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A Conversation with Al Franken on Trump, the Senate, and Humor

Not long after Al Franken won his three-hundred-and-twelve-vote
landslide victory, in 2009, and became Minnesota’s junior senator, I
called his office to set up what I had hoped would be a series of
interviews leading to a Profile in the magazine. We’d rather not, came
the answer. Franken and his aides were all too aware of the road that
such an article was likely to travel: a writer and star of “Saturday
Night Live” goes to Washington. They just didn’t want to hear more about Stuart Smalley, the self-help guru, or the Senator’s incomparable Mick Jagger imitation, and they certainly did not want to field questions about who was doing how much coke in the bathrooms and writers’ rooms of
30 Rock.

Franken had just survived a campaign in which his old jokes were used as
weapons against him, the better to make him seem like a degenerate and a
louse. He was, to say the least, neither; he was a comedian, an entirely
different matter. But now his aides, not unwisely, wanted Franken to
learn the issues and form relationships in the Senate—to become a
legislator taken no less seriously than what’s left of the best of the
Senate. And so they wheeled out what Franken calls the DeHumorizer.
Every day, Franken donned a proper suit and a serious expression, and
keep the laughing to an absolute minimum, no matter how preposterous
life on Capitol Hill got. Any remarks he might have made about the less
attractive qualities of his colleagues, well, he tried to “save them for
the car,” as he puts it.

But once Franken won reëlection, and won it handily, he seemed
liberated. The DeHumorizer, while still installed in his Senate closet,
was no longer set on “high.” Sometimes it was turned off entirely. The
author of such tomes as “Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other
Observations
” and “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right” seemed prepared now to display his split persona in all its fullness: the comedian, who is capable of going
wisecrack for wisecrack with Stephen Colbert and Samantha Bee; and the
credible, studious, liberal senator, who questioned Attorney General Jeff Sessions unrelentingly during Sessions’s hearings before the
Judiciary Committee.

Recently, Franken published “Al Franken: Giant of the Senate,” a tale
that spins from a witty recounting of his upbringing, his show-business
career, his election battles, and his time on the Hill, to a
dead-serious look at his political influences, his wife’s early struggle
with poverty and, later, alcoholism, and his hopes for American
politics. It is an honest and funny piece of work, a real book, by a
real person, not one of those staff-assembled products for electoral use. Franken writes movingly about political
heroes like Paul Wellstone, scathingly about Ted Cruz and Mitch
McConnell, and mercilessly about Donald Trump. (“When Trump demanded an investigation into those three to five million fraudulent votes, it
reminded me of O. J. Simpson, who, after being acquitted of murdering his
ex-wife and Ron Goldman, vowed to spent the rest of his life ‘finding
the killer or killers.’ ”)

Clearly, Franken has won the respect, and often the wonder, of many of
his colleagues. Last week, we met to do an interview for The New Yorker
Radio Hour
at his publisher’s office. Franken told me that while he and his Democratic Party colleagues were discussing health-care strategy,
they were also absorbing Ryan Lizza’s article on newyorker.com about Lizza’s curious phone call with Anthony Scaramucci, who was then the White House director of communications. Franken seemed genuinely proud
that he was the one called upon by several of his colleagues in the
Democratic caucus to explain what it meant to “cock-block” someone. For
the purposes of broadcast radio, however, the senator skillfully used
the term “penis-block” to avoid any problems with government censorship.
Franken, after all, was raised on George Carlin and “the seven words you
can’t say on television”—and terrestrial radio. Anyway, a few days after
our conversation, the Mooch was gone.

DAVID REMNICK: The other night, John McCain gave a remarkable speech.
And he said many things, and one of them was that the Senate, as an
institution, is not “overburdened by greatness.” When you go into the
Senate every day, are you filled with a feeling of—

SENATOR AL FRANKEN: Awe?

REMNICK: Awe, or, as he was expressing, a kind of—not just
disappointment but almost a revulsion about what’s happened to the
“deliberative body”?

FRANKEN: I get all of those. I have a number of my colleagues who I am
in awe of.

REMNICK: Who are they?

