A wild 24 hours: How Jeff Flake delayed a vote on Kavanaugh

Ms Ana Maria Archila upbraiding Senator Jeff Flake in a lift as he was making his way to the Senate Judiciary Committee meeting.
Ms Ana Maria Archila upbraiding Senator Jeff Flake in a lift as he was making his way to the Senate Judiciary Committee meeting.PHOTOS: EPA-EFE
Ms Ana Maria Archila upbraiding Senator Jeff Flake in a lift as he was making his way to the Senate Judiciary Committee meeting.
Ms Ana Maria Archila upbraiding Senator Jeff Flake in a lift as he was making his way to the Senate Judiciary Committee meeting.PHOTOS: EPA-EFE
Ms Ana Maria Archila upbraiding Senator Jeff Flake in a lift as he was making his way to the Senate Judiciary Committee meeting.
Ms Ana Maria Archila upbraiding Senator Jeff Flake in a lift as he was making his way to the Senate Judiciary Committee meeting.PHOTOS: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON • Surrounded by his colleagues in a cramped corridor behind the US Senate Judiciary Committee, Republican 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 Kavanaugh's nomination to the Supreme Court to the full Senate floor. But two angry and tearful women had confronted him soon afterwards in a Senate lift, accusing him of telling girls that "assault doesn't matter".

Now, as the committee was on the verge of approving the nomination, Mr Flake 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 FBI background investigation into sexual misconduct accusations against Mr Kavanaugh?

Alarmed Republicans crowded around him, imploring him not to waver. This is just a delaying tactic, they said. Democrats were on the other side, coaxing him to put off the vote. Senator Chris Coons, a longtime friend, broke in: This is a mess, he said, and to lift the cloud over Mr Kavanaugh, an investigation was necessary.

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

A STRONG MESSAGE

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... That's what happened to me.

ONE OF THE WOMEN WHO STOPPED SENATOR JEFF FLAKE IN THE LIFT, sparking his change of heart.

Mr Coons and Mr Flake squeezed into an oversize phone booth - a few still exist on Capitol Hill - to make the call. Mr Rosenstein told them the FBI 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 the FBI investigation would go forward - and once again upending Washington.

The drama began 24 hours earlier, right after Dr Christine Blasey Ford told the committee that she had been sexually assaulted by Mr Kavanaugh when she was 15 years old. That afternoon, Mr Kavanaugh delivered a fiery and emotional defence of his own character.

But the first evidence of a possible revolt came that same evening. As President Donald Trump celebrated Mr Kavanaugh's performance, Mr Flake slipped away to the office of Senator Susan Collins. He huddled there with Ms Collins, Senator Lisa Murkowski and Senator Joe Manchin III.

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

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

On Friday, before the scheduled start of the Judiciary Committee meeting, Mr Flake's office sent a statement by e-mail with the subject line: "Flake Will Vote to Confirm Judge Kavanaugh".

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

"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,'' one of the women shouted. "That's what happened to me."

Mr Flake looked dejectedly at the floor of the lift.

Later, he announced to the committee his intention: He wanted a one-week delay for an investigation, but said: "I will vote to advance this Bill to the floor."

Mr Trump ordered the probe.

"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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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 30, 2018, with the headline 'A wild 24 hours: How Jeff Flake delayed a vote on Kavanaugh'. Print Edition | Subscribe