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Saturday 17 August 2019

US senator Al Franken apologises after radio host says he kissed and groped her

Al Franken on stage with Leeann Tweeden in 2006 (Staff Sgt Patrick N Moes/US Army/AP)
Al Franken on stage with Leeann Tweeden in 2006 (Staff Sgt Patrick N Moes/US Army/AP)

US senator Al Franken is facing a storm of criticism and a likely ethics investigation after a radio anchor accused him of forcibly kissing and groping her during a visit to entertain US troops in Afghanistan.

He is the first member of Congress caught in a wave of allegations of sexual abuse and inappropriate behaviour.

The Minnesota senator apologised on Thursday, but the criticism grew throughout the day. Fellow Democrats swiftly condemned his actions, mindful of the current climate as well as the prospect of political backlash.

Republicans, still wrestling with multiple allegations facing Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, joined in pressing for an investigation. Mr Franken said he would welcome it.

It came after Leeann Tweeden posted her allegations, including a photo of Franken and her, on the website of KABC in Los Angeles, where she works as a news anchor for a morning radio show.

The photo shows Mr Franken posing in a joking manner, smiling at the camera with his hands on her chest as she naps wearing a flak vest aboard a military plane.

They had been performing for military personnel in Afghanistan on a 2006 tour with the United Service Organisations, two years before the one-time Saturday Night Live comedian was elected to the Senate.

Ms Tweeden said that before an earlier show Mr Franken had persisted in rehearsing a kiss and "aggressively stuck his tongue in my mouth".

Now, she said, "every time I hear his voice or see his face, I am angry". She said she is angry with herself as well for not speaking out at the time, "but I didn't want to rock the boat".

Mr Franken, 66, is the latest public figure caught in the deluge of revelations of sexual harassment and misconduct that have crushed careers, ruined reputations and prompted criminal investigations in Hollywood, business and beyond.

The swift rebukes from Republican and Democratic sides suggest that momentum from the online #Metoo movement has begun to spur a culture shift on Capitol Hill, where current and former staffers say misogynistic and predatory behaviour has long been an open secret.

In a statement on Thursday, Mr Franken apologised to Ms Tweeden and his constituents while maintaining that he remembered the rehearsal differently. Ms Tweeden said she accepted his apology.

"Coming from the world of comedy, I've told and written a lot of jokes that I once thought were funny but later came to realise were just plain offensive," he wrote.

"I respect women. I don't respect men who don't. And the fact that my own actions have given people a good reason to doubt that makes me feel ashamed."

Of the photo, he said: "I look at it now, and I feel disgusted with myself. It isn't funny. It's completely inappropriate. It's obvious how Leeann would feel violated by that picture."

President Donald Trump ridiculed Mr Franken in tweets: "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? ..... And to think that just last week he was lecturing anyone who would listen about sexual harassment and respect for women. Lesley Stahl tape?"

Mr Trump was referring to a New York magazine story from 1995 in which Mr Franken suggested a skit in which 60 Minutes commentator Andy Rooney would muse about drugging correspondent Leslie Stahl and taking pictures of her.

But the president has been publicly silent about the allegations against Mr Moore, the Republican nominee in Alabama's special Senate election. Through a spokeswoman, he called the allegations of sexual misconduct against the former judge "very troubling" but stopped short of calling on Mr Moore to drop out.


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