In a lengthy investigative report that The New Yorker published on Monday, the journalist Jane Mayer suggests that Al Franken got a raw deal when he was pressured to resign from the Senate in January 2018 amid claims of sexual misconduct.
And she goes further, declaring that Franken’s resignation without an investigation shows how, in the Me Too era, “some see it as offensive to subject accusers to scrutiny.”
But Mayer gets to this conclusion by herself failing to scrutinize — in a story that runs over 12,000 words — extremely credible allegations from women she wasn’t able to speak to, one of whose stories I reported on for HuffPost. These other allegations played a key role in Franken’s downfall. Meanwhile, the claims Mayer does examine thoroughly seem cherry-picked to allow her to downplay them.
As a result, Mayer’s story, which features a sympathetic interview with Franken conducted at his Minneapolis home, doesn’t come close to offering the kind of exoneration it aims for. In fact, it could do real damage by helping to cement a misguided consensus that the Me Too movement has gone too far, making it easier for other powerful men accused of sexual misconduct to evade accountability.
Indeed, after Mayer tweeted on Monday, “Sometimes the first draft of history is wrong — especially when no one fact checks it,” Justin Fairfax, the lieutenant governor of Virginia who has been accused by one woman of sexual assault and by another of rape, saw an opportunity. “Tell me about it, @JaneMayerNYer,” Fairfax tweeted in response. Fairfax has denied both women’s claims.
Mayer is one of the leading chroniclers of the ruthless and often anti-democratic tactics of the modern conservative movement, and much of her report on Franken is valuable in this vein. (She has herself done important reporting on claims of sexual misconduct, including against Brett Kavanaugh). She makes a convincing case that the first public allegation against Franken, from the conservative radio host Leeann Tweeden, amounted to a political hit job. Mayer details how Tweeden, who went on a 2006 USO tour with Franken to entertain service members, worked closely with right-wing operatives and media figures to give her story maximum impact. And Mayer pokes major holes in Tweeden’s claim that Franken subjected her to an ongoing campaign of sexual harassment on the trip.
But Franken’s resignation came after seven more women had accused him of misconduct. Each of those women alleged that his behavior toward them included unwanted touches or attempted kisses. Mayer implies that it was impossible for Franken to refute the allegations of any of these other women because “he had no memory of the alleged accusers except Tweeden.”
It’s not clear why Mayer, an experienced and skeptical investigative reporter, presents as fact the obviously self-interested claim by Franken that he can’t remember the women — something she almost certainly wouldn’t do in a different context. Mayer downplays the allegations further by adding: ”He had met the seven women long ago, mostly in fleeting interactions in crowded venues, posing for photographs with them.”
In fact, the woman whose claims I reported on for HuffPost said Franken cupped her butt with his hand as they stood talking in a circle of people shortly after they were introduced — not during a photo op — at a 2008 campaign fundraiser in Minneapolis, then asked if he could accompany her to the bathroom.
Mayer tried hard, through me, to contact the woman who made that allegation. But the woman ultimately declined to speak with Mayer. The article deals with this problem by simply ignoring her story, as if it were either suspect or insignificant, rather than by grappling at all with how its existence might complicate things.
Mayer and I had several phone conversations on the subject, during which Mayer tried to get from me a sense of the woman’s credibility, understanding that she might not be able to speak to her directly. I reiterated to her a key point that I had also noted in the HuffPost report: that the woman, a friend of mine, told the story to me and several other people years before the 2017 birth of the Me Too movement. (For what it’s worth, I also told Mayer that I know the woman to be credible, trustworthy, and serious minded.)
Mayer also doesn’t mention the story another woman told HuffPost reporter Jenavieve Hatch. That woman said Franken grabbed her butt during a photo op at a 2007 political event. Two sources corroborated the account to HuffPost. At Mayer’s request, Hatch passed Mayer’s contact information on to the woman. After taking a couple days to think about it, the source decided she wasn’t interested in speaking with Mayer.
Neither woman has backed away from her allegation. Franken hasn’t denied touching either woman’s butt (though he told HuffPost at the time that he’d never asked anyone to visit the bathroom with him). And the women’s decision not to speak to The New Yorker about claims made previously to a different news outlet shouldn’t cast doubt on their stories.
Mayer does detail a few of the other allegations against Franken, though. One that she describes involves a liberal journalist who said Franken, in Mayer’s words, “squeezed her waist in a creepy way” while they posed for a photo at a party. Another woman told Politico that Franken, again in Mayer’s words, “made her uneasy by looking as if he planned to kiss her” after a taping of his radio show. A third, a local elected official, told Jezebel that when she came onstage at a live taping of Franken’s radio show to hand him an award, he seemed to try to give her a “wet, open-mouthed kiss.” These stories go to support Mayer’s assessment that the problem was simply that “Franken could be physically obtuse,” making him vulnerable to the supposed excesses of Me Too.
Mayer’s story has kicked off a vigorous debate about whether Democrats did the right thing in pressuring Franken to resign, or whether he first deserved the “due process” of a Senate ethics investigation. We can debate what the appropriate punishment should have been under the circumstances — taking into account the political damage the story was inflicting on Democrats, Franken’s value as a popular and charismatic senator, and whatever other factors you want. But as we do, we should be clear about something that Mayer’s story obscures: Even if Franken was the victim of a bad-faith, politically motivated setup, the evidence strongly suggests he was also someone who enjoyed grabbing the butts of women he’d just met when he thought he could get away with it. For many of us, there may be better candidates for sympathy.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misidentified Justin Fairfax as the attorney general of Virginia. He is the lieutenant governor.