Is the Era of Senator Al Franken Coming to an End?

by Jim Geraghty

By the time you read this, Minnesota senator Al Franken may have resigned. Or maybe not.

A Democratic official who spoke to Franken and key aides told MPR News Franken will resign Thursday. He’s expected to make a speech from the Senate floor Thursday morning.

After MPR News reported the planned resignation, a tweet from Franken’s official account said it was “not accurate.” “No final decision has been made,” the tweet also said.

In The Atlantic, Tina Dupuy offers another shocking anecdote about her run-in with Franken, at a Media Matters party during Obama’s inauguration in 2009:

D.C. was decked out and packed in for the inauguration of a young and popular new president. The town was buzzing with optimism, and one of the many events on our list was a swanky Media Matters party with Democratic notables everywhere. Then I saw Al Franken. I only bug celebrities for pictures when it’ll make my foster mom happy. She loves Franken, so I asked to get a picture with him. We posed for the shot. He immediately put his hand on my waist, grabbing a handful of flesh. I froze. Then he squeezed. At least twice.

I’d been married for two years at the time; I don’t let my husband touch me like that in public because I believe it diminishes me as a professional woman. Al Franken’s familiarity was inappropriate and unwanted. It was also quick; he knew exactly what he was doing.

I am certain that there are creeps, gropers, and bad men — bad people, really — in all professions and walks of life. But I cannot help but wonder whether certain men who profess to be feminists and defenders of “women’s rights” feel particularly enabled by those public beliefs to indulge their worst impulses.

Back in 2013, the journal Psychological Science noted that a certain segment of the population maintains “a kind of moral equilibrium, meaning that giving money to charity may lead them to skimp on the tip at dinner, whereas partying too much may inspire a volunteer day at the soup kitchen.” Other studies confirm these forms of rationalization or self-justification: I’m a really good person because I do this good thing, which is why I’m allowed to do this bad thing. It’s the psychological version of buying indulgences for sin.

Again, this is not a partisan or ideological trait; I’m sure there is no shortage of conservatives who feel they’re doing “God’s work” and thus are entitled to some bad behavior.

But this mentality is pretty explicit on the left. Back on November 18, Howard Fineman wrote on Twitter, “He went too far (& apologized). BUT: he’s NOT predatory, adores his wife & family & is a lifelong champion of women’s rights.” The implication, of course, is that a senator who wasn’t a “champion of women’s rights” — presumably meaning abortion — wouldn’t be entitled to this mercy or understanding.

Give Dupuy credit, she’s tired of these excuses and justifications.

I have a radical idea: Maybe Democrats can replace politicians who harass and abuse women with anyone other than an abuser. There are good men in the world. I married one. I’ve worked with many more. Do we really believe our talent pool will dry up and our caucus will be nonexistent once we kick out all the creepers? I don’t. What if protecting men who harass and abuse women isn’t actually good for women?

Maybe, just maybe, it’s only good for the men.

By the way, Republicans, are you listening? Are you absolutely certain, swear-on-a-Bible, damn-me-to-hell-if-he’s-lying that Roy Moore isn’t guilty of what his accusers claim? If there’s any possibility that he sexually pursued a 14-year-old in his 30s, do you want anything to do with the effort to put him in office?

The Case for Waiting and Seeing about the FBI’s Peter Strzok

Our Andy McCarthy is never predictable. Like many others, I greeted the news that the lead FBI investigator on the Russian probe, Peter Strzok, was removed by Mueller for sending partisan and political text messages in 2016 as a sign that his decisions on both the Clinton investigation and Trump-Russia probe were driven, at least in part, by partisan politics. It’s all too easy to conclude that Clinton’s slap on the wrist and the extensive, aggressive investigation of Trump were driven by an unjust preconceived notion by at least one figure in law enforcement that Democrats are the good guys and Republicans are the bad guys.

McCarthy — a former federal prosecutor and nobody’s definition of a Hillary Clinton defender — makes the argument that we should withhold judgment on Strzok until we know more.

Strzok did not decide on his own to interview Flynn. We know the matter was being monitored at the highest level of the Justice Department, by then-acting attorney general Sally Yates and then-FBI director James Comey. Strzok and a colleague were assigned to interview Flynn. More importantly, Strzok apparently reported that he believed Flynn had been truthful. Shortly after the interview occurred, it was reported that the FBI had decided no action would be taken against Flynn. On March 2, Comey testified to a closed session of the House Intelligence Committee that, while Flynn may have had some honest failures of recollection during the interview, the agents who questioned him concluded that he did not lie.

