much as possible and trying to get from them what they experienced, taking a look at their credibility so you could sort of figure out what did they bring to these accusations and trying to talk to not just Franken, but the people he worked with about what they made of these accusations. And so I set out to interview all of them.
GROSS: And what were some the insights you got from these interviews?
MAYER: Well, to me, one of the most interesting things as I was looking at this was a picture of Franken and how he moves fruit through the world physically. He is, by his own admission, oblivious a lot of the time. Obtuse is what I call him. I spoke to - in terms of how he touches people. He's playful. He pulls them together for photographs. He takes kids and sort of puts them in a hammer hold. And he often, as somebody who used to be in the entertainment world, spins people around towards the light when he's taking pictures in order to get a good picture with them.
So he's touching all these people. And the other thing is people are always touching him. All the way through the years, people have wanted to have their pictures taken with him because he's a TV celebrity on "Saturday Night Live," and he's a best-selling book author. So everywhere he goes, people are asking for pictures. And I get this from talking to his staff. And they say, you know, he's constantly posing for pictures. He's constantly mugging it up. He'll put his cheek right next to somebody else's, and, you know, all this stuff is going on. And he is kind of a slob.
And this I knew from - (laughter) I have to say the one time I ever met him, I was on Air America on the radio show that he used to host. And I don't remember too much about it except that he seemed quite gruff in terms of his personal interaction with me. And he, I think, was eating throughout the whole interview. There was like a sort of a paper plate with food on it.
And it was kind of like, you know, the food and the eating was all mixed up with the interview. So I kind of remembered this. And so I asked a lot of his staffers, you know, is he a bit of a slob? Could it be that he's touching these women sort of without a lot of care? You know, is he not careful about how he touches people? And they said, well, actually, it's been an issue. So I'm thinking, huh, what does that mean? What kind of issue is this?
And it turned out that if you do enough reporting on Al Franken, what you learn is he's a hugger. He used to be a kisser. If he knows the person, sometimes, he'll kiss them on the lips. So you've got two of his friends from comedy talking about that - or one of them's Randi Rhodes, so she's on the radio with him. The other's the comic Sarah Silverman. She says he's a lip kisser. And he also is a hugger. He comes out of the entertainment world. He comes out of sort of New York kind of Borscht Belt humor. It's his culture.
And when he started running for office, which was really in earnest in 2007, one of the things that's in the story that I found most interesting was he kissed somebody on the lips who he knew - a woman who he's not married to. And a young staffer who's named in the story who's quite conservative in - sort of - as culturally. He's from South Dakota. He said to Al Franken - he's working for Al Franken. He says, don't do that. And Al Franken says, really? And the staffer says, yes. People might misinterpret it. So you're talking 2007. He stops doing it. He says he tried - you know, that was a wakeup call to him.
So then I look at these allegations. An awful lot of them happened before he got that warning. And, you know, you can make of it what you want. But I think, you know, to me, as someone trying to figure out where the truth lies in this, it's important to know that when this man was called on his behavior and told it was making people uncomfortable and he shouldn't do it or told that it just looked wrong and he shouldn't do it, he was surprised. And he stopped. So, you know, it shows - it's not exactly the same as like a predator. You know, Leeann Tweeden put him in the category with Harvey Weinstein. It's - you're talking about something different. It's a different - there's a different category of behavior taking place here.
GROSS: My guest is Jane Mayer, The New Yorker's chief Washington correspondent. Her new article is titled "The Case Of Al Franken." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Jane Mayer. She's a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her new article is titled "The Case Of Al Franken." She investigated the allegations of sexual misconduct that led him to resign under pressure from the Senate in 2017.
Franken hoped to get a hearing before the Senate Ethics Committee. That never happened. Why didn't the Democrats pursue that?
