WASHINGTON — Democrats have been quick to support the “me too” chorus of women — and some men — who have stepped up to allege sexual misconduct and name names. But now “me too” stains the Democrats, too, putting them in an awkward place as they calibrate how forcefully to respond.
Allegations against Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota and Rep. John Conyers of Michigan are part of the newest chapter in the hot-potato politics of sexual predation for the party, which has its own fraught history on the subject.
The latest revelations have prompted a hard look back at the way Democrats and their allies once circled the wagons around President Bill Clinton, dismissing allegations that extended to serious assault as mere dalliances or the tales of “looney” women.
In her 2016 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton drew a clear line on behalf of women who allege sexual assault, saying flatly: “You have the right to be believed.” But she equivocated when asked if her husband’s accusers from another decade should be believed, too: “I would say that everybody should be believed at first until they are disbelieved based on evidence.”
The pressure’s on now to act without equivocation.
Franken’s prankish photo of his hands over a napping woman’s breasts on a military plane, combined with her allegations that he kissed her forcibly on another occasion, prompted swift condemnation from throughout the party’s ranks and inspired calls for an ethics investigation that the senator-in-hiding supported, too. Then a second woman came forward, alleging Franken grabbed her buttocks during a photo op at a state fair.
In a story published Wednesday by the Huffington Post, two more women alleged that Franken touched their buttocks during campaign events in 2007 and 2008.
The women spoke on condition of anonymity. Franken said in a statement, “It’s difficult to respond to anonymous accusers, and I don’t remember those campaign events.”
And now, BuzzFeed has published affidavits from former employees of Conyers who said they saw the Democrat inappropriately touching women who worked for him and asking them for sexual favors.
It reported that his office paid more than $27,000 to a woman who alleged she was fired because she rejected his sexual advances. On Tuesday, Conyers denied he made that settlement — but his office later acknowledged it while still denying that the allegations were true. The House Ethics Committee has initiated an investigation.
Democrats, predictably, have spoken fiercely and with one voice against Roy Moore, the Republican Senate candidate in Alabama who is accused of disrobing a 14-year-old girl in his house when in his 30s.
Some Republicans have demanded Moore quit his candidacy “if” his accusers have told the truth about his approaching teenage girls. Others have concluded the accusations are more credible than his denials. But a few, like Alabama’s GOP governor, have suggested that even if he did prey on a 14-year-old girl decades ago, the need to protect the Senate’s Republican majority is a higher priority. President Donald Trump repeatedly noted on Wednesday that Moore has denied the allegations and insisted that Alabama must not elect the Republican’s “liberal” opponent in a Dec. 12 special election.
In this sexual misconduct frenzy of unmasking figures in entertainment, media, sports and politics (#MeToo on Twitter), all sorts of episodes on the spectrum of misbehavior are being lumped together, from the boorish and juvenile to the allegedly criminal.
Grabbing a woman’s behind at the state fair isn’t in the same league as molesting a child.
Still, the Democrats have a predicament.
“They don’t want to look tolerant on this issue by saying, ‘He wasn’t as bad as so and so,'” said Dan Lublin, a political science professor at American University.
“They need to appear strong,” he said, and not focus on gradations in misbehavior. “They’re going with ‘unacceptable.’ And it is a dilemma, because you don’t know how far that will go.”
Kathleen Dolan, chair of the political science department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said the party’s history with this issue is important to remember.
“Certainly, Democrats, from an ideological perspective, and on gender egalitarianism, should be the party or people we’d expect to be taking the lead on awareness of the decades-old problem of sexual harassment and sexual assault,” she said.
“That’s complicated in part by the history of the party debate when Bill Clinton was in the thick of his stuff. … There’s evolution, because the Democrats could perhaps with some accuracy say in the ’90s we tolerated so much of what we shouldn’t have.”
Indeed, Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, whose Senate seat was once held by Hillary Clinton, now says she believes Bill Clinton should have resigned for his improprieties.
Only now is there movement to bring sexual misconduct out of the shadows in Congress, where people in both parties say it has been widespread.
Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier, who sponsored legislation to overhaul the system by which sexual complaints are made and settled on Capitol Hill, described Congress as “a breeding ground for a hostile work environment.” Last month she shared her own story of being sexually assaulted by a high-level aide while she was a staffer.
In a stunning public hearing last week, Speier and Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock shared stories of current lawmakers harassing staff members. Comstock said she was told that an aide recently left her job after a congressman exposed himself to her. Support for mandatory training to prevent sexual harassment in Congress has received bipartisan support.
