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The whirlwind hits Washington: Franken, Franks, Conyers herald more to come

As charges of sexual misconduct felled men in Hollywood, the media and technology this fall, Washington seemed notably to hesitate, sticking with an older code of impunity, hoping to avoid a painful moment of reckoning.

When the moment hit this week, the toppled men sounded bewildered.

Their puzzled words, like the crack in the ground after an earthquake, served as a signpost: A fault line runs through here, and after years of building tension, it has suddenly shifted.

I’m David Lauter, Washington bureau chief. Welcome to the Friday edition of our Essential Politics newsletter, in which we look at the events of the week in Washington and elsewhere in national politics and highlight some particularly insightful stories.

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THE WEEK THE RULES CHANGED

Two more different politicians could hardly be imagined than Sen. Al Franken, the liberal Democrat and former “Saturday Night Live” comedian from Minnesota, and Rep. Trent Franks, a one-time oil wildcatter turned anti-abortion crusader, who represents a conservative Republican district centered on the suburbs of Phoenix.

Yet their resignation statements, which bookended Thursday, echoed each other. Neither apologized. Both said that they had been misunderstood and that a fair Ethics Committee hearing would have vindicated them. Both had the air of men who felt pressured into a decision they did not truly accept.

Pressured, no doubt. The party leaders who applied the force made sure to take credit. Aides to both House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Democratic Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York gave reporters detailed accounts of how their bosses had pushed the two men to step down.

More could be on the way. On the Democratic side, House Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco already has called for the resignation of Rep. Ruben Kihuen of Nevada. On the GOP side, the House Ethics Committee has begun an investigation of Rep. Blake Farenthold of Texas, who settled a case with a former aide for $84,000. Washington is rife with rumors of further disclosures to come.

Clearly, political opportunism has played a role as both parties scramble to keep a foot on the elusive moral high ground. Among Democrats, reaction against President Trump’s history of sexual misconduct allegations has strengthened the sense of outrage. On both sides, next week’s Alabama Senate election — with the furor surrounding the Republican candidate, Roy Moore — has added urgency to the impulse to clean house.

But more is going on here than just the quest for electoral advantage: Washington, along with the rest of the country, is redefining what constitutes a firing offense.

Exactly what offenses Franken and Franks have committed hasn’t been fully investigated, of course. Quite possibly either man could be guilty of more than he has admitted.

In Franks’ case, the House Ethics Committee’s announcement of an investigation, which came just before his resignation, referred not just to allegations of sexual harassment, but also “retaliation.” That suggests his case could involve more than what he has confessed to — creepily inappropriate conversations with two staff members about becoming pregnancy surrogates.

Regardless of the specifics in either case, however, the line on what is acceptable for a lawmaker clearly has shifted. When Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), resigned under pressure in a sexual misconduct case in 1995, his departure came only after an investigation lasting almost three years detailed a history of sexual assaults compounded by evidence tampering and possible campaign finance violations.

In their statements, one could almost hear both Franken and Franks saying, “I’m not that guy.”

But, as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) declared at a news conference Wednesday after she called on Franken to quit, if that’s where the line once was drawn, it isn’t now.

“I think when we start having to talk about the differences between sexual assault and sexual harassment and unwanted groping, you are having the wrong conversation,” Gillibrand said.

“You need to draw a line in the sand and say, ‘None of it is OK. None of it is acceptable,’ ” she said. “We, as elected leaders, should absolutely be held to a higher standard, not a lower standard.”

For Gillibrand and like-minded members of Congress — led by women, but also including many male lawmakers — the week’s news, which also included the resignation of Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), the senior member of the House, provided an opportunity to define that higher standard and, they hope, make it stick.

TRUMP ALL IN FOR MOORE

When allegations first surfaced that Moore, as a man in his 30s, had engaged in sexual misconduct with teenagers, Republicans rushed to distance themselves. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), the head of the Senate Republican campaign apparatus, said Moore should be expelled if he won. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, began a search for increasingly baroque plans to delay the election, find a write-in candidate or otherwise avoid a Moore election.

Ivanka Trump said there was a “special place in hell for people who prey on children” and added that “I have no reason to doubt the victims’ accounts.”