FRANKEN: Sheldon Whitehouse, just on policy after policy, but especially
on things like climate change and campaign-finance reform—he’s been such
a leader. I’m in awe of Dick Durbin. He can, better than anyone I know,
just talk extemporaneously. And I thought it was an awesome move by
Chuck Schumer when John McCain, who I’m in awe of, put his thumb down,
and there was some applause—I think from staff—and Chuck turned and
went, no, basically.

REMNICK: That there shouldn’t be applause.

FRANKEN: Absolutely.

REMNICK: Why is that? That’s not the decorum of the floor?

FRANKEN: Yeah, and we shouldn’t—no gloating. It was a big victory,
because it meant that we’re going to have to—that we get to—work in a
bipartisan way to address what in the Affordable Care Act isn’t working
as well as it should.

REMNICK: My understanding was that the Republicans knew that John McCain
was going to vote against the so-called “skinny” health-care bill, but
the Democratic side did not. You didn’t know that this vote was coming?

FRANKEN: I did not know this for sure—I didn’t know it. I started, at a
certain point, because of body language— [Laughs.] See, I have what’s
called “emotional I.Q.” [Laughs.]

REMNICK: [Laughs.] What was the body language?

FRANKEN: [Laughs.] The body language was [Mike] Pence talking to
[Lisa] Murkowski, and getting nowhere, and her jaw being set. And then
Pence walking out of the room.

REMNICK: Right there on the floor, during the deliberations.

FRANKEN: And if they had the votes, he would have sat in the chair. Like
he did, I guess, the previous day, when they got the fifty [votes], for him to cast the tie-breaking vote.

REMNICK: John McCain—he is quite possibly mortally ill. Do you think
that influenced the action he took?

FRANKEN: I don’t know. I don’t know.

REMNICK: Could he have made that speech a year ago?

FRANKEN: Yes. I listened to that speech and I went, Well, why didn’t you
vote no? And that’s what happened at the end. He was basically saying,
we should be doing this in regular order, we should be having hearings
of the health committees—Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions—a
bipartisan effort to do this through the normal process. And then the
conclusion from that is, well, then vote no, and we can get on with that.

What’s interesting about this whole thing is they had seven,
seven-and-a-half years to figure this out, the repeal and replace.
They’re obviously using Obamacare as a successful political football,
just bashing and bashing and bashing it—but did they work on a
repeal-and-replace plan for seven years? Well, clearly not.

REMNICK: And that’s something that McCain did seem to recognize, seemed
to recognize a kind of intellectual corruption in his party and in the
institution. I guess people want to know, what’s going on? The approval
ratings for Congress are somewhere on the level of journalists and
arsonists. It’s low, it’s really low. What’s happened?

FRANKEN: Well, I’m honored, actually, to be with journalists like you.
[Laughs loudly.]

REMNICK: [Laughs less loudly.] Thank you. But what’s happened? You
read in Robert Caro’s book about the Senate, “Master of the Senate,” it
really is a deliberative body that’s impressive—at that time filled with
racists and all kinds of things that we could point out, but—

FRANKEN: Awe-inspiring racists. Like Richard Russell. [Laughs.]

REMNICK: [Laughs.] But filled with people of great seriousness, as
well. And a different style of talking. What happened?

FRANKEN: Oh, my goodness. I think there’s been a segmenting of the
Americans, politically, and I think that part of it is where they get
their information. I wrote some books before this one, one called “Rush
Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations.” The “Other Observations” subtitle is what signalled it was a serious book.

REMNICK: [Laughs.] Right.

FRANKEN: And that was really about the [Newt] Gingrich revolution and
the contribution of Rush Limbaugh—he was an honorary member of the first
majority class they’d had in forty years—and people getting so much of
their information from right-wing radio. Later I wrote a book called
“Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the
Right,” and that was also about people getting their information from
Fox News—which, you know, people pick that, if they want to get that
information. And then the Internet came. And there’s been stuff in
campaign finance. This is why I respect Sheldon so much. He actually has
a terrific book called “Captured,” which talks about how large corporate
America has captured everything—elections, the jury process, regulatory
agencies, etc. And there is this thing where people have self-segmented.
It just has gotten worse. I write in the new book that when I first got
there, a few months in, I asked some of the senators who’d been there a
long time, “Has it ever been worse?” And one of them said, “Oh, yeah,
remember when that guy got caned?” I said, “Charles Sumner?” And he said
yes.

