By Richard Cowan and David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Something happened to U.S. Republican Senator Jeff Flake between being cornered in a Capitol elevator on Friday as two women shouted at him about sexual assault and, hours later, cutting a momentous deal with Democrats to defy President Donald Trump.
Flake‘s shift from full-throated support for Brett Kavanaugh to demanding an FBI investigation of sexual misconduct allegations against Trump‘s Supreme Court nominee was seemingly swift, with Democratic Senator Chris Coons playing a key role.
The outcome of the Flake–Coons deal was that Kavanaugh‘s path to Senate confirmation for a lifetime appointment to the nation’s highest court will, at minimum, be delayed for a week as the FBI looks into the accusations made against him.
The delay, which could be more consequential depending on what the FBI finds, slammed the brakes on Trump and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell‘s pledge to “plow right through” to a quick confirmation of Kavanaugh.
Flake, a 55-year-old senator from Arizona who is not running for re-election this year, sat through Thursday’s nine-hour Senate Judiciary Committee hearing and testimony by Kavanaugh and the woman accusing him of assault, Christine Blasey Ford.
Even then, he was noticeably quiet as both witnesses dramatically told their tales: Ford accusing Kavanaugh of assault when they were both high school students in 1982, and Kavanaugh forcefully denying any such thing ever happened.
He told reporters in a Capitol hallway, “Just watching the hearing yesterday, the questions and then the reporting on it afterwards. It just, you know, was a sleepless night.”
On Friday morning, Flake announced he would vote to confirm Kavanaugh, a decision that gave his fellow Republicans the votes needed to squelch a Democratic uprising against the federal appeals court judge and pave the way for a full Senate debate.
Then he headed from his office to a Judiciary Committee meeting on Capitol Hill, where a vote was planned on the nominee. Along the way, he was confronted by two angry women, Maria Gallagher and Ana Maria Archila.
For five minutes the two emotionally harangued him as he stood in the corner of an elevator, staring at the floor and looking up occasionally at them with a pained expression as they described their own experiences with sexual assault and pleaded with him not to agree to putting Kavanaugh on the court.
In his remarks to reporters, he said, the encounter in the elevator was only one of many in recent days. “I’ve heard from a lot of people by phone, email, text, walking around the Capitol. … It has been remarkable over the past week.”
Shortly afterward, Flake took his seat in the committee meeting, where Coons soon made some remarks.
The Delaware Democrat, also 55, afterward told reporters in the Capitol, “As I was preparing my remarks today, I at one point turned to my counsel and said: ‘Am I trying to make an argument that could possibly persuade my friend, Jeff Flake?'” They decided that he was.
Minutes after Coons spoke, Flake walked over to him behind the dais in the committee room and knelt to talk to him. The two then stood and went into an anteroom, where they were joined by other senators, mostly Democrats.
Some time later, Flake came back in and dropped a bombshell. He said he would stick to his promise to support Kavanaugh‘s nomination in the committee vote, but under one condition: That there be an FBI investigation of Ford’s allegations.
“This country is being ripped apart here. We have to be sure we do due diligence,” he said.
One senior Senate aide familiar with the negotiations attributed Flake’s shift to pressure from Coons.
“Chris Coons just achieved what no other Democrat could,” the aide said, referring to weeks of Democrats‘ demands for a FBI probe being ignored by Republicans.
Late on Friday, Trump ordered the FBI to reopen its investigation into Kavanaugh over sexual misconduct allegations, but said the work must be done in less than a week.
(Additional reporting by Ann Saphir in San Francisco; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh)