A couple of hours after issuing a statement Friday morning indicating that he would vote “yes” on Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, Republican Senator Jeff Flake surprised just about everyone by reconsidering — sort of. He called for a one-week delay so the FBI could conduct an investigation Democrats have been demanding for days. The proposal gained quick support from all four of the senators who remain publicly undecided on Kavanaugh: Republicans Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, and Democrats Heidi Heitkamp and Joe Manchin.
Just after Flake’s initial decision to move forward with the nomination, two sexual-assault survivors angrily confronted Flake in a Capitol elevator and rebuked him for abandoning victims with his vote, while the senator stared at the ground like a child being grounded. But was that viral-video skirmish the turning point for his conscience?
On Friday evening, Democratic Senator Chris Coons, a close friend of Flake’s who was a key player in the day’s unfolding drama, gave CBS News reporter Nancy Cordes his account of how it all went down. Later, Flake called the Atlantic’s McKay Coppins to relay his own side of the story.
Flake told Coppins “I don’t know if there was any one thing” that changed his mind.
He said that that after watching the testimony from Christine Ford and Kavanaugh on Thursday, he remained unsure of whether Kavanaugh had tried to to rape Ford at a high-school gathering in 1982 — though he said Ford’s testimony had “struck a chord” with many women. Flake then spent a sleepless night agonizing over what to do. After issuing his statement Friday morning, remained “unsettled” by the partisan rancor he was witnessing on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where multiple Democrats walked out in protest midway through Friday’s proceedings.
Coppins asked Flake, who who has bemoaned the Senate’s slide into tribalism, if his actions were “motivated mainly by preserving institutional credibility.” Flake said yes:
Two institutions, really. One, the Supreme Court is the lone institution where most Americans still have some faith. And then the U.S. Senate as an institution—we’re coming apart at the seams. There’s no currency, no market for reaching across the aisle. It just makes it so difficult.
Just these last couple of days—the hearing itself, the aftermath of the hearing, watching pundits talk about it on cable TV, seeing the protesters outside, encountering them in the hall. I told Chris, “Our country’s coming apart on this—and it can’t.” And he felt the same.”
Flake was persuaded as he watched Coons renew his call for an FBI investigation. Then, through a series of phone calls that took place as the general public speculated about what was happening, he began putting the wheels in motion for one to take place. (Many commentators criticized Democrats’ focus on the possibility of such an investigation at the expense of other lines of questioning on Thursday, but this tactic seems to have at least partly paid off.)
As for Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher, the women who confronted him in the elevator, Flake said their intervention was “poignant,” but that he believed “some of their concern was how Kavanaugh would rule on the court. They may have been there prior to the allegations against him because of his position on some issues.”
Flake didn’t give too many specifics on how he’d like the FBI investigation to be conducted, but did say he wants the agency to interview key witness Mark Judge, a move that Senate Republicans have (incredibly) resisted.
Flake also confirmed previous reporting by telling Coppins that former President George W. Bush had called him in support of Kavanaugh.
Flake may have bought himself some credibility from liberals who are relieved that he is finally matching his high-minded rhetoric over the last year with a modicum of action. But the newfound respect may not last too long: Flake told Coppins that he still planned to vote for Kavanaugh unless the FBI turned up relevant new information.