Then the president returned from his trip to Asia, publicly cited Moore’s denials, criticized his Democratic opponent, Doug Jones, and put an end to GOP talk of pushing Moore out of the race.

This week, Trump completed the cycle, fully endorsing Moore after urging from Stephen K. Bannon, his former White House strategist, as Brian Bennett and Noah Bierman reported.

The endorsement came amid polls that showed the drop in Moore’s support plateauing and, perhaps, reversing a bit.

The election is Tuesday, and in any other circumstances, it would be a cinch for the Republicans: Alabama is among the most reliably Republican states in the country. But Moore’s history has made the contest a close one.

Ignore those on either side who pretend to know how this will turn out. Predicting turnout in a special election is very hard. A special election in December, with nothing else on the ballot in much of the state and an unpopular Republican candidate under a cloud of scandal adds so much uncertainty that no one has a reliable forecast.

What is clear is that win or lose, Trump has fastened the GOP to Moore. Bannon argued that Trump’s core voters needed to see him fight for someone they like. Democrats hope to make him pay a price next year for that focus on his base.

JERUSALEM AND U.S. POLITICS

That focus on the Trump base also was a key factor in the president’s decision this week to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and begin the process of moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv.

As Tracy Wilkinson wrote, the move upended decades of U.S. policy and risked violent reaction in the region. But as Bierman and Bennett wrote, the decision was keenly sought by Trump’s evangelical supporters and appealed to a president who loves thumbing his nose at elite opinion.

As Laura King, Alex Zavis and Samir Zedan wrote, Trump’s announcement sparked widespread Arab protests. Palestinian leaders declared he had killed any prospects for a peace agreement.

But prospects for a peace agreement have been declared dead so many times over the past decade that Trump might justifiably doubt whether his actions had really cost much. The big question will be whether the announcement hurts the administration’s growing alliance with Saudi Arabia.

FINAL NEGOTIATIONS ON THE TAX BILL

The Senate last Friday narrowly passed its version of the GOP tax plan; this week, Republican leaders set about trying to rewrite it.

The revisions, which will officially be handled by a House-Senate conference committee, but are, in fact, being hammered out by House Ways & Means Chairman Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) and GOP leaders, aim to fix several big problems with the Senate-passed bill.

Along the way, as Jim Puzzanghera and Lisa Mascaro wrote, the final bill might, somewhat, improve the tax picture for Californians. The likely revisions include keeping more of the current deduction for state and local income taxes than either the House or Senate have approved and, perhaps, allowing deductions of more mortgage interest than the House had OK’d.

As Sarah Wire wrote, GOP lawmakers from swing districts in California have a lot riding on the outcome. Many of their constituents face a big tax increase under the current versions of the bill. The revisions in play won’t make that problem go away entirely, but might limit it.

As Mascaro wrote, the process by which the tax bill has moved through Congress provides the latest example of McConnell breaking the norms he often espouses.

Meantime, Congress approved a short stopgap funding measure, postponing the threat of a government shutdown for two weeks. Negotiations for a more permanent deal will be difficult.

The fate of the tax bill is entwined with those negotiations, in part because Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) conditioned her vote for the tax measure on passage of two healthcare bills that are part of the year-end talks.

OTHER NOTABLE STORIES

FBI Director Christopher Wray defended the bureau after Trump called it ‘in tatters,’ Chris Megerian reported.

New statistics on immigration enforcement under Trump show fewer people caught at the border and more arrested in the U.S. interior, Joe Tanfani wrote.

Bierman reported how the White House press briefing, always a spin zone, is now approaching uselessness.

And Evan Halper wrote about an idea increasingly being picked up by some Trump administration officials — moving government offices out of Washington. Supporters say that would make bureaucrats more responsive. Opponents say it would merely spread the swamp.

ALL THE PRESIDENT’S TWEETS

Twitter has long been Trump’s favored means of pushing his message. We’re compiling all of Trump’s tweets. It’s a great resource. Take a look.

LOGISTICS

That wraps up this week. My colleague Christina Bellantoni will be back Monday with the weekday edition of Essential Politics. Until then, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration with our Essential Washington blog, at our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.

Send your comments, suggestions and news tips to politics@latimes.com.

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David.lauter@latimes.com

@davidlauter


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