REMNICK: That one.

FRANKEN: And I said, O.K., that was in the lead-up to the Civil War,
when six hundred thousand Americans died. So, that’s it? [Laughs.]
That’s the last time? And since then, it’s gotten worse in many ways.
Now, I write in the book, that’s what you hear, but we actually achieve
things very often. It takes us longer than it should. We got the No
Child Left Behind legislation reauthorized, changed very significantly.
It took us seven years—my seven years there—to do it. And about eighty
per cent of all the issues there we all agreed on.

REMNICK: When you talk with your Republican colleagues about President
Trump, and the White House staff, and the rhetoric that we hear both on
Twitter and from the lectern and all the rest, from the Trump White
House, what do they say? Not what they say in press conferences, in the
hallways, with microphones in their faces. Are they in despair?

FRANKEN: There’s various emotions. My friends on the Republican side are
scared of the Trump Administration, I would say. And I would say they’re
put in a terrible bind, because most of—a large percentage of—Trump’s
base has stuck with him, and that’s their base, to a great extent. And
so, if they say in public the things they say to me, they would worry
about being primaried. They obviously don’t say publicly what some of
them think privately.

REMNICK: What are their red lines—in terms of policy, in terms of
behavior? At what point do they say, you know what, I don’t care if I
get reëlected again—I have to stand up?

FRANKEN: Well, that’s a really good question, because there’s a good
chance we’re going to see that. I mean, if he fires Sessions, or moves
him over to Homeland Security, then, you know—and, obviously, this idea
of a recess appointment, and if the recess appointment fires [Robert]
Mueller—I think that would be the line. It would be interesting to see
if that’s the line, and for how many of them it’s the line.

REMNICK: Do you think it would be the line for the Majority Leader,
Mitch McConnell?

FRANKEN: I think he would count.

REMNICK: Meaning, he would assess the room before he took his position.

FRANKEN: Yep.

REMNICK: So, not a profile in courage.

FRANKEN: There’s a book about him called “Cynic,” or “The Cynic,” [by
Alec MacGillis]: I can’t remember. Notice mine is just “Giant of the Senate”—I don’t say “The Giant” or “A Giant.”

REMNICK: Is McConnell typical of the Republican Party? Do you find that
your friends, the people that you can relate to in the Republican Party,
are in the distinct minority?

FRANKEN: I have friends who are never going to abandon Mitch, you know?
I mean in terms of, Mitch says to vote for the skinny package—and you
saw how many voted for it. [Laughs.] Forty-nine!

REMNICK: The day after President Obama met for the first and only time
in the White House with, then, President-elect Trump, I had an interview
with him. And after a while, I asked him, what’s on the bench for the
Democratic Party? Who is the future of the Democratic Party? And I’ll
never forget it, he said, well, Kamala Harris, very promising, and then
he said, oh, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, whose name he couldn’t
quite remember. And then he kind of waffled, and mentioned Bernie
Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—who are already quite famous, and we know
who they are, and they’re not young. What’s your answer to the question?

FRANKEN: My answer to the question—I think you’re asking about the bench
for President?

REMNICK: I am.

FRANKEN: I think that we’re going to have a very lively process in 2020,
and I think that person will emerge.

REMNICK: You don’t want to answer, or you don’t know, or it’s not clear?

FRANKEN: Well, first of all, if I pick one of my colleagues out, then
I’m leaving other of my colleagues out. So, no, I don’t want to do that. [Laughs.] How’s that?

REMNICK: [Laughs.] That’s fair enough. But what about ideologically,
in the Party. Who won ideologically in the Democratic race—the Bernie
Sanders ideology, or the more neoliberal Hillary Clinton tendency, or something else?

FRANKEN: I think we still have that divide. I hope that the Trump
Presidency and the Republican Congress make us realize that the divide
isn’t that great. I think Hillary, to some degree, felt she had this
won. She played prevent defense by just attacking Trump, which seemed
like where the money was, where the election was. . . . I wish she had talked
more about the economic concerns of Americans and what it means to be a
Democrat.

