WASHINGTON - Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., faced swift condemnation and bipartisan calls for an ethics investigation Thursday after he was accused of forcibly kissing and groping a broadcaster and model while traveling overseas in 2006.
The allegations against Franken by Leeann Tweeden, who traveled with him on a USO trip to the Middle East before he was elected to the Senate, comes amid a growing swell of accusations of sexual misconduct by men in powerful positions.
Beloved by liberals for his fierce attacks on President Donald Trump, Franken found few defenders as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, N.Y., called for the ethics committee to investigate his actions.
"Sexual harassment is never acceptable and must not be tolerated," Schumer said in a statement.
Members of the ethics committee declined to comment.
The quick reaction to the accusations against Franken coincides with intense attention to charges that Alabama Republican Roy Moore made unwelcome sexual overtures to numerous women when they were teenagers. Moore has brushed off calls from GOP leaders to end his Senate campaign.
In an online essay published Thursday morning, Tweeden wrote that Franken had forced his tongue in her mouth during a rehearsal for a skit and then groped her while she was sleeping during a flight home - a moment that was captured in a photograph.
"You knew exactly what you were doing," she wrote. "You forcibly kissed me without my consent, grabbed my breasts while I was sleeping and had someone take a photo of you doing it, knowing I would see it later and be ashamed."
After initially issuing a brief apology for his behavior, Franken released a lengthier statement expressing contrition.
"I'm sorry," said the senator, who skipped a series of votes Thursday. "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."
Tweeden said she accepted Franken's apology.
"Yes, people make mistakes, and, of course, he knew he made a mistake," she said at a news conference in Los Angeles, where she works as a radio news anchor for KABC. She said she would leave any disciplinary action up to Senate leaders and was not calling for Franken to step down. "That's up to them. I'm not demanding that."
The hasty condemnations of Franken's behavior by fellow Democrats underlined the tinderbox atmosphere surrounding allegations of sexual harassment by influential figures.
What in the past might have brushed aside, or taken weeks to build into outrage, instantly consumed the Senate as they saw one of their own join a growing list that includes film producer Harvey Weinstein and actor Kevin Spacey.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., joined those in calling for an ethics investigation of her home-state colleague, saying in a statement, "I strongly condemn this behavior." Just last week, the Senate unanimously approved a bill co-sponsored by Klobuchar that mandates sexual harassment training for all senators and their staffs.
Late Thursday, Trump weighed in on Twitter, writing: "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? ....." The president himself has been accused of unwanted touching or kissing by 11 women, charges he has repeatedly denied.
The allegations against Franken landed two days after a remarkably candid hearing in Washington, during which female lawmakers said sexual harassment is a pervasive problem on Capitol Hill and suggested that current members were guilty of misconduct.
The cauldron has created a political atmosphere similar to that of the early 1990s, when Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas's confirmation was nearly derailed by sexual harassment allegations from law professor Anita Hill and when Bob Packwood, R-Ore., resigned rather than get expelled from the Senate for sexual misconduct.
For Democrats, the charges against Franken serve as a sobering reminder that there could be bipartisan fallout as women come forward with their experiences of harassment.
Franken had been seen entering a morning hearing of the Senate Judiciary Hearing Thursday morning but quickly left and could not be found at the Capitol the rest of the day, missing four midday roll call votes. During a Democratic lunch that he did not attend, his lengthy written statement was read aloud to senators and the issue was briefly discussed, according to one person in attendance and another aide familiar with the meeting who requested anonymity to discuss a private meeting.
While it is unusual for the ethics committee to investigate incidents that occurred before a senator was elected, there are no specific limitations on what the panel can probe. Senate Republicans have made that point repeatedly this week in trying to force Moore out of the Alabama contest, warning that he will face likely expulsion from the Senate if he wins the Dec. 12 race.
Franken's alleged misconduct occurred not long after he had moved home to Minnesota from New York, where he spent decades as a writer and performer on "Saturday Night Live" and a liberal radio talk show host. By 2006, Franken was already positioning himself to run for Senate in 2008, a race that he narrowly won after a recount.
At the time, Franken was a regular on USO tours, which often include live performances by celebrity entertainers to boost morale of U.S. service members.
Tweeden wrote in her post that the 2006 trip to the Middle East was her ninth such trip. At the time, she was a Fox Sports Network correspondent and fitness model.
She said Franken had written some skits for the show for the troops. "Like many USO shows before and since, the skits were full of sexual innuendo geared toward a young, male audience," she wrote.
Franken, she said, "had written a moment when his character comes at me for a 'kiss'. I suspected what he was after, but I figured I could turn my head at the last minute or put my hand over his mouth, to get more laughs from the crowd."
But on the day of the show, she wrote, "Franken and I were alone backstage going over our lines one last time. He said to me, 'We need to rehearse the kiss.' I laughed and ignored him. Then he said it again. I said something like, 'Relax Al, this isn't SNL . . . we don't need to rehearse the kiss.'"
Franken insisted they practice the kiss, she recounted.
"I said 'OK' so he would stop badgering me. We did the line leading up to the kiss and then he came at me, put his hand on the back of my head, mashed his lips against mine and aggressively stuck his tongue in my mouth," Tweeden recalled.
She said she immediately pushed him away. "I felt disgusted and violated," she said.
During the 36-hour flight home, Tweeden fell asleep wearing her flak vest and Kevlar helmet. It was not until she later looked a CD of photos that she came across an image of Franken, grabbing her chest provocatively as she slept, she said.
"I felt violated all over again," she wrote. "Embarrassed. Belittled. Humiliated."
In his statement Thursday, Franken expressed regret for his behavior.
"I don't know what was in my head when I took that picture, and it doesn't matter. There's no excuse," 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. And, what's more, I can see how millions of other women would feel violated by it - women who have had similar experiences in their own lives, women who fear having those experiences, women who look up to me, women who have counted on me."
Franken said that he does not recall the rehearsal for the skit "as Leeann does" but added, "I understand why we need to listen to and believe women's experiences."
Tweeden said on her radio show Thursday that she wanted to tell the world about the photo a decade ago but was worried about her career. She convinced herself, she said, that "it was not going to be worth the fight."
"People are going to go, 'Oh, you're a model. You've been on the cover of Playboy, you're a lingerie model and a swimsuit model and you're a sportscaster and you're a girl in Hollywood' - are they going to believe you?" Tweeden said on the air. "Somehow it was going to be my fault. Somehow it was going to come down on me, and he was going to get off scot-free."
Tweeden said she finally decided to share her story because "the tide has turned."
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The Washington Post's Mark Berman, Ed O'Keefe, J. Freedom du Lac, Michelle Ye Hee Lee, Amber Phillips, Karen Tumulty and David Weigel contributed to this report.