The deal to delay a final vote on President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee was made behind closed doors Friday — by two senators crammed into a battered, old-fashioned phone booth built for one.
Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) were two old friends in the middle of a fight: Coons was upset that Flake had just announced he would vote to confirm Brett M. Kavanaugh, clouded by allegations of sexual assault, without an FBI investigation.
By the end of the cramped meeting, Flake had agreed to retreat — joining Coons and other Democratic senators in forcing a week-long delay in the vote on Kavanaugh to give the FBI time to investigate the assault accusations.
The episode again put Flake in the position of spoiler and grandstander — defying Trump and conservatives, sowing distrust among many Democrats and still unclear where he intends to land in the end.
He is on his way out of the Senate in January — blocked from any chance of reelection by Trump’s constant attacks on him as “Flake Jeff Flake.” He is also scheduled on Monday to make his second visit to New Hampshire, part of a flirtation with a potential 2020 presidential bid as the voice of civility and moderation in the loud, angry era of Trump.
“What really I wanted to do is to meet with some of my Democratic colleagues and say, what would cause you to say we have a better process?” Flake said in an interview after Friday’s agreement. “This is a good-faith effort to move forward and to deal with this.”
Flake started Friday by releasing a statement that declared his support for Kavanaugh, surprising friends like Coons given the turmoil that followed dramatic testimony Thursday by both Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, who says Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a house party when he was 17. If Flake had stuck to his vow, Kavanaugh’s confirmation would have effectively been ensured, giving Republicans enough votes to approve him along party lines.
But shortly afterward, Flake was on his way to the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that would help decide the issue when he was confronted in an elevator by two women who told him they had been sexually assaulted.
The tense encounter, which lasted more than five minutes, was carried live on CNN.
“Look at me when I’m talking to you!” one woman said in a raised voice. “You’re telling me that my assault doesn’t matter, that what happened to me doesn’t matter and that you’re going to let people who do these things into power! That’s what you’re telling me when you vote for him!”
Flake, looking on quietly, thanked the women and said he had to get to the hearing.
The moment went viral online as a sign of the raw emotion elicited by Ford’s testimony — and the possible blowback facing undecided senators if they choose to vote for Kavanaugh.
Pursued by reporters Friday afternoon, Flake said he had declared his support for the nomination in the morning as a means of driving Democrats who backed a more open-ended FBI investigation to the bargaining table.
“You have some leverage when you’re, you know, just one vote on the committee,” Flake said, noting the panel is composed of 11 Republicans and 10 Democrats.
Coons said Flake deserved credit for his role in finding a path forward. “He did something that was difficult and brave today,” he said.
The Kavanaugh conflagration serves as the latest moment in a two-year drama for Flake, ever since Trump rocketed to the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, in which he has taken high-
profile stands against the president — only to often bend later to the Trump side of the debate.
He published a book in the summer of 2017 that rhetorically excoriated Trump for his behavior and his positions on immigration, then announced he would retire rather than seek reelection because he would not win the Republican primary unless he curbed his criticism of Trump. Yet for all his verbal jousts with Trump, Flake has backed the president on most policy fronts, or backed away from his most confrontational moves.
In 2017 he was undecided on the bid to repeal the Affordable Care Act, citing how his state would be harmed by the proposal, only to support it as his mentor, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who died this year, provided the decisive vote defeating the repeal effort. Later that year, as a massive tax-cut plan was heading toward passage, Flake threatened to defeat the legislation unless his demands were met on protecting young undocumented immigrants brought here by adults.
And earlier this year Flake set up a blockade on Trump’s judicial nominees as a leverage point to get a vote on a bipartisan plan to rein in Trump’s powers to impose tariffs. Flake eventually settled for a nonbinding resolution and then allowed Trump’s nominees to advance.
On Friday, Flake’s on-again, off-again stance on Kavanaugh became part of another drama.
After Flake had announced that he would back the confirmation of Kavanaugh, Coons made a plea for bipartisanship in an emotional speech in front of the Judiciary panel. By the time he finished, Flake approached him and gestured that they should speak privately.
The interaction, caught on camera, immediately caused a stir.
“Chris, this is tearing our country apart,” Flake told the Democrat, according an account Coons provided later Friday.
Flake has said he has been troubled by Ford’s allegation since the day her interview with The Washington Post was published Sept. 16.
In an interview that day, Flake said he was not comfortable moving forward until the Judiciary Committee heard more from her. His comments gave cover to Republican senators urging GOP leaders to slow down and take a closer look at the accusations.
Flake pressed his case again the next day during a meeting with Republican senators in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office, according to people familiar with the conversations. Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) announced plans for a public hearing shortly after.
Flake said Friday that his attitude has been shaped by friends’ stories of past assaults.
“It’s been remarkable over the past week the number of people who saw Dr. Ford, particularly yesterday, and were emboldened to come out and to say what had happened to them,” he said.
“I’ve heard from friends, close friends, that I had no idea” about, he said. “. . . That’s important, and people out there need to know that we’ve taken every, every measure that we can within reason to make sure that this process is worthy of this institution.”
He also received pressure from his own party. On Thursday, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) looked directly at Flake during a fiery speech in defense of Kavanaugh.
“To my Republican colleagues, if you vote ‘no,’ you’re legitimizing the most despicable thing I have seen in my time in politics,” he said.
Later Thursday, Flake huddled with Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), fellow moderates whose votes have been seen as key to Kavanaugh’s fate.
By midafternoon Friday, Flake had persuaded Murkowski to embrace his call for a one-week delay to conduct an FBI probe.
During their negotiations, Flake wanted to know what Coons had to offer that Democrats would agree to, because at that point the minority party had been demanding a broader probe of allegations against the judge.
Coons countered: One week, limited to the already public allegations.
Flake told Coons to get Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, to agree to the deal. If so, he said, he could get enough Republicans to agree.
The whole episode played out in a crowded Senate anteroom. One by one, other senators started pouring in. Many Republicans pressed Flake not to join with the Democrats on the emerging deal, Coons said.
Soon the room was “packed with bodies,” one senator said, with breakout sessions happening in places like the phone booth and in a restroom. Some jammed themselves into a hallway about two or three yards wide, said the senator, who described it as a “weird scene with all these senators face to face.”
“Some very sharp jabs,” Coons recalled, saying the public acrimony on display was playing out behind the scenes as well. “Talking at each other, past each other and to each other.” But positive conversations also took place, he said.
Flake and Coons are longtime friends. They have traveled extensively around the world together, most recently to Africa in August. Eventually, they had their deal.
After it was announced, Graham praised Flake’s character.
“I am in a different place in terms of ready to vote. I think the process has been abused by our friends on the other side, but Jeff is one of the most decent, sincere people I know,” Graham said.
“I will not question his motives, I will honor his request, and when it’s all said and done, Jeff, Susan, Lisa and others who have concerns are being listened to.”
Mike DeBonis, Seung Min Kim and Erica Werner contributed to this report.