I grew up in suburban Minneapolis. My dad did not graduate high school.
He was a printing salesman. I grew up in a two-bedroom, one-bath
house—my brother and me and my parents. I felt like the luckiest kid in
the word because I was. I was growing up middle class at the height of
the middle class in America.

REMNICK: In a postwar boom.

FRANKEN: Yeah. I felt I could do anything I wanted to do. My brother and
I were Sputnik kids. After Sputnik went up, my parents said to us, “You
boys are going to study math and science so we can beat the Soviets.” And
I thought that was a lot of pressure to put on a six-year-old. But we
were obedient sons. My brother was eleven at the time. He became the
first in our family to go to college, and he went to M.I.T.—and he
became a photographer. And I tested well and got into Harvard, and I
graduated—and became a comedian. And my parents were fine with it! [Laughs.]

REMNICK: [Laughs.] Your parents must have been crushed, admit it!

FRANKEN: No, they were not! That’s what it felt like in those times—that
you could just bet on yourself. So, that’s one half of this. My wife [Franni] grew up very poor. Her father, a World War II vet, died when
she was eighteen months old. There were five kids. My mother-in-law—who
is still with us, who is our hero—was widowed at age twenty-nine. But
they made it. There were Social Security survivor benefits. They went
hungry a lot, the heat was turned off sometimes—this was in Maine—but
they made it. And all four girls went to college on combinations of Pell
grants and scholarships. My brother-in-law went in the Coast Guard and
became an electrical engineer. And when the youngest—there was one
younger than Franni—went to high school, my mother-in-law got a
three-hundred-dollar G.I. loan, went to University of Maine, got three
more loans, graduated, became a teacher—and taught Title I kids, so all
her loans were forgiven.

Every one of my wife’s family made it because of Pell grants and Social
Security survivor benefits and the G.I. Bill. They tell you in this
country to pull yourself up by your bootstraps—we all believe that. But
first you gotta have the boots. Franni’s family had the boots. And those
boots were provided by the government. And we Democrats believe that we
all do better when we all do better. That’s what Paul Wellstone said.
And I think we need to start with values, those values. This is about,
yes, pull yourself up by your bootstraps. But if you need the boots,
we’ll give them to you.

REMNICK: There’s a new book coming out by Mark Lilla called “The Once
and Future Liberal.” Lilla’s a kind of conservative liberal. And he says
there have been two major dispensations in the last century in American
politics. One is the F.D.R. dispensation, which was about government,
and describing exactly the kind of politics you were describing.

FRANKEN: The vicissitudes of life.

REMNICK: And then there was the Reagan dispensation, which was about a
radical individualism: you free the individual from government and let
them go. You know that scene as well. And that book is about what’s
next. He kind of sees liberalism adrift and maybe mired—in his terms and
not mine—in identity politics. What’s taken over the Democratic Party,
he says, is an over-emphasis on identity politics. And you could argue
that that’s done a lot for a lot of people, whether it’s civil rights,
or women’s liberation, or gay rights, or what, but—

FRANKEN: Those are all about rights. And justice. All those are about
justice.

REMNICK: But you’re talking about something different, about the great
we, about citizenship, about building a Democratic Party that’s
broad-based in common. How does that next dispensation, that next step,
happen? Who’s talking about that in the Party?

FRANKEN: I don’t know if they’re talking about it in those terms. Out on
the stump, if you said, this is the next dispensation—

REMNICK: You’d get thrown off the stump?

FRANKEN: No, they’d just start walking away or tuning out. But I think
we’re talking about—well, life is changing all the time, and technology
changes. What’s happened with women working changed everything, and that
means that people need things. For example: there’s a couple from
Minnesota. They had little kids, and they’d moved to Sweden—I think she
was from Sweden, he was a Minnesotan. They came back here for some job
reason, or something, and finally they just gave up and went back to
Sweden! It was because of childcare. It was just easier to live. When
both parents are working, or when a single parent is working, we need
childcare. We need to just change with the way life is changing. And in
terms of this health-care bill, it is the same difference in
philosophy—I’m not answering your question in terms of what’s a third
way, or something—but what I’m saying is that those of us who are
progressive have to be changing with what is changing. In 2008, I had
debates with Norm Coleman—

REMNICK: Your opponent.

