Al Franken on Trump's "Shallowness" and What He Would Have Asked Amy Coney Barrett

Al Franken
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Al Franken

The podcast host and former senator says that POTUS is going to lose the upcoming election because of the pandemic: "He's lost the support of older racists."

Former Sen. Al Franken — who resigned in 2018 amid allegations of sexual misconduct that divided many Democrats — has been glued to his TV like the rest of us, anxiously watching presidential campaign appearances and the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Amy Coney Barrett (with whom he sparred at the Senate Judiciary Committee's hearing of judicial nominees in 2017).

The Al Franken Podcast host (and former SNL star/writer) checked in with The Hollywood Reporter in the final stretch to Election Day 2020.

Did you watch either of the dueling town halls last night? 

I went back and forth a little. Trump’s answer about health care was amazing because it shows the unbelievable shallowness, and he does not understand anything about it. All he kept saying is, “We got to get rid of the mandate, which was the worst part.” I don't think he knows anything at all about health care. He’s going to “replace it with something better and cheaper.” That's how he talks about health care.

I was on the health committee and I helped put in some major provisions on the [Affordable Care Act]. And health care is really, really complex. Remember in 2016 he said he was going to replace Obamacare with “something terrific”? That was his plan. Then when it went down he said, “Who knew health care was so complicated?” And my answer was, “Everybody, you putz. Everybody but you, you putz.” 

If it comes up in the next debate, Biden should say to him, “Do you remember what your one health care proposal was four years ago?” I swear to God, he won’t. No one does. But here’s what it was: His one proposal four years ago was to allow insurance companies to cross state lines. Since the ACA, there are six states that allow insurance companies to cross state lines in that way. Because there are all these national protections, guess how many companies have taken advantage of it? 


That’s right. So no, no insurance company is taking advantage of what Trump’s one policy proposal. Why not? Because you have to create a provider network — a network of health care providers, doctors, clinics, imaging centers, hospitals, physical therapy. That requires a lot. Even the Republican bills, the worthless Republican bills in 2017, not one of them included that because it's such a dumb idea. 

In your 2017 memoir, Al Franken: Giant of the Senate, you tell a great story about when you first became a senator in 2009 and were summoned into a meeting with Vice President Biden.

It was before I was sworn in. He said he’d “been in this town 40 years, and let me tell you how you succeed in this town: Never promise anything you can’t deliver.” 

Do you think that was good advice?

Well, then he said, “When you get seated, we're going to have to give you something to give to the people of Minnesota. What do you want?” I said right away, “Let’s complete the continuation of the Northstar Line,” which was a commuter rail line from Minneapolis to St. Cloud, Minnesota. And he went, “Oh, OK. How much will that cost?” I said, “$183 million.” And he thought about it and went, “That's what we're going to do. When you get seated, we're going to finish the Northstar Line. We're going to deliver that. You're going to bring that to the people of Minnesota when you get seated.” I thought to myself, “This is much easier than I thought!” 

And then you completed the Northstar Line for the people of Minnesota?

No. I love Joe, but that was sort of a very Washington story. 

Let's move on to the Supreme Court. First of all, do you have any thoughts about Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg? Any personal recollections you’d like to share?

I met Justice Ginsburg on a number of occasions. I went to a concert at the Kennedy Center because Billy Murray had met this world-class German cellist, Jan Vogler, on a plane. So they put together this thing that they toured with, where they played music and Billy did readings of Henry David Thoreau and William Faulkner and all these, you know, unbelievable writers.  So I go back to see Billy after the show and there's [NPR legal affairs correspondent] Nina Totenberg and Justice Ginsberg in Billy’s dressing room. 

So I say hi to the justice. And Nina Totenberg told me, “She’s going now to work.” It was 10:00 p.m., so I was a little surprised. But she very often would work from 10:00 p.m. to 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, because no one would bother her during those hours. And this had been in addition to her regular hours at the court. She was just an incredibly, incredibly dedicated jurist.

What are your feelings about the rush to fill her seat?

It's a disgrace. It's a power grab. It's completely hypocritical. I was there when President Obama nominated Merrick Garland — and they wouldn't even meet with them. They wouldn't have hearings. And all they said at the time was that it was “because it was an election year and it was February.” Justice Scalia had died in February 2016. Well, this time it isn't February during the New Hampshire primaries — it's frigging November that they're having these hearings, when 14 million Americans have already voted in the presidential election! 

What would you have asked Amy Coney Barrett if you were on the committee?

I would have asked her about in vitro fertilization. She’s a member of a group and she signed on to this ad saying life begins at conception. That group believes that if you discard a fertilized egg, it was an abortion, and they would prosecute doctors who did that. If you did that, there'd be no in vitro fertilization, because the in vitro fertilization process means you fertilize a lot of eggs and not every egg is viable.

I actually would have asked her this, a hypothetical. There's a nursery school and across the street there's an in vitro fertilization clinic. The nursery is on fire. There's one girl at the nursery trapped in the building. Judge Coney Barrett has a choice: You can go in there and save the girl, or you can save the thousands and thousands of human lives that are in the freezers. Who would you save?

What are your thoughts on the whole debate about court packing? 

What I would have done is I would have said to my Republican colleagues, “Don't do this. Because your justification for this is that ‘we can.’ You guys had the power not to seat Garland, but back then you said it was the principle. So you’re complete hypocrites. And now you're only doing this because you have the power to do it. And guess what? There's nothing in the Constitution against packing the court. Don't do this. And if you do it, the voters of South Carolina will know you're hypocrites. The voters of North Carolina and Iowa and of Texas and of Maine and Georgia and Kansas and Colorado and Montana and Arizona and Mississippi, will all know. And you will lose."

And is that what you predict? You predict a blue wave? 

Well, that's what I'm hoping for. But I don't want to kinehora. Look it up. Most of Hollywood knows what that means.

During the Elena Kagan hearings, you couldn't help roll your eyes at Mitch McConnell during his speech — and a brouhaha ensued. What are your memories of that?

Just how obnoxious what he said was. It’s in my book, so please quote what he said. [Sen. McConnell said, “No one has any doubt that Ms. Kagan is bright and personable and easy to get along with. But the Supreme Court is not a social club. If getting along in polite society were enough reason to put someone on the Supreme Court, then we wouldn’t need a confirmation process at all.”] The more I think about it, the more right I had to do that. I was too kind to him in the book, frankly. 

Finally, any funny thoughts to leave us with?

Let’s see. I think one of the reasons Trump’s going to lose is because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He's lost the support of older racists. 

A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.