A Tumultuous 24 Hours: How Jeff Flake Delayed a Vote on Kavanaugh

WASHINGTON — Surrounded by his colleagues in a cramped corridor behind the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Jeff Flake was in agony, getting pounded on all sides.

He had already released a statement that he would vote “yes” in the committee and advance Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court to the full Senate floor. But two angry and tearful women had confronted him soon afterward in a Senate elevator, accusing him of telling girls that “assault doesn’t matter.”

Now, as the committee was on the verge of approving the nomination, Mr. Flake, Republican of Arizona, was having second thoughts, according to a half-dozen lawmakers and Senate staff aides who witnessed the scene. Why not accept Democratic demands for a one-week delay in the confirmation vote, he asked his fellow senators, and reopen an F.B.I. background investigation into sexual misconduct accusations against Judge Kavanaugh?

Republicans crowded around him, alarmed. Senators Thom Tillis of North Carolina and John Cornyn of Texas implored him not to waver. This is just a delaying tactic, they said, and would only lead to more allegations that they believed to be false, hurting the judge’s family.

Democrats were on the other side, coaxing him to put off the vote. Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, a longtime friend, broke in: This is a mess, he said, and to lift the cloud over Judge Kavanaugh, an investigation was necessary.

But what could really be done in a week? There was a scramble to call Christopher Wray, the F.B.I. director, who could not be reached. The second choice was Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general.

Mr. Coons and Mr. Flake squeezed into an oversize phone booth — a few still exist on Capitol Hill — to make the call. They needed privacy rather than a landline, so held a cellphone on speaker between them. Mr. Rosenstein told them the F.B.I. could complete a background check in a week, although it was unlikely to unearth much more than was already known.

Minutes later, Mr. Flake, a pained expression on his face, returned to the committee room and made the announcement ensuring that the F.B.I. investigation would go forward — and once again upending Washington.

The drama began 24 hours earlier, right after Christine Blasey Ford told the committee that she was sexually assaulted by Judge Kavanaugh when she was 15 years old. President Trump, aides said, believed she was persuasive and informed the aides that he believed the judge’s confirmation was in jeopardy. Maybe, he said, the F.B.I. should spend a week to investigate the accusations as Democrats were demanding.

Some of the aides pushed back on Mr. Trump, including the White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, who saw the investigation as a delay tactic cooked up by the Democrats to give them more time to dig up dirt on Judge Kavanaugh.

Mr. Trump heeded the advice, and in a rare moment of political restraint, his Twitter feed stayed quiet.

But that afternoon Judge Kavanaugh delivered a fiery and emotional defense of his own character, prompting what looked by Thursday night to be unstoppable political momentum toward his confirmation to the Supreme Court.

Mr. Trump, who just hours earlier had appeared defeated to his aides, triumphantly tweeted after Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa and the chairman of the judiciary committee, gaveled the hearing to a close.

“Democrats’ search and destroy strategy is disgraceful and this process has been a total sham and effort to delay, obstruct, and resist,” Mr. Trump wrote. “The Senate must vote!”

The president’s Republican allies on Capitol Hill were determined and confident. After a meeting of Republican senators late Thursday, Mr. Grassley scheduled a 9:30 a.m. hearing for Friday. Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, began talking about a final vote early next week.

But the first evidence of a possible revolt came that same evening. As the president celebrated Judge Kavanaugh’s performance, Mr. Flake slipped away to the office of Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine. He huddled there with Ms. Collins, Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, and Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia.

All four had publicly expressed angst about deciding Judge Kavanaugh’s fate. In a Senate divided by the narrowest of margins — 51 Republicans and 49 Democrats — it would take only two of them to stop his nomination.

But what to do was not clear.

They knew that Dr. Blasey, a research psychologist, had captured the nation’s attention with a credible and heart-rending story that, if true, should disqualify anyone from service on the nation’s highest court. Yet Judge Kavanaugh’s angry proclamations of innocence and tearful pleas for fairness could not be ignored either.

The decision was wrenching, even before considering the politics. A vote to put Judge Kavanaugh on the bench could infuriate women — the very demographic Republicans were already struggling with in the midterm elections. But blocking his nomination to the Supreme Court would be like declaring civil war on conservatives.

The group made no final decisions, and Ms. Collins and Ms. Murkowski avoided reporters as they left the Capitol later that night. Senator Manchin told reporters that the group had concerns about moving forward with the nomination, but did not elaborate.

Mr. Flake went home for what he later described as a sleepless night. He said his struggle to come to a decision was “awful.”

“I want to support him. I’m a conservative, he’s a conservative judge,” Mr. Flake said. “But I want a process we can be proud of and I think the country needs to be behind it.”

By 9:29 a.m. Friday, one minute before the scheduled start of the Judiciary Committee meeting, Mr. Flake’s office sent a statement by email with a subject line that left no doubt about his position: “Flake Will Vote to Confirm Judge Kavanaugh.”

But moments later, as he boarded an elevator on his way to the meeting, Mr. Flake was confronted by two women, Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher. The video of the encounter went viral.

“I have two children,” one of the women yelled at Mr. Flake as an aide said he needed to go. “I cannot imagine that for the next 50 years they will have to have someone in the Supreme Court who has been accused of violating a young girl. What are you doing, sir?”

Mr. Flake looked dejectedly at the floor of the elevator as the second woman lectured him. “You are telling all women that they don’t matter, that they should just stay quiet because if they tell you what happened to them, you are going to ignore them,” she shouted. “That’s what happened to me.”

“Look at me when I’m talking to you,” she added.

Mr. Flake’s face was grim as he arrived in the committee room and took his seat on the right flank of the dais.

Democrats made a motion to subpoena more witnesses to the sexual misconduct accusations, but that was defeated, 11 to 10, with Mr. Flake’s support. The senators began offering their statements. Republicans said they were encouraged to be moving Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination forward, to an expected vote early next week. Democrats assailed the process, again insisting on a one-week delay and an F.B.I. investigation.

Almost three hours passed before Mr. Flake — looking increasingly uncomfortable — and Mr. Coons slipped out of the hearing room to begin discussing a possible delay. Senators crowded around, and the arguments continued as Mr. Flake made his decision.

Quickly, he held a conference call with Ms. Collins and Ms. Murkowski to ensure that he still had their support and that they agreed to a one-week delay. They did.

Mr. Flake returned to the committee room and announced his intention: He wanted a one-week delay for an investigation but said, “I will vote to advance this bill to the floor.”

Democrats were initially confused, and some objected. It took a few minutes for the reality to sink in: Mr. Flake had given the Republicans the majority they needed to advance Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination. But with some help from his like-minded Republican colleagues from the previous night’s meeting, he also had the power to hold up a final vote until an F.B.I. inquiry could be conducted.

In a meeting Friday afternoon with members of the Judiciary Committee, Mr. McConnell vented. Make no mistake about it, he said, more accusations, false ones, will emerge while we wait on this. But in the end, he had to accept the delay.

So did Mr. Trump. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, posted a statement from the president to her Twitter feed at 4:56 p.m. Friday.

“I’ve ordered the FBI to conduct a supplemental investigation to update Judge Kavanaugh’s file,” Mr. Trump said in the statement. He had been pushed into doing what he mused about 24 hours earlier.

“As the Senate has requested,” Mr. Trump said, “this update must be limited in scope and completed in less than one week.”

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