FRANKEN: Yes, Senator Norm Coleman. First-term senator. And he would say
we have the best health-care system in the world because we have the Mayo Clinic.

REMNICK: [Laughs.]

FRANKEN: Well, you laugh, but that’s what he believed, I guess! And I’d
say, the Mayo Clinic isn’t a health-care system—it’s the Mayo Clinic! No
one provides better health care in the world than the Mayo Clinic, but
that’s not a health-care system. We have different systems. If you have
Medicare, you’re in the Canadian system. If you’re in the V.A., you’re
in the British system, socialized medicine. If you get health insurance
from your employer, you’re in the German system. If you don’t have any
coverage, you’re in the Cambodian system. Bernie Sanders and I were for
single-payer then. But you need sixty votes to get anything done—and we
were about fifty-five short. The Affordable Care Act was a way to get
people from the Cambodian system into one of the other systems.

Which meant, over twenty million people have gotten coverage. Atul
Gawande, who is one of the smartest, if not the smartest person I know
about health care, has just written a piece for the New England Journal
of Medicine
, saying the people who got care, their health improved.
Duh! And that your health isn’t about these big, heroic emergency events.
It’s about the continuum of care. So, that’s what we did. And, man, I’m
so glad. That’s why that vote was so big.

REMNICK: Do you think the argument is over now? Do you think the Trump
Administration will give up on this, and the Senate, the Republican
side, will give up on this?

FRANKEN: I think they have to. And you know what, this might be the best
outcome, not just for everybody—

REMNICK: But for them as well?

FRANKEN: But for them as well! [Laughs.] And I guess they’re part of
everybody. Because, otherwise, this would have wreaked havoc on our
whole health-care system. They’ve been trying to sabotage the
marketplace, they’ve been trying to sabotage the exchanges. The first
hearing that we had in this Congress, Lamar Alexander, our chairman, had
a hearing on how to shore up the exchanges. That was it!

A lot of us would like a public option. Whether we can get Republicans
to go for that is, well, you’re going back to your Reagan-F.D.R.
[divide]. But it seems like people have moved a lot in this country,
since the Affordable Care Act came into place. They’ve moved so much
that now, after looking at what the Republicans came up with, and
everything they came up with was so horrible . . . there was just seventeen
per cent approval for the House plan, for the first Senate plan—I mean,
that is the exact number of Americans who have said they’ve seen a ghost.

REMNICK: I want to get a sense of how you talk to conservatives in a
state like Minnesota. Your predecessor in your seat was certainly a
conservative. You won by three hundred votes, I think the narrowest—

FRANKEN: Three hundred and twelve, please. Please.

REMNICK: O.K.! [Laughs.] But maybe the narrowest election in the
history of—

FRANKEN: On a percentage basis. O.K.?

REMNICK: All right. But then you got reëlected pretty handsomely. And
clearly had an effect in widening your popularity in the state. Do you
find that you’re able to talk to conservatives and bring them over?
What’s your approach to that kind of discussion? Can you change minds?

FRANKEN: Well, part of the reason my race was so close in 2008—and
remember, that was a really good year for Democrats—was that they just
spent a lot of money making me unacceptable. In a way that, post-Trump,
I’d be, like— [Laughs.]

REMNICK: Normal. They were holding your past in comedy against you!

FRANKEN: I’m a choir boy. And post-Mooch. The Mooch.

REMNICK: You love the Mooch, don’t you?

FRANKEN: The fact that he exists is funny, yes. [Laughs.] That is hilarious.

REMNICK: [Laughs.] How did you react to the Mooch’s rant to Ryan Lizza
in The New Yorker?

FRANKEN: Well, I love that this is the head of the White House
communications operation, and he didn’t know that you say, “This is off
the record, O.K., do we agree on that,” before you say things.

REMNICK: I’m made to understand you had to explain to part of your
Democratic caucus some of the terminology of the Scaramucci rant.

FRANKEN: There was one thing that was, you know, synonym for “penis-block.”

REMNICK: Ah, yes.

FRANKEN: Is that O.K.? And I had to explain to the women senators what
that was, and then I had to explain some other things. “That’s when one
guy prevents another guy from—”

REMNICK: That’s an awe-inspiring vision of the Senate.

