KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
President Trump has jumped into the latest political debate over sexual harassment or misconduct, this time involving Democratic Senator Al Franken. Trump tweeted overnight that a picture of Franken where he appears to grab the breasts of a sleeping woman, quote, "speaks a thousand words." And then Trump asked, where do Franken's hands go next?
The tweet was pretty different from Trump's relative silence on the subject of Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, who has been accused of sexual misconduct with teenage girls when Moore was in his 30s. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: When news broke yesterday that a woman had accused Al Franken of forcibly kissing and groping her during a 2006 USO tour, President Trump kept quiet for a few hours until just after 10 p.m. That's when Trump took to Twitter to criticize the Minnesota senator and bestow one of his trademark nicknames.
The Al Frankenstein picture is really bad, Trump said, referencing a photo in which the former comedian mugs for the camera while grasping the chest of a sleeping woman. And to think, Trump continued, just last week, he was lecturing anyone who'd listen about sexual harassment and respect for women.
DIANNE BYSTROM: Quite frankly, I'm kind of surprised that he went there.
HORSLEY: Dianne Bystrom heads a center for women and politics at Iowa State University. She says Trump's comments on Franken are particularly startling because he's had so little to say about Roy Moore, the GOP Senate candidate from Alabama. Trump has repeatedly ducked questions on Moore, who's accused of sexual misconduct with teenagers.
BYSTROM: Most politicians realize that you have to denounce that kind of behavior on both sides of the aisle. And I think for him to get involved with Al Franken and then not call out Roy Moore is problematic. And I think most Republicans would say that.
HORSLEY: Other national Republicans, including Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, have urged Moore to step aside from the Senate race. But through his spokeswoman, Sarah Sanders, Trump has tried to remain neutral.
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SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: The president believes that these allegations are very troubling and should be taken seriously. And he thinks that the people of Alabama should make the decision on who their next senator should be.
HORSLEY: Of course any discussion of sexual misconduct is a potential minefield for this president. He faced his own charges of sexual misconduct. And while Trump denied those charges, his campaign was rocked a year ago when The Washington Post released a 2005 videotape in which Trump makes crude comments about his own sexual pursuits to "Access Hollywood."
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You know, I'm automatically attracted to beautiful - I just start kissing them. It's like a magnet. You just kiss. I don't even wait. And when you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.
BILLY BUSH: Whatever you want.
HORSLEY: As soon as the tape became public, Trump expressed regret. But just as quickly, he pivoted to offense. Let's be honest, he said, calling the decade-old videotape nothing more than a distraction.
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TRUMP: I've said some foolish things. But there is a big difference between the words and actions of other people. Bill Clinton has actually abused women, and Hillary has bullied, attacked, shamed and intimidated his victims.
HORSLEY: That same instinct to fight fire with napalm may be what motivated Trump's Al Franken tweets last night. In the end, the "Access Hollywood" video did not torpedo Trump's campaign as many people predicted even though subsequent allegations of sexual misconduct have toppled movie stars and media executives, including one at NPR.
Dianne Bystrom thinks the country is in the midst of a national conversation on sexual standards similar to one triggered by Anita Hill's allegations against Clarence Thomas a generation ago. Those allegations did not block Thomas' path to the Supreme Court, but they did prompt more women to run for elective office the following year. Bystrom says it'll be interesting to see if the same thing happens in 2018.
BYSTROM: I saw a lot of tweets this morning that basically said a solution to this problem is elect more women.
HORSLEY: Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.