Senator Al Franken announced his resignation on Thursday, becoming the highest-ranking US politician yet to step down in the wake of widening allegations of sexual misconduct against powerful men in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, the media and politics.
Speaking on the Senate floor, Franken, who said he would quit in the coming weeks, said: “All women deserve to be heard and their experiences taken seriously.”
But he said that his response to the sexual misconduct allegations “gave some people the false impression that I was admitting doing things that I hadn’t done. Some of the allegations against me are simply not true. Others I remember differently.”
Serving in the US Senate was, he said “the great honor of my life”.
He went on: “I know in my heart that nothing I have done as a senator – nothing – has brought dishonor on this institution.”
Nevertheless, he said, “I am announcing that in the coming weeks I will be resigning as a member of the United States Senate.”
His decision followed a cascade of calls on Wednesday led by Senate Democratic women who urged Franken, one of their party’s most popular figures, to step down.
“Enough is enough,” Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York said in a lengthy Facebook post that started the wave. “As elected officials, we should be held to the highest standards – not the lowest.”
Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, worked quietly throughout the day on Wednesday urging Franken to step down. According to a person familiar with the call, Schumer called Franken early on Wednesday – before any of his colleagues made public statements to deliver that message – and later met Franken and his wife at Schumer’s Washington apartment.
Schumer, along with several of the women who just a day before had called for his resignation, gathered on the Senate floor with their chairs swiveled toward Franken to listen to his remarks.
In the gallery above, Senate staff and aides passed tissues, sniffling as Franken moved through his 11-minute remarks.
“What I want you to know,” Franken said, directing his comments at the next generation of political activists, “is that even today, even on the worst day of my political life, I feel like it’s all been worth it.”
He continued: “I know that the work I’ve been able to do has improved people’s lives. I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.”
When Franken finished, the room fell silent. One by one, his colleagues rose to embrace him, starting with Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota’s senior senator. Gillibrand wiped her eyes. Senator Mazie Hirono put her arm around senator Patty Murray in a show of support. And the Republican senator Jeff Flake crossed the aisle to shake Franken’s hand.
But no one rose to speak in tribute after he left; there was only silence as he hugged staff before walking off the floor.
In the last several weeks, Franken, 66, has been accused by more than half a dozen women of groping or trying to forcibly kiss them. The senator has apologized for his behavior and asked the Senate ethics committee to investigate him.
Earlier this week, Franken appeared poised to ride out the controversy, even as John Conyers, the longest-serving African American House member, left Congress amid multiple accusations of sexual harassment.
In his remarks on Thursday, Franken drew a contrast between himself and Donald Trump and Roy Moore, the Republican Senate candidate in Alabama, both of whom have rejected sexual assault allegations against them.
“I, of all people, am aware that there is some irony in the fact that I am leaving while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office and a man who has repeatedly preyed on young girls campaigns for the Senate with the full support of his party,” he said.
In a sharp contrast, the Republican National Committee this week renewed its support for Moore, who is facing multiple allegations of inappropriate behavior with teenage girls and women, including sexual assault. Trump too announced his support for Moore even as new details emerged that appeared to corroborate the women’s accounts.
Franken’s resignation marked a sharp descent for a man whose political fortunes were on the rise. He had emerged a liberal hero in the Trump era and his name was whispered as a potential presidential contender in 2020.
But on Wednesday, two more women stepped forward to accuse the former Saturday Night Live star of making unwanted sexual advances.
A former congressional aide whose name was withheld told Politico that Franken had tried to forcibly kiss her after a taping of his radio show in 2006, two years before his election to the Senate. The woman alleged that Franken had told her: “It’s my right as an entertainer.” Her story appeared to be the final straw for the Democratic women of the Senate.
Then, later that day, in a first-hand account published in the Atlantic, Tina Dupuy accused Franken of groping her while posing for a photo during a party for the liberal media watchdog group Media Matters celebrating the first presidential inauguration of Barack Obama.
Among the other women who have accused Franken of sexual impropriety is Leeann Tweeden, a radio broadcaster who has charged that Franken tried to forcibly kiss her during a 2006 tour to entertain US troops. Tweeden also released a photo in which Franken appeared to place his hands over her breasts while she was sleeping.
Franken has said that in some instances he did not recall the incident in the same way as the women, while saying of others that he could not remember.
Franken’s replacement will be appointed by Minnesota’s Democratic governor, Mark Dayton, to serve until the 2018 election.
Several of Franken’s colleagues commended him for “doing the right thing” and said his decision to resign should be a standard for elected officials credibly accused of sexual misconduct.
“In every workplace in America, including the US Senate, we must confront the challenges of harassment and misconduct,” Klobuchar, of Minnesota, said in a statement. “Nothing is easy or pleasant about this, but we all must recognize that our workplace cultures – and the way we treat each other as human beings – must change.”