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Sen. Al Franken is in the news

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During an interview in his Senate office, Franken discussed the president’s problem coming to grips with anti-Semitism, and some of Trump’s other problems

By MORDECAI SPECKTOR

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Hart Senate Office Building, near the U.S. Capitol, projects a cold vibe. The interior architectural style could be categorized as Federal Courthouse-Mausoleum Modern.

However, the bleak environment is enlivened by the reception area to Sen. Al Franken’s office, which is decorated with colorful pennants from Minnesota colleges and universities.

Al Franken: I worked very hard to stop, to resist nominees who were terrible. (Photo: Mordecai Specktor)

Minnesota’s junior senator, a St. Louis Park native, sat for an interview with the Jewish World, late in the afternoon Monday, Feb. 27. Two days later, the Washington Post reported that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had meetings with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak.

And the day after that, March 2, Franken was featured on virtually every broadcast and cable news program around the world. As it happened, during the Senate Judiciary Committee’s January confirmation hearings for Sessions, Franken asked the Alabama senator about a CNN report alleging collusion between the Trump presidential campaign and Russian officials.

On Jan. 10, Franken asked Sessions, who was under oath, about “a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump’s surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government…. if it’s true, it’s obviously extremely serious and if there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?”

Sessions replied: “Senator Franken, I’m not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn’t have — did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.”

It appears that Session wasn’t completely forthcoming. The controversy over his answer mounted, and, on March 2, Sessions announced that he would recuse himself from any FBI or Justice Department investigations into connections between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Again, the AJW interview with Franken took place prior to the Sessions affair blowing up in the press. While some Democrats have called for Sessions to resign, Franken said that the attorney general should come back before the Judiciary Committee and explain why he previously denied having any contact with Russian officials.

(Editor’s note: After the Jewish World went to press this week, Franken told Jake Tapper, on CNN’s The Lead, regarding Sessions’ testimony to the Judiciary Committee: “It’s hard to come to any other conclusion than he just perjured himself.”)

When asked about the progress of Senate investigations of ties between the Trump and Russia, the Minnesota DFLer told the Jewish world that the matter was before the Intelligence Committee, which usually conducts its hearings behind closed doors.

Franken expressed criticism of the committee’s chairman, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., who “made himself kind of a spokesman for the administration,” in telling reporters — “off the record,” he thought — that there were no contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence officials, contradicting a leaked FBI report.

“I don’t think if you’re leading an investigation about an issue that you should be doing that,” said Franken, regarding Burr’s comments to reporters about Trump and the Russians. “So that was very concerning.”

The Franken interview began with a question about the unprecedented spate of anti-Semitic crimes — bomb threats to JCCs, cemetery desecrations, etc. — taking place across the U.S.

Franken pointed to “the rise of the alt-right as part of the Trump campaign” and to the president’s “chief political adviser, Steve Bannon,” who was the CEO of Breitbart News.

The senator said Breitbart is a website “that is known for being racist and biased and anti-Semitic, biased against Muslims, and anti-immigrant and xenophobic. So it isn’t surprising that we see this and it’s extremely troubling. And it’s also extremely troubling that we have a president who, thus far when he’s been asked about [the upsurge in anti-Semitism], mainly has just changed the subject, and gotten mad at the questioner for asking the question.”

Trump, according to Franken, “is not someone who demonstrates that he knows what empathy even is, let along feels it. It certainly doesn’t come naturally. And I think that his campaign has appealed in many cases to the worst of us…. I wish someone in the administration would try to explain to the president that he’s got to step up.”

Franken mentioned that Trump finally acknowledged the wave of anti-Semitism in the U.S., when pressed by a reporter after a tour of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, on Feb. 21.

“I saw that it was written down for him,” the senator commented, about Trump’s belated condemnation of anti-Semitic and racist attacks.

In his Feb. 28 address to a joint session of Congress, Trump put a condemnation of anti-Semitism at the top of his speech.

Arriving for the interview from the J Street national conference across town, I asked Franken about the apparently amicable relationship between the new president and the Israeli premier, Benjamin Netanyahu. Some panelists in J Street discussions had suggested that support for the Jewish state might weaken among liberal Jews, given the convergence of right-wing governments in the U.S. and Israel.

“A lot of it is about who Trump is, and how he thinks through or doesn’t think through things,” Franken responded. He also noted that the president had suggested, during Netanyahu’s visit to the White House, that his administration was for a one-state solution or a two-state solution, or whatever Israel and the Palestinians would like.

“It’s so clear that he doesn’t understand what’s going on there, and doesn’t understand the history, and doesn’t understand what’s at issue, that it’s hard to even categorize him as a Netanyahu supporter because I don’t know if he knows what that even means,” concluded Franken.

On a related topic, Franken mentioned that he met with Trump’s nominee for ambassador to Israel, David Friedman.

Franken said that Friedman, who testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, requested a meeting with him.

“He needs the votes of every senator,” Franken commented, and added, “He’d called me a few names during the campaign.”

When Trump released his final campaign video, which had strong anti-Semitic overtones of Jews controlling international banking, Franken commented that it was a “German Shepherd whistle” — not just the ordinary so-called dog whistle of anti-Semitism.

Friedman, an Orthodox Jew who has been Trump’s bankruptcy lawyer for many years, then called Franken a “clown” and a “moron.”

“He came and he apologized for that, and I accepted his apology,” said Franken, “but noted that being an ambassador involved something called diplomacy.”

The senator noted that Friedman seems to have modulated his position in favor of expanding Israel’s West Bank Jewish settlements. Nonethless, Franken said, “I’m not going to vote for him.”

And asked about the general strategy of congressional Democrats faced with a president who defies conventional norms, Franken said, “I worked very hard to stop, to resist nominees [for Cabinet posts] who were terrible. I didn’t vote against every nominee, as I guess some of our supporters wanted us to do. I didn’t think that would achieve anything… it would have been 52-48 on every nominee.”

He noted that Democrats convinced some Republicans to oppose the confirmation of Andrew Puzder, for Labor secretary, “and he had to withdraw.”

“On [Betsy] DeVos, I, as much as anyone, led the charge against her,” remarked Franken. ‘We forced the vice president to come down Pennsylvania Avenue and cast the tie-breaking vote.”

Regarding DeVos, the new secretary of the Department of Education, Franken said that “people are very cognizant of what her goals are in education, and I believe we’ll be able to resist expending a lot of taxpayer dollars on vouchers.”

While anti-Trump protesters have taken to the streets in massive demonstrations over recent weeks, Franken suggests that “we not use a meat cleaver here, but we do this smarter,” regarding efforts by congressional Democrats to minimize the harm of Trump administration policies, such as banning the entry of refugees from war-torn countries and those from a number of predominantly Muslim nations.

“It’s not about the potential for this administration to do harm,” Franken concluded. “It’s ruining people’s lives.”

(American Jewish World, 3.10.17)

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