Michael Franken, a retired Navy admiral and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate, knows more about foreign policy than most candidates for public office.
Since leaving a speck on the map in Northwest Iowa to attend college and join the military, Franken has moved more than two dozen times. Growing up in Lebanon, Iowa, Franken said, 56 people lived there.
In the later part of his career, he served as the senior military leader in Africa, coordinating activity on the continent between the Department of Defense, State Department, United Nations, European Union, NATO and other U.S. agencies. And that was only one year in the life of a career military officer.
In Washington, D.C., Franken combined his military experience with policy knowledge, serving as Chief of Legislative Affairs for the Navy, just a few years before his retirement in 2016.
Despite his interest in the subject, like most Americans, Franken can’t follow every twist and turn of the House impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.
“I haven’t had the time to listen to them during the day, nor the patience for it,” said Franken, in an interview Monday with Starting Line. “But I’ve been reading evening summations most days and I listened to the kickoff of the Judiciary [Committee] this morning, and how rough-hewn that became out of the starting blocks. And that’s unfortunate, but it’s expected in this highly charged environment.”
Since the Monday afternoon interview, the Democrat-led House of Representatives submitted two articles of impeachment: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
That “highly charged environment” is what Franken would be immersed in if he was elected to replace Republican Sen. Joni Ernst.
As a former military official of nearly 40 years, Franken lends a unique perspective to the Senate race and a host of national security questions arising from the impeachment inquiry.
He knows the time, money and “hundreds and hundreds of man hours” it takes to maintain relationships with American allies. In the case of the Ukraine affair, in which President Trump delayed hundreds of millions of dollars in much-needed military aid, actions like that, Franken said, have devastating ripple effects.
“There are impactful actions as a result of changing what we give one country for an entire region,” Franken said. “And I can’t think of an area, worldwide, where that’s more important than in [Vladimir] Putin’s Russia today. It’s purely an abuse of office and an obstruction of justice in trying to cover it up.”
To see a U.S. president try to cajole a foreign country to investigate an American politician for his own political gain has been galling, he said. And on top of that, Trump has sent his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, to freelance foreign policy in the Ukraine.
“Short-circuiting the long-established processes of security cooperation in the large, comprehensive, aggregated approach that the United States has developed since World War II, is wrought with difficulties,” Franken said. “It makes America look treasonous to other nations, not to be relied upon.”
Franken, the last Democrat to jump into the primary, launched his campaign in August. He was the first to go up on TV, centering his 30-second ad on Ernst’s “dereliction of duty” as a senator and veteran.
“As veterans, Joni and I both know that Trump’s actions would merit a court martial,” Franken says in the ad. “And Joni’s indifference is a dereliction of duty.”
Franken said he felt strongly about calling out Trump’s actions in Ukraine and Ernst’s silence on the issue early in the race.
“We were the first candidate in the nation to say that an impeachment inquiry — inquiry is the key — has to occur,” Franken said. “In the executive branch, you need to maintain a very substantial bar that necessitates investigation. If malfeasance occurred, however slight, you need to investigate it because the things we deal with in life have to do with life and death.”
When Franken talks about the charges leveled against Trump, the discussion is more technical than political.
He notes the long-term implications of Trump’s foreign policy and how career diplomats and government workers are affected when the commander in chief goes rogue.
“It is an accumulation of a series of events in this presidency which slowly change the culture of what was prudent and what was proper,” Franken said. “My fear was that there was a slow and steady — it wasn’t really slow — denigration of standards in this country.”
In his first TV ad, he wanted to bring these concerns to light.
“When you destroy relationships internationally, now you’re creating something which creates years and decades to recover, such as his trade policies, which I’m not sure we’ll recover with China anytime soon, certainly not during his administration. This will be left for a succeeding administration,” Franken said.
“I have a very international slight to me, that when he showed his colors with Ukraine and when people can ultimately die as a result of his decision-making, it necessitated calling it out. And hopefully an impeachment inquiry will, I think, upend his more unhelpful tendencies.”
By Elizabeth Meyer