Washington tells time in political bombshells
Posted November 16, 2017 10:11 p.m. EST
(CNN) — A day of scandal, laced with new claims of sexual misconduct, the taint of corruption, and the spectacle of political legacies being carved and destroyed in real time, contained a hidden marvel.
For once, it wasn't all about President Donald Trump.
The capital's normal ringmaster of chaos had only a bit part Thursday as supporting actors in Washington's seething political drama were dragged to center stage.
Instead, another TV star-turned-politician -- Democratic Sen. Al Franken -- became the latest celebrity swamped by the tidal wave of revelations about alleged sexual assault or harassment and may have seen his career dissolve in a matter of minutes.
"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," Franken said in his second post-allegation statement of the day.
While disaster consumed Franken, one of his colleagues, New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, tasted political deliverance, fighting back tears after a jury deadlocked in the corruption trial that had threatened his own career -- and a Democratic Senate seat.
"To those who were digging my political grave so that they could jump into my seat, I know who you are and I won't forget you," Menendez said outside the Newark courthouse.
Over in the House, Speaker Paul Ryan and his fellow Republicans wrote a coda to a tortured political year, finally passing the major fiscal legislation in the form of a sweeping tax reform bill that he's been chasing ever since he caught the budgetary bug from his mentor, the late conservative guru Jack Kemp.
"I've got to say, this is nothing short of extraordinary," Ryan said, after a high-risk win that could be the cornerstone of his own legacy or if it backfires will eventually frame his political epitaph.
Each of these dramas brewed separately, over years and months. But taken together they tell the story of the volatile state of modern Washington, where days are now measured out in political bombshells.
Thursday's contrasting fortunes of the two senators and Ryan also reveal the tenuous thread on which all political careers hang: Disaster is always just around the corner.
Franken's downfall was testimony to the power of the uncontrollable societal wildfire unleashed in politics, journalism and in entertainment after the exposure of film producer Harvey Weinstein's alleged sexual misconduct.
Allegations by Los Angeles radio host Leeann Tweeden that Franken kissed and groped her during a USO tour to entertain troops in 2006, took the sexual harassment drama into the heart of the Senate.
The Minnesota senator quickly apologized, but ended Thursday isolated and ashamed, amid speculation that he would be forced to resign.
Trump seemed to revel in the news with a favorite standby: a tweet and a nickname.
"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 tweeted late Thursday night. "And to think that just last week he was lecturing anyone who would listen about sexual harassment and respect for women. Lesley Stahl tape?"
Democrats, who had been twisting the knife over the Republican Party's own nightmare over allegations against Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, suddenly faced with their own scandal.
Franken's colleagues were shocked.
"What?" said a stunned Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell when told of the breaking news about the former "Saturday Night Live" regular in a corridor by CNN reporter Ashley Killough.
Moments later, the top Democrat in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, huddled with female colleagues on the floor of the chamber.
At one point, Sens. Claire McCaskill and Elizabeth Warren gathered around Sen. Heidi Heitkamp as she read something aloud to them from her phone.
Their colleague's disgrace undid a painstaking, years long strategy of replacing his funnyman's past with the gravitas of a serious political player. Franken was even drawing 2020 presidential buzz after torching Attorney General Jeff Sessions over his links to Russian officials during a blockbuster hearing earlier this year.
All that is now gone.
Franken's Democratic allies are now condemning his conduct, reflecting the sudden zero tolerance shift in society toward sexual harassment allegations.
Ryan by contrast finally had something to celebrate. But the speaker's jubilation, evident in his pre-vote speech in the House, could be fleeting.
While Republicans say they have no choice but to pass something, anything to avoid a barren political year after the Obamacare repeal debacle, a tax bill that can be painted as an insult to the middle class and a huge give away to the rich could backfire in mid-term elections next year. The Senate tax plan adding a repeal of Obamacare's individual mandate only complicates things.
Democratic lawmakers know this too: They waved goodbye to Republican colleagues as the vote ticked away.
Menendez is learning what Ryan already understands --- political deliverance can just lead to the threshold of a new crisis.
Even as he savored his liberty, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called on the Senate Ethics Committee to investigate the "numerous" federal felony charges on which Menendez was indicted.
And while a juror told CNN's Sarah Jorgensen the vote in the jury room was 10-2 in favor of acquittal, the hung jury means Menendez can still face another trial if prosecutors want to try again.
Until his late-night tweet, Trump did not inject himself into every part of the Washington drama. A pep rally with fellow Republicans before the House tax vote was, by most accounts, a cheerful affair, made easier by knowledge the GOP had the votes.
But if the new standard in public life is that allegations that are widely believed against a figure like Moore, or Franken, require disqualification from political life, the President himself could find himself on dangerous ground.
After all, he faced multiple claims of sexual harassment during the campaign which he forcibly denied. And he has yet to speak out regarding the allegations against Moore.
New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand suggested the spotlight might soon return to Trump when she told the New York Times that in hindsight, President Bill Clinton should have resigned over the Monica Lewinsky affair in the late 1990s.
"I think in light of this conversation, we should have a very different conversation about President Trump, and a very different conversation about allegations against him," she said.