The Conyers allegations, made in a leaked settlement, lay bare the opaque nature of that process.
In order to file a complaint with the Office of Compliance, accusers must first enter into mediation, with a non-disclosure agreement attached, followed by a mandatory 30-day “cooling off” period. After completion, a victim may either file a formal complaint or a federal lawsuit. The process is so arduous that many victims either settle or decide against going through the reporting at all.
“My view of this law is that it is very stacked in favor of members and others accused of sexual harassment, to the detriment to someone who has suffered sexual harassment or other discrimination at the Capitol,” said Debra Katz, a Washington employment and whistleblower attorney.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, sees a common thread in the response to very different allegations, dating back to Anita Hill’s accusations against Clarence Thomas on his way to the Supreme Court. No matter the nature of allegations, she said, the reaction to them is driven more by political party than by the merits.
FBI director counters Trump’s attacks on his agency
By SADIE GURMAN and ERIC TUCKER
WASHINGTON (AP) — FBI Director Christopher Wray on Thursday countered strident attacks on his agency by President Donald Trump, saying, “There is no finer institution than the FBI.”
Wray testified before the House Judiciary Committee as Democrats and Republicans clashed over the significance of Trump’s attacks on the agency. In a storm of tweets last weekend, Trump called the nation’s top law enforcement agency a biased institution whose reputation is “in Tatters — worst in History!” and urged Wray to “clean house.”
Democrats pushed Wray to respond forcefully, while Republicans echoed Trump in suggesting they worry about political bias in special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of possible Trump campaign ties to Russia during the 2016 presidential election. Like Trump, they seized on revelations that an FBI agent was removed from Mueller’s team because of anti-Trump texts.
“There is no shortage of opinions out there, but what I can tell you is that the FBI that I see is tens of thousands of agents and analysts and staff working their tails off to keep Americans safe,” Wray said of the agency he has led for just four months. “The FBI that I see is tens of thousands of brave men and women working as hard as they can to keep people they will never know safe from harm.”
Wray conceded that agents do make mistakes and said there are processes in place to hold them accountable.
His defense of the FBI came after the committee’s chairman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said he was concerned by reports about Peter Strzok, a veteran counterintelligence agent involved in the Clinton investigation, being removed from Mueller’s team last summer following the discovery of text messages seen as potentially anti-Trump.
“It is absolutely unacceptable for FBI employees to permit their own political predilections to contaminate any investigation,” Goodlatte said. “Even the appearance of impropriety will devastate the FBI’s reputation.”
Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, top Democrat on the House Judiciary panel, predicted Trump’s attacks on the FBI will only grow louder as Mueller continues investigating. “Your responsibility is not only to defend the bureau but to push back against the president when he is so clearly wrong, both on the facts and as a matter of principle,” Nadler told Wray.
Wray’s tenure as the new FBI chief would be difficult enough even without the intense scrutiny of the Russia investigation. Since he was sworn in on Aug. 2, the U.S. has experienced two of the deadliest shootings in its modern history and an attack seen as terrorism in Manhattan.
Trump’s weekend tweets created a fresh dilemma for Wray. With his bosses, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Sessions’ deputy, Rod Rosenstein, staying publicly silent, it fell to Wray to defend the agency. But FBI directors traditionally have been low-key and stoic — with Wray’s predecessor, James Comey, a notable exception.
And Trump’s firing of Comey while he led the Russia probe shows what can happen to a director who antagonizes the president.
Wray repeatedly deflected questions about the FBI’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, saying the entire matter was under review by the Justice Department’s inspector general.
Republicans repeatedly pressed him on reports that Strzok tweaked the language of the FBI’s finding from “grossly negligent” — the standard laid out in the relevant statute — to “extremely careless,” which was the language that Comey ultimately used in discussing the Clinton case with the public.
Announcement coming from Sen. Franken amid fresh accusations
By ANDREW TAYLOR
WASHINGTON (AP) — Minnesota Democrat Al Franken, facing fresh allegations of sexual misconduct and vanishing support from fellow Democrats, appears on the brink of resigning from the Senate.
Franken’s office said he will make an announcement at 11:45 a.m. Thursday in a speech on the Senate floor. His office tweeted Wednesday evening that he had not made “a final decision” on resigning.