FRANKEN: We were meeting for our caucus meeting, and the Mooch had just
come out, when he talked to one of your terrific New Yorker reporters.
And they had some questions. [Laughs.]

REMNICK: [Laughs.]

FRANKEN: Three, four of my women colleagues.

REMNICK: But the amazing thing about it is that this was probably a
sanctioned rant, and it was certainly something the President of the
United States thought was terrific. Because the person that got fired
was not Scaramucci but the victim of the rant, Reince Preibus! How do
you explain Donald Trump? Who is he to you? What do you make of his
character and this Presidency?

FRANKEN: Hmm. I’m not a big fan.

REMNICK: [Laughs.] Really?

FRANKEN: Yes. I was just thinking, because of the North Korea thing,
that—you know the Nixon “madman theory”? I’d say that’s been the most
successful part of Trump’s Presidency thus far: setting up the madman
theory.

REMNICK: You think he can follow through? [Laughs.]

FRANKEN: [Laughs.] I don’t know! But I think that he will create a lot
of uncertainty among our foreign adversaries. Here’s the thing about
health care, because he’s obviously been complaining about this vote in
a number of ways. I don’t know if everyone remembers, but President
Obama had the entire Republican caucus over to the Blair House to debate
the Affordable Care Act. And he held forth with the entire Republican
caucus and went provision by provision, or whatever they knew. I thought
he ran rings around them, frankly. And Trump, on the other hand, I don’t
think he knows any public policy at all, when it comes to health care,
and certainly has been too distracted by whatever he’s distracted about.

REMNICK: What’s your understanding of what he does all day?

FRANKEN: My understanding of what he does is I think he watches a lot of
TV, and gets his information from whatever he watches, TV news. And I
think he stews. [Laughs.] And rants and raves. I mean, I’m sure he
does some other stuff. But there doesn’t seem to be a lot of reading of
briefing materials, and certainly not on public policy. Which, to me, has
to be a large chunk of what you do to be a responsible President. Or
senator. You really have a responsibility to be forming policy and
deciding on what policy options to pursue when it comes to people’s
education and their health care and their work life and their pension. [Laughs.]

REMNICK: And matters of war and peace.

FRANKEN: And war and peace and those things. And I don’t think he is
actually capable of doing that. I think his focus is very inward, I
guess. I don’t even know if it is inward. I think it’s self-focussed.
And I think that’s too bad. I think there’s a lot of unresolved anger
there. And I think he takes that out on people around him. That
motivates a lot of his tweets. Let’s put it this way: he’s just very
different from Barack Obama.

REMNICK: [Laughs.] Is he?

FRANKEN: Yeah, that’s how I’d describe it. He’s very different from
Barack Obama. [Laughs.]

REMNICK: Which brings us to this question. Apparently, Hillary Clinton’s
new book is going to be called “What Happened.”

FRANKEN: Yeah, I actually think it should be “What Happened?” In other
words, there should be a question mark.

REMNICK: Can you answer that question, though? Let’s go back, again. We
know the litany of the usual—

FRANKEN: I can tell you what happened.

REMNICK: Go ahead.

FRANKEN: She and her campaign assumed they were going to win, because [Trump] had so, in their eyes, disqualified himself as someone America would trust with the Presidency. And it was a whole bunch of things, but,
of course, the “Access Hollywood” thing, I think, was the point at which they went, O.K.—

REMNICK: Game, set, match.

FRANKEN: Yeah. And then, what happened then was I think they failed to
continue to reach out with an economic message to those people who feel
really angry in this country because, for forty years, the way I grew up
wasn’t happening. It wasn’t happening that you kind of felt it was your
birthright as an American that your kids would do better than you. That
hasn’t been happening, and they’re mad about that. And they’re seeing,
very often, their communities being hollowed out. This is legitimate
anger.

REMNICK: You see this in Minnesota.