Far from setting Flynn up, it seems that Strzok would exculpate him. Flynn was prosecuted not because Strzok is an anti-Trump zealot, but apparently because Strzok’s finding that Flynn was truthful was negated by Mueller’s very aggressive prosecutors. Did they decide they knew better than the experienced investigators who were in the room observing Flynn’s demeanor as he answered their questions?

I still subscribe to a theory that I think aligns with Occam’s Razor: Then-FBI director James Comey really, really, really didn’t want to recommend the indictment of the Democratic nominee for president two weeks before the Democratic convention — particularly when he knew Attorney General Loretta Lynch would never follow that recommendation. But he also didn’t want the Bureau to effectively help cover up Hillary Clinton’s crimes. His July 5 press conference was his idea of splitting the baby, publicly criticizing her but keeping the whole matter out of the judicial system, and letting the American electorate decide whether this was serious enough to keep her out of the Oval Office.

But, with all due respect to McCarthy . . . would Comey’s finding, or at least the wording of it, have been different if Strzok had strong feelings in opposition to Hillary?

The Naïve Tech Masters

Over on the home page, I have a column arguing that Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Google have grown to encompass duties to the public trust — duties that these companies were never intended to handle in the first place.

Facebook began as “FaceMash”in 2003, when an apparently inebriated Mark Zuckerberg created a site to allow Harvard students to compare students and rate which one was hotter. These world-dominating Internet tools were created by technical geniuses whose wisdom and understanding of human nature is way behind their ability to design and program an algorithm.

They weren’t built with journalism or political communication in mind, and no one really thought through that empowering everyone to send short messages, post videos or create online communities meant it would empower terrorists, criminals, hate groups, garden-variety nut-jobs, and child predators to do the same things.

No system will ever be perfect, and any system can be “hacked” with enough time, effort, and resources. For example, the 2016 election was not the first time Russia was able to fill the minds of some Americans with propagandistic nonsense. In the good old days of professional journalism and old media, the New York Times Moscow correspondent Walter Duranty “shrugged off the Ukrainian famine of 1930-1931 as ‘mostly bunk,’ and in any case, as he admonished the squeamish, ‘You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.’” He won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage. The Times more or less apologized for his coverage of the Soviet Union in 1990, conceding, “having bet his reputation on Stalin, he strove to preserve it by ignoring or excusing Stalin’s crimes. He saw what he wanted to see.”

In the old days, the Russians had to find and influence, flatter, court, and seduce a Western media correspondent in order to get their preferred messages and viewpoint before the American public. Today social media allows them to eliminate the middleman. (Insert sarcastic slow clap here.)

I offer two possible solutions. The first is that we get it into Americans’ heads that without verification, what’s posted on social media is as reliable and verified as graffiti or what’s written on the wall of a bathroom stall. Sadly, it turns out Jenny is not eager to show you a good time if you call her at 867-5309.

The second option is that Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Google realize that whether or not they intended to be media companies or want to be media companies, they have become media companies, and they need to take responsibility for what appears on their platforms. This means temp workers can’t have access to the president’s Twitter account and shut it down for eleven minutes. This means you shouldn’t have the option of selecting “Jew hater” as a target demographic for advertising on Facebook. This means the criteria for shutting down a Twitter account has to be crystal clear and based upon non-ideological criteria, not the complaints of celebrities. It probably means fewer algorithms making decisions and more human judgements — and more openness about how those humans reached those judgments.

ADDENDA: My Three Martini Lunch podcast co-host, Greg Corombus, reminded me of this 1991 Saturday Night Live sketch of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings. In it, the assembled senators (Joe Biden, Edward Kennedy, Howell Heflin, Strom Thurmond, and Paul Simon) come across as sex-obsessed creeps who can’t even begin to understand why harassment is wrong. One of the particularly ironic moments, in light of recent revelations, is Phil Hartman’s Ted Kennedy offering advice to Thomas: “Have you ever tried coming out of the bathroom nude, and acting like you didn’t know someone was there?  . . . Well, that’s too bad. Because that works, too.”

The man playing Senator Paul Simon, asking Clarence Thomas if women weren’t into him because of his bow tie, was . . . current senator Al Franken. I’ll bet that back then, Franken thought that he would never be like those senators, so tone-deaf and out of touch about sexual harassment.

If you don’t want to get caught watching the sketch, a transcript can be found here.

The Morning Jolt

By Jim Geraghty