MAYER: Well, in the beginning, they said they would do so. But as each allegation broke in the news against Al Franken and they started to pile up, there was a lot of pressure put on the Democrats in the Senate by the media and by women's groups, saying, how can you possibly condemn others, including our president, Donald Trump, for the way they treat women when you're not condemning one of your own colleagues, Al Franken? And the pressure was especially strong on the women senators who had made sexual harassment a crusade - fighting sexual harassment a crusade. And so they were being put under a lot of pressure daily, and the pressure was growing. And eventually, they went and met with Chuck Schumer, the minority leader in the Senate, and said they thought that something had to be done about this.
GROSS: And then Schumer asked Franken to resign, and you described that scene from Franken's point of view 'cause he told you about it.
MAYER: Right. And I also spoke with Schumer's staff about it and got a statement from Schumer about it, so we've got both sides of that story too. And I spoke with the women senators. You'll see that Kristen (ph) Gillibrand, who's taken a lot of heat for being the first to call for Franken to resign, spoke to me about why she made her decision, when she made her decision and how she sees it. You know, I think in reporting a story like this, it's so important to get everybody's input because there are a lot of different sides here to hear from, and they're all in this story as much as I could possibly get them.
And so, anyway, what happens is there's this - there becomes, like, a - what one of the senators described as a stampede. Senator Whitehouse from Rhode Island says, this stampede of Democrats starts calling for Franken to resign, and Chuck Schumer comes out among them and calls for Franken to resign. And before that, behind the scenes, Chuck Schumer has met with Franken and says, you have to step down. You've got to step down by 5. And Franken says, but I want my ethics hearing. I - you know, I want due process.
And basically, the leader of the Democrats in the Senate, Schumer, tells him, no. You know, you're - you got - have to resign for the good of the party and the good of the country. And if you don't, you could be stripped of your committee positions, and you could be censured by the others in the Senate. And people basically, he's warned - Franken is told - will treat him like a pariah.
GROSS: So Franken's strategy was to not spend a lot of time fighting back in public, but to rather wait for an ethics committee in which he could present, you know, witnesses and, you know, people who would corroborate his story and also explain the context of what happened. But then he was denied the ethics committee, and then he seemed to disappear afterwards.
MAYER: He did. I mean, and to give the other side of his disappearance and - you know, that he didn't get the ethics committee hearing - I mean, people do point out - and, I think, fairly - that if Al Franken had really wanted to, he could have stayed in the Senate. Nobody can make a senator resign. You can expel someone from the Senate, but that has not happened since the Civil War.
So he and his staff and his family all got together, and they met about what to do. And it was an tremendously sort of fraught night. And they decided all together that, really, he wouldn't be able to serve his constituents well in Minnesota if he was treated and ostracized by the other senators 'cause it takes a lot of teamwork to get anything done in the Senate. And so he decided to resign.
GROSS: So Jane, you've reported so many sexual harassment and sexual assault stories, dating back to the Clarence Thomas hearings. What's the moral of the story regarding the Al Franken case? Where does that fit in in the #MeToo movement in your judgment?
MAYER: I talked to a number of incredibly smart feminists about how they saw it, and they're quoted in this story trying to evaluate it, too. And I end the story with a quote from Debra Katz, who was the lawyer for Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accused Justice Kavanaugh of having sexually misbehaved towards her many years ago.
And so Debbie Katz, in this story, says she feels it's a kind of a cautionary tale, that the #MeToo movement - which she is a tremendous supporter of, as am I - needs to make sure that there is some kind of due process. You need to make sure that there is proportionality in terms of, you know, being able to distinguish different gradations of bad behavior. Not everybody is Harvey Weinstein, but there may be other kinds of misconduct that also need to be addressed, but in different ways. And nobody is saying you need to put up with sexual misconduct, but there are just different levels of it.
And then, finally, you know, I think what she's saying is that if you confuse less serious charges with serious ones, you feed a backlash against the whole movement that could hurt the movement. And there are number of women who are really strong feminists who worry about that in this story.
GROSS: Jane Mayer, thank you so much for talking with us, and thank you for your reporting.
MAYER: My pleasure. It's great to be with you.
GROSS: Jane Mayer is a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her new article is titled "The Case Of Al Franken."
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Seth Kelley. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
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