FRANKEN: Oh, God, yes. Absolutely. And, again, these people are getting
their information from sources that our voters don’t listen to. I think
she just stopped aggressively reaching out to those people and
explaining not only our philosophy but policies to make it possible for
their kids to have a better life, to have a secure, middle-class life. . . . And somehow Donald Trump got to attack her as a member of the élites. And, of course, I guess, obviously, she is, in terms of her husband was
President and she was a senator and Secretary of State. And I think
those people who voted for Trump felt, like, They don’t care about us.
And she didn’t communicate that, and just communicated with, This guy’s
unacceptable. And then the Comey thing, eleven days before, reopened
that again, and that, combined with the Russian interference—I mean, this
was a very close election. Three states made the difference—combined, it
was, what, seventy thousand votes.

REMNICK: Where were you when you heard this news, and how did you feel?

FRANKEN: I was sick. I was at home—I went to D.F.L. headquarters, a few
blocks from my house—the Democratic Farmer Labor Party. I went early
enough so that it wasn’t over. [Laughs.] But, man, it was a rough
night. I had been invited to the Javits Center, because I had campaigned
for her, and I said no, I want to be in Minnesota. I was glad I wasn’t
there. It was extremely disappointing in oh so many ways.

And I think that the Russian interference just was a constant, and
something unexpected, that no one understood. . . . That’s why I’m a little
disappointed that we aren’t focussed—we seem to be focussed on, what was
the Trump campaign’s role, did they interfere with—

REMNICK: Well, did you not feel lied to by Jeff Sessions?

FRANKEN: Yeah, I did. He didn’t answer my question—he answered a
different question. I asked him, basically, would he recuse himself if
it turned out that the reports that members of the Trump campaign had
communicated with the Russians, and kept communicating with them [were true]. He answered the question by saying, I didn’t do that, I didn’t communicate with any Russians during the campaign. And not until seven
weeks later did the Washington Post come out with it [that he had].
At that point he recused himself, of course. That’s why this Trump
saying, Well, he should’ve told me he was gonna recuse himself before I
nominated him, I mean—he didn’t know he was gonna recuse himself until
he was outed as meeting with [the Russian Ambassador Sergey] Kislyak!

REMNICK: What’s your understanding of Russia and the Trump
Administration, broadly defined? It seems to me that it may not be that
the Trump Administration or Trump officials overtly colluded, in a kind
of spy-movie, apocalyptic sort of way, but they opened themselves
up—Trump, in particular, in his business dealings over the years—to
compromise in a way that now affects policy. It’s not just a matter of
embarrassment of the Trump Administration, but policy—how he behaves
vis-à-vis foreign policy.

FRANKEN: Well, ironically, of course, he’s signing the sanctions—because
he has to, or he’d be overridden—against the Russians. You know, we will
see. I have faith that Mueller will get to the bottom of this. I think
he’s tough, smart. I think he’s hired great people. He’s hired people to
look at those financial dealings. I mean, it’s clear that Donald [Trump], Jr., said, in 2008, that a disproportionate amount of money in
their operation was coming from Russia. I mean, there’s no question. And
the Russians have a way of compromising people so they’ve got them. I
think we will find out that aspect of it, I think, through Mueller. And
that’s why I think it becomes a constitutional crisis if Trump fires
him. If he fires him, it will be without cause, and that will create a
crisis.

REMNICK: Clearly, Donald Trump, on some level, has talent, performative
talent, at the microphone. He appeals to people in a way that reaches
their gut and their funny bone, even, whether you like it or not. And as
somebody who’s spent so much time in comedy, and in front of the camera,
and writing for “Saturday Night Live,” does he remind you of anybody? Is
he an Andrew Dice Clay figure? How would you assess his comedic talent?

FRANKEN: I don’t personally think that he’s—I kind of thought he had a
sense of humor at one point, early on. And, you know, during the
campaign, I actually talked to Huma [Abedin] and Hillary at one stop,
and they said when he’s on they watch him, because it makes them laugh.
But I’m not sure that was the kind of laugh that he was going for. I
guess he makes his audience laugh. But I’ve noticed something, and I
still haven’t seen it happen—I’ve never seen him laugh.

REMNICK: Certainly not at himself.

FRANKEN: Well, just, never seen him laugh.

REMNICK: Period.

FRANKEN: Yeah. He’s like some fairly tale, you know, where if someone
can get the king to laugh, they’ll get half the fortune and the
daughter, or something.

REMNICK: [Laughs.]

FRANKEN: I mean, I’ve not. Seen. Him. Laugh.

