WASHINGTON (CBSNewYork/AP) — Minnesota Sen. Al Franken broke his silence Sunday after being swept into a nationwide tide of sexual harassment allegations, saying he feels “embarrassed and ashamed” but looks forward to returning to work on Monday and gradually regaining voters’ trust.
The Democrat spoke to a handful of media outlets in Minnesota in the first interviews he’s granted after four women publicly accused him of misconduct. Esme Murphy of WCCO-TV, CBS Minneapolis spoke exclusively to Franken at his daughter’s home in Washington D.C.
Three women allege that Franken grabbed their buttocks while taking photos with them during campaign events.
In the 35-minute interview with Murphy, Franken apologized to his accusers while insisting he didn’t recall incidents where he allegedly grabbed women from behind during photo ops.
Franken walked a line between apologizing and insisting he did not recall specific groping allegations brought by four different women.
“I understand that, and again, I am going to have to do everything I can going forward to be enormously sensitive,” Franken said. “I apologize to these women.”
Franken also told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that he doesn’t remember the photographs but that such behavior is “not something I would intentionally do.”
The first woman to come forward was Los Angeles radio news anchor Leeann Tweeden, who earlier this month released a photograph of the former comedian grinning while reaching out as if to grope her as she slept on a military aircraft during a USO tour in 2006. Tweeden said Franken also forcibly kissed her while rehearsing for a USO performance, which Franken has disputed.
Franken told Minnesota Public Radio on Sunday that the photo with Tweeden was “inexcusable,” but he declined to explain it further.
“With Leeann Tweeden, I said I had a different recollection of the kiss we had,” Franken told WCCO’s Murphy.
“What is your recollection?” Murphy asked.
“My recollection is different than hers. I apologized to her and meant it and she was gracious enough to accept my apology,” Franken said.
Franken did unequivocally apologize for this photograph from that same trip that shows him smiling with his hands over Tweeden’s breasts.
“The picture was inexcusable and that is what I am most ashamed for,” Franken said.
“What my intention was doesn’t matter. What matters is that I am chained to that photo,” Franken said. “She … didn’t have any ability to consent. She had every right to feel violated by that photo. I have apologized to her and I was very grateful that she accepted my apology.”
A few days after Tweeden released the photo, another woman, Lindsay Menz, publicly alleged that Franken pulled her in closely and squeezed her buttocks while they posed for a photo at the Minnesota State Fair in 2010.
Two other women, speaking anonymously to The Huffington Post, said this week that Franken grabbed their buttocks during political events in 2007 and 2008, during his first campaign for Senate.
One woman said the then-candidate suggested they visit the bathroom together. Franken has denied propositioning a woman to go to the bathroom and said it was “difficult to respond to anonymous accusers.”
“Are they mistaken that their butt was grabbed is that what you are saying?” Murphy asked.
“I am not saying that. As I said, I take thousands of photos. I don’t remember these particular photos,” Franken said.
“With all due respect, people are going to find it hard to believe that someone such as yourself wouldn’t know that they were grabbing someone’s butt,” Murphy said.
“I can understand how some people would see it that way,” Franken said.
“But have you ever placed a hand on some woman’s butt?” Murphy asked.
“I can’t say that it hasn’t happened. In crowded chaotic situations, I can’t say that I have not done that. I am very sorry if these women experienced that,” Franken said.
“Are there going to be any other women who are going to come forward? Are there any other allegations that you know of?” Murphy asked.
“If you had told me two weeks ago that women were going to come forward and say I disrespected them, I would have said no,” Franken said.
“I don’t think any of the women are using that word disrespected,” Murphy said.
“Or done anything like this,” Franken said.
“Disrespected is your word. Leeann Tweeden said you forcefully kissed her,” Murphy said.
“I know what she said,” Franken said.
“They are not using the word disrespect. People are looking at that word and saying ‘No.’ Lindsay Menz said you molested her on Facebook right afterward. I think these women feel this goes way behind disrespect,” Murphy said.
“I understand that I have a different recollection,” Franken said.
Franken says he is going back to work on Monday.
“I think I can win back the respect of the people of Minnesota and I understand I have a long way to go,” Franken said.
“So I take it that you have no intention of resigning?” Murphy asked.
“No we have an ethics process that I have agreed to cooperate with completely,” Franken said.
Franken, who was among the most aggressive of questioners during appointment hearing for President Trump’s cabinet members, says he is not going to let up on his criticism of the Trump administration.
“Can you really continue to claim the moral high ground, particularly in issues surrounding the Trump administrations Russia ties, when many people feel you have been less than transparent about these issues?” Murphy asked.
“Well I think I am a good questioner. My questions don’t go to my credibility. They go to the credibility of the witnesses,” Franken said.
“But hasn’t your credibility been undermined?” Murphy asked.
“I would say yes and I have a long way to go to win back the trust of the people of Minnesota. There are a lot of people I have let down, my friends and staff, my family down. I am just very sorry,” Franken said.
Franken declined to talk about other prominent politicians and other public figures accused of sexual harassment, including President Donald Trump, Alabama Senate Candidate Roy Moore and former CBS and PBS news anchor Charlie Rose.
Franken faces a Senate ethics investigation — which he welcomed in the wake of Tweeden’s allegation — though it’s unclear when that review may begin. A swirl of sexual harassment allegations at the Minnesota Capitol forced the resignations of two state lawmakers at party leaders’ urging, but Franken hasn’t faced similar widespread calls to leave his U.S. Senate seat.
Shortly before word came out that Michigan Representative John Conyers is stepping aside as ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee over similar allegations, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-New York) said he wasn’t ready to call for Franken to resign. This, despite a recent poll by Politico and Morning Consult shows half of voters surveyed want the Minnesota Democrat to step down.
“The Ethics Committee is giving a thorough look into this and that’s what should happen with everybody,” Schumer said. “There are allegations here. There ought to be first a thorough investigation. Let’s see the results of that before we make any determination.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California) also addressed the harassment allegations in an interview Sunday.
“Women have spoken out. Their concerns will be addressed in a way I think will give comfort as well as end this behavior — because, you know what? It’s disgusting.”
Pelosi said the House will vote this week on legislation for mandatory anti-harassment training, as well as the end of nondisclosure agreements and payoffs to victims.
Franken came to the Senate after a months-long recount gave him a 312-vote victory in his 2008 election. He immediately tried to distance himself from his decades of professional comedy, which included off-color jokes about rape and disparaging women, and avoided national reporters.
Dozens of women who’ve worked with Franken, including former Senate staffers and women who worked with him on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” signed statements supporting Franken following Tweeden’s allegations.