MINNEAPOLIS (TNS) — Sen. Al Franken broke an eight-day silence Sunday, reaching out to Minnesota media to talk about what he's done, and what he'll do next.
"I'm embarrassed and ashamed. I've let a lot of people down and I'm hoping I can make it up to them and gradually regain their trust," said Franken, who has kept a low profile since four women shared accounts of being groped, embarrassed and, in one case, forcibly kissed by the Minnesota Democrat.
"I'm looking forward to getting back to work tomorrow," he said.
Franken, who said he has posed for "tens of thousands of photos" over the years, says he does not remember any that ended with his hand sliding down to cup women's backsides, as several have alleged.
"I don't remember these photographs, I don't," he said. "This is not something I would intentionally do."
Franken said he has spent the past week "thinking about how that could happen and I just recognize that I need to be more careful and a lot more sensitive in these situations."
Asked whether he expects any other women to step forward with similar groping allegations, Franken said: "If you had asked me two weeks ago, 'Would any woman say I had treated her with disrespect?' I would have said no. So this has just caught me by surprise ... I certainly hope not."
Franken has been communicating with his constituents and the media mainly through terse written statements since Nov. 16, when Los Angeles radio broadcaster Leeann Tweeden accused him of forcibly kissing her during a 2006 holiday USO war zone tour. Her Twitter post was accompanied by a photo of Franken, then months away from launching his Senate candidacy, mugging for the camera with his hands hovering suggestively over her chest as she slumped, apparently asleep, on a military transport.
Franken skipped the rest of that Thursday's Senate votes and retreated from public view as the Senate adjourned for the weeklong Thanksgiving recess. In the days that followed, three other women provided accounts of uncomfortable encounters with Franken.
Lindsay Menz told CNN that Franken grabbed her buttocks while they posed for a photo at the Minnesota State fair in 2010 — an encounter she documented on social media at the time. Two other women gave similar anonymous accounts with the Huffington Post. One woman said Franken groped her as they posed for a photo at the Minnesota Women's Political Caucus in 2007. Another said Franken cupped her backside with his hand and suggested the two of them visit the bathroom together at a Democratic fundraiser in Minneapolis in 2008.
Franken's past as an irreverent comedian and founding member of "Saturday Night Live" returned to haunt him during his first Senate campaign, where he found himself apologizing for raunchy writing and off-color jokes — including at least one rape joke pitched during a late-night session in the SNL writers' room. Those apologies, Franken said, were sincere, and he set out to prove "that I knew the difference between being a comedy writer and a comedian and being a senator, and that I was going to take being a senator very seriously, and I have."
Over the past eight years, Franken built up a reputation as an advocate for women's issues, a foil to Trump administration appointees, and a powerhouse fundraiser who could draw crowds and donations across the country. The allegations of sexual misconduct brought that image crashing down. A rape survivor from asked him to remove his name from legislation he'd sponsored in her honor. Other politicians gave contributions from his political action committee to shelters for battered women.
"I've been a champion for women, and I know this makes this all the harder," he said. "I know I've let people down. I know I'm not going to regain their trust immediately. There's no magic words I can say here to make that happen."
Franken says he can still be an effective senator. This week, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on President Donald Trump's nomination of Minnesota Supreme Court Justice David Stras to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Franken, who viewed Stras as highly qualified but too conservative for the post, blocked the nomination. Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, overruled Franken and announced Stras' hearing the same day the Tweeden allegations against Franken went public.
Franken has asked the Senate Ethics Committee to look into his behavior, but resisted comparisons between his behavior and that of Roy Moore, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate from Alabama, who has been accused of propositioning a number of underage girls over the years.
"I'm going to take responsibility. I'm going to be held accountable through the ethics committee," Franken said. "And I'm going to hopefully be a voice in this that is helpful ... Again, I respect women. What kills me about this is it gives people a reason to believe I don't respect women."
Winning back the public's trust won't be easy, he acknowledged.
"This is not going to happen quickly. I have to earn this over time and that's what I plan to do," he said. Franken said he planned to "work as hard as I can to regain the trust of people I've let down, and that especially means the people of Minnesota, it means people who've been supporters of mine, and it means my colleagues."