But a majority of the Senate’s Democrats called on the two-term lawmaker to quit after a woman emerged Wednesday morning saying he forcibly tried to kiss her in 2006. Hours later, another woman said Franken inappropriately squeezed “a handful of flesh” on her waist while posing for a photo with her in 2009. That brought the number of women alleging misconduct by Franken to at least eight.
Franken, the former comedian who made his name on “Saturday Night Live,” faces a chorus of calls to step aside, and Democratic senators said they expected their liberal colleague to resign.
“Enough is enough,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. “We need to draw a line in the sand and say none of it is OK, none of it is acceptable, and we, as elected leaders, should absolutely be held to a higher standard.”
Gillibrand was the first to call for Franken’s resignation on Wednesday, but a torrent of Democrats quickly followed.
“I’m shocked and appalled by Sen. Franken’s behavior,” said Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state. “It’s clear to me that this has been a deeply harmful, persistent problem and a clear pattern over a long period of time. It’s time for him to step aside.”
Though the writing appeared to be on the wall, Franken’s departure was not certain. A tweet posted Wednesday evening on Franken’s Twitter account said: “Senator Franken is talking with his family at this time and plans to make an announcement in D.C. tomorrow. Any reports of a final decision are inaccurate.”
Late in the day, Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York added his voice.
“I consider Senator Franken a dear friend and greatly respect his accomplishments, but he has a higher obligation to his constituents and the Senate, and he should step down immediately,” Schumer said.
The resignation demands came in rapid succession even though Franken on Wednesday vehemently denied the new accusation that came from a former Democratic congressional aide, who said he tried to forcibly kiss her after a taping of his radio show in 2006.
The woman, who was not identified, told Politico that Franken pursued her after her boss had left and she was collecting her belongings. She said that she ducked to avoid his lips and that Franken told her: “It’s my right as an entertainer.”
Franken, in a statement, said the idea he would claim such conduct as a right was “preposterous.”
But it was clear his position had become untenable.
Fellow Democratic Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who spoke to Franken, wrote on Twitter, “I am confident he will make the right decision.”
The pressure only mounted Tuesday, when Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., resigned after numerous allegations of sexual misconduct. Rep Ruben Kihuen, D-Nev., faces pressure to resign as well over allegations reported by Buzzfeed that he repeatedly propositioned a former campaign worker.
While Franken apparently is departing, Alabama GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore could be arriving, if he prevails in a Dec. 12 special election. Multiple women have accused the 70-year-old Moore of sexual misconduct with them when they were teens and he was a deputy district attorney in his 30s. If Moore is elected, it could create a political nightmare for Republicans, who have promised an ethics probe.
A national conversation about sexual harassment has intensified this fall after the heavily publicized case of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, who was accused of many acts of sexual misconduct, including rape, by actresses and other women. Just on Wednesday, Time magazine named as its person of the year the “silence breakers” — women who have come forward on sexual harassment.
Punishment has been swift for leaders in entertainment, media and sports while members of Congress have tried to survive the onslaught of allegations.
Franken already faced a Senate Ethics Committee investigation into previous claims by several other women that he groped them or sought to forcibly kiss them.
The allegations began in mid-November when Leeann Tweeden, now a Los Angeles radio anchor, accused him of forcibly kissing her during a 2006 USO tour in Afghanistan.
Other allegations followed, including a woman who says Franken put his hand on her buttocks as they posed for a photo at the Minnesota State Fair in 2010. Two women told the Huffington Post that Franken squeezed their buttocks at political events during his first campaign for the Senate in 2008. A fourth woman, an Army veteran, alleged Franken cupped her breast during a photo on a USO tour in 2003.
Franken has apologized for his behavior but has also disputed some of the allegations.
Associated Press writers Juliet Linderman in Washington and Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Alabama, contributed to this report.
Report: 2 women claim Franken touched them inappropriately
MINNEAPOLIS — Two women are alleging that Minnesota Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken touched their buttocks during events for his first campaign for Senate.
The women spoke to Huffington Post on condition of anonymity. The women said the events occurred in Minneapolis in 2007 and 2008.
Franken said in a statement, “It’s difficult to respond to anonymous accusers, and I don’t remember those campaign events.”
Last week, Franken was accused of forcibly kissing a woman while rehearsing for a 2006 USO tour. Franken also was photographed with his hands over her breasts as she slept. A second woman came forward, alleging Franken grabbed her buttocks during a photo op at the Minnesota State Fair.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has called for an ethics investigation of Franken, which Franken says he supports.
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