Allegations about improper sexual conduct by a Democratic senator and a Republican senatorial candidate are forcing the Senate to confront a difficult dilemma: where to draw the line and how to mete out punishment.
How should Democrat Al Franken of Minnesota be dealt with after an allegation he forced his tongue in a woman’s mouth and appeared to grope her while she slept? Should Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore be thrown out of the chamber if he wins election on Dec. 12 because of accusations he sexually assaulted or fondled teenage girls when he was in his 30s?
The questions have politicians across the country and in both parties, including President Donald Trump, grappling with how to calibrate their responses at a time when sexual harassment allegations are getting a heightened level of attention by the public.
“Obviously that’s not acceptable and that’s why we do the ethics investigation,” Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio said a few hours after Franken said he would submit to a review by the Senate ethics committee. “I don’t know where the line is."
The ground has been shifting rapidly in the past month since multiple allegations of sexual assault brought down one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, Harvey Weinstein. Other executives and high-profile men from the entertainment, business and media worlds also have found themselves ousted from positions of power over the past few weeks after being accused of mistreating women.
For Democrats, that meant coming down on Franken swiftly and harshly after Los Angeles radio news anchor Leeann Tweeden said he forcefully kissed and groped her without consent when they were on a U.S. military-sponsored entertainment tour to the Middle East in 2006, two years before he was elected.
The changed environment also seemed to shape Franken’s reaction. A leader of his party’s liberal wing who had been seen as a potential 2020 presidential candidate, Franken, 66, immediately took responsibility, apologized and called for an ethics investigation into himself.
Tweeden, who has said she accepts Franken’s apology, told ABC’s “Good Morning America” program Friday that she wasn’t calling for Franken to leave the Senate. “I think Al Franken does a lot of good things in the Senate,” she said. “You know, I think that’s for the people of Minnesota to decide. I’m not calling for him to step down. That was never my intention.”
Republicans quickly called for Franken to face an ethics investigation soon after the woman’s account was published and before Democratic leaders reacted. Senate GOP leaders already had lined up to pressure Moore to withdraw from the Alabama senate race and some urged his expulsion if he wins office.
Moore, though, has been unbowed. The 70-year-old former state supreme court judge has flatly denied the claims against him by at least eight women and insisted Thursday they were an effort by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “and his cronies to steal this election from the people of Alabama.” The Alabama Republican Party said it would stand behind him.
The political goals of each party are similar, but with different paths to get there. Democrats likely would be willing to have Franken, now serving his second term, stay in the Senate no matter how much they criticize his behavior. McConnell and other Senate Republicans don’t want Moore in the Senate, but they do want to keep the seat in Republican hands. They’re discussing a write-in effort to bypass Moore and defeat Doug Jones, the Democrat in the race.
Either case would be new territory for the ethics committee, which has never investigated claims of sexual misconduct that occurred before a senator took office. Most recently, it declined in 2008 to examine complaints about then-GOP Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, whose phone number turned up in the phone logs of a prostitution ring. The panel said Vitter’s actions occurred before he was elected and dropped the matter.
Republican Representative Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, the former chairman of the House Ethics Committee, said in his experience he found that the easiest path forward was for the member to resign "rather than have an institution go through the turmoil" of an investigation. This was particularly true “if we don’t want to set a precedent."
Dent stopped short of saying Franken should resign. "I’m not here to give any advice to Al Franken," he said on CNN’s "New Day."
The ethics panel can recommend a variety of punishments including reprimand, censure and expulsion from the chamber. A two-thirds vote is required to expel a member of the Senate, which is controlled right now 52-48 by the Republicans.
Senate expulsions are extremely rare. Only 15 senators have been discharged since 1789, and the last was Senator Jesse D. Bright of Indiana in 1862, among 14 thrown out for supporting the Confederacy during the Civil War.
The swiftly lowering threshold for those accused of harassment is almost sure to touch other lawmakers, said John Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California.
“It’s pretty likely other senators have done something at least as bad as Al Franken,” Pitney said. It will be hard to revert to the earlier mindset that placed a higher burden on accusers and focused on lawmakers’ conduct while in office, he said.
“The Senate may have to hold itself to a much higher standard,” he said.
Protecting the Powerful
Institutions protect the powerful, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, told reporters Thursday. “This institution is no different,” she said, adding that she’s optimistic the matter will now get far more attention in Congress.
Trump has left statements about Moore to spokeswoman Sarah Sanders, who said Thursday the president “believes that these allegations are very troubling and should be taken seriously, and he thinks that the people of Alabama should make the decision on who their next senator should be.” Of Franken, she said the Senate is looking into the matter “and we feel that’s an appropriate action.”
But the president weighed in on Franken via Twitter on Thursday night.
“The Al Frankenstien picture is really bad, speaks a thousand words. Where do his hands go in pictures 2, 3, 4, 5 & 6 while she sleeps? ....” Trump wrote in the first of two tweets. “And to think that just last week he was lecturing anyone who would listen about sexual harassment and respect for women. Lesley Stahl tape?”
The president himself has been accused of sexual harassment or making unwanted sexual advances by at least a 11 women prior to his election, allegations that he has called “made-up stuff” and lies. During his presidential campaign, the Washington Post unearthed a 2005 recording of him bragging about being able to grope women because of his celebrity status.
Sanders said there was no inconsistency in Trump viewing the accusations against Moore as troubling while saying those against him are simply made up.
“The president has certainly a lot more insight into what he personally did or didn’t do, and he spoke out about that directly during the campaign,” Sanders told reporters. “And I don’t have anything further to add beyond that.”