REMNICK: You think he lasts four years in office?

FRANKEN: I don’t know. I don’t know. Again, it depends what Mueller
comes up with.

REMNICK: And if Mueller is fired, where does that take us? What is the
level of crisis in this country if Mueller is fired by the President?

FRANKEN: Well, it depends. If the Republicans step up, as I think they
would, we’d just together do another special-prosecutor law that’s
veto-proof. And we just start another special-prosecutor entity, and we
assign Bob Mueller to do it. [Laughs.] And he just picks up [where he left off], and I think you could do that in about ten minutes. That’s
an exaggeration, but that would not be a constitutional crisis. The
constitutional crisis would be if we don’t do that. And then the
timing of this would be very important, obviously. All of this is
speculation, and maybe what we should talk about more is my book. [Laughs.]

REMNICK: [Laughs.] The last question relates to your book.

FRANKEN: See, I laugh all the damn time. Even if it’s just, I make
myself laugh.

REMNICK: But this relates to my last question. Years ago, I called your
office and said, I want to do a profile for The New Yorker of Al
Franken. And they said, look, there’s nothing we’d like more, but we
really don’t want to do it because we know where the questions will go,
you’ll start asking about “Saturday Night Live” and the Grateful Dead and
drug use, and all that stuff, and we’re trying—and the word you use in
here is “DeHumorize”—Al Franken, we have to, in our first phase, calm it
down. And now you’re kind of unleashed—this book is hilarious, you kind
of joke around, you’ve been reëlected—

FRANKEN: [Snooty voice] “ ‘Hilarious.’—The New Yorker.” Eh?

REMNICK: [Laughs.] But it tells me that maybe you are also, while more
at ease at all this yourself—

FRANKEN: Of course, I mean, that’s part of what the book talks about. I
barely won in 2008. Three hundred and twelve votes, and that was in a
great year—that was one of the best years Democrats have had in I don’t
know how long.

REMNICK: But your opponent used your comedy against you all the time.

FRANKEN: And that was—the DeHumorizer in the book is this
fifteen-million-dollar machine, built with Israeli technology—

REMNICK: Of course, Israeli technology. [Laughs.] Quite to the point.

FRANKEN: [Laughs.] —to take out any context or irony or hyperbole or
anything, to make anything I had said or written in thirty-eight years
of comedy horrible. And so, once I got to the Senate, I built my own
DeHumorizer, which was my staff. So, they told me I couldn’t—they stop me. [Laughs.]

REMNICK: But now you’re Al Franken Unbound.

FRANKEN: Oh, yeah! I mean, no, it’s not unbound. I mean, I still have
the DeHumorizer. It still operates in our office.

REMNICK: You keep it in the closet.

FRANKEN: It’s right out there. [Laughs.] Ed Shelleby, my
communications director, Jeff Lomonaco, my chief of staff—the whole
staff is deputized to operate the DeHumorizer anytime with me. “Keep
that in the car, O.K.? That’s for the car”—I hear that a lot. [Laughs.] But it’s just a different ball game. When I first got there,
I had to prove to Minnesotans that I was serious.

REMNICK: A man of probity.

FRANKEN: Serious. And probity. [Laughs.]

REMNICK: [Laughs.] But now that you’re unleashed, does this mean
there’s just no chance that you’ll ever run for President?

FRANKEN: Well, I don’t think those are connected. I just think that the
President of the United States should be somebody who really wants to be
President.

REMNICK: You don’t want to.

FRANKEN: I’ve seen the Presidency up close, closer as a senator than I
did as a comedian, and it looks very hard. [Laughs.] It looks very
difficult, and like a lot of pressure.

REMNICK: [Laughs.] The toll.

FRANKEN: Especially if you take it seriously, which of course I would.

REMNICK: Others don’t seem to?

FRANKEN: Well, I don’t know. If you’re saying whether Trump takes it
seriously, I guess he does—but what he takes seriously is anything
regarding people’s regard for him. As opposed to—Paul Wellstone said
politics isn’t about power; it isn’t about winning for the sake of
winning; it isn’t about money. It’s about improving people’s lives.

This interview was transcribed and edited for length and clarity by Jessica Henderson.

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