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Scenes from Jeff Flake’s Supreme Court rebellion

The events of Friday afternoon threw Washington into chaos and guaranteed another week of suspense surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation. | Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo

Four senators undecided on Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination gathered Thursday night for a quiet chat with earth-shaking consequences. The topic: How to handle sexual assault allegations against the judge without embarrassing their chamber.

In Susan Collins’ third-floor office in the Capitol, she and her Republican colleagues Jeff Flake of Arizona, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — joined by Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia — agreed they had the power to make or break Kavanaugh. And without settling on precise details, they decided to use their leverage to insist on a process that would allow them to reach a comfort level with Kavanaugh, rather than to kill his Supreme Court nomination outright, according to two people familiar with the meeting,

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What resulted on Friday afternoon threw Washington into chaos and guaranteed another week of uncertainty and suspense surrounding Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Just hours after Flake endorsed Kavanaugh and seemed to put him on a path to the high court, the Arizonan said he first wanted a week-long FBI investigation into Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation that the judge assaulted her. It was a victory for Democrats who’d been demanding such a probe, to no avail, and promises to define the retiring Flake’s legacy as someone who refused to let Kavanaugh get a vote while under a cloud of doubt.

The 18 hours between the Thursday night gathering in Collins’ office and Flake’s surprise announcement capped an epic week filled with emotional testimony, brutal partisanship and a nearly unanimous feeling that the Senate had stumbled in front of the nation. But the Flake-led rebellion, however long it lasts, had been building for nearly two weeks.

Though Murkowski, Collins and Manchin all endorsed the FBI investigation on Friday, Flake needed another partner to pull off his move because none of them serve on the Judiciary Committee. So Flake, who’s been mocked for writing a book blasting the Trump presidency only to vote for his agenda, teamed up with a Democrat.

Flake requests FBI probe then votes with committee's GOP

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) has spent his eight-year Senate career making earnest attempts to build relationships with Republicans, at times to liberals’ annoyance. He and Flake have taken trips around the world together as part of their duties. And on Friday afternoon, with a Supreme Court seat on the line, it all paid off.

Coons and Flake vacated the Judiciary Committee shortly before the panel was expected to vote to advance Kavanaugh, a seemingly innocuous moment that left onlookers increasingly bewildered as more senators joined them in the back room. They returned minutes later with a deal that forced GOP leaders to bow to the minority’s demand for an FBI probe, delaying the confirmation for as much as a week.

“I did not expect him to do this today,” Coons said of Flake, speaking for nearly everyone in official Washington.

Republican leaders say they still expect Kavanaugh will make it to the bench, even as the 53-year-old appeals court judge faces an investigation none of them can control. But GOP leaders were still worried about Flake even after he issued a statement Friday morning arguing that he hadn’t seen enough evidence to deny Kavanaugh his vote, according a senior GOP official.

Shortly that statement went out, two women confronted Flake in a Senate elevator, shouting at him as he stood silent, looking chagrined. “What you are doing is allowing someone who actually violated a woman to sit on the Supreme Court. This is not tolerable,” one woman shouted. The clip went viral.

In fact, Flake was playing a longer game. He said his statement supporting Kavanaugh was a signal to Republicans that he wasn’t joining the Democratic resistance and would show he wasn’t out to bring Kavanaugh’s nomination down.

“I hoped that would help provide leverage,” Flake recounted. But he needed some Democrats to endorse the FBI investigation, if not Kavanaugh’s nomination, to get fellow Republicans to agree.

Sen. Patrick Leahy and Sen. Chris Coons

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), left, and Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) huddle inside the anteroom during the Senate Judiciary Committee meeting. | Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo

Flake wanted to demonstrate “that the process is fair, at least, even if [Democrats are] not going to vote for” Kavanaugh, he added.

Flake wouldn’t say whether the protestors played a role in his decision. But he acknowledged he was in the middle of a “remarkable” moment and ticked off his “interactions with a lot of people, on the phone, email, text, walking around the Capitol, you name it.”

“People who saw Dr. Ford yesterday were emboldened to come out and say what had happened to them. I heard from friends, close friends, I had no idea,” Flake said late Friday.

Coons opposes Kavanaugh and was preparing to deliver a speech on Friday morning lambasting Kavanaugh’s steady advance toward confirmation despite Ford’s compelling testimony. But then the Delaware senator had a different idea.

“Am I trying to make an argument that could possibly persuade my friend Jeff Flake, or I am trying to make an argument that is simply for history?'” Coons recalled afterward. “I significantly revised my comments to make them somehow persuasive to anyone who might be interested.”

In his speech, little-noticed at the time, Coons suggested that someone with a “partisan agenda” might have leaked to the media Ford’s letter alleging the assault — harmonizing with what Republicans had been saying for days. Coons’ speech, which also repeated his request for an FBI investigation, blindsided members of both parties.

But it was exactly what Flake was looking for.

Not long afterward, Coons and Flake repaired to a committee anteroom to hash out an agreement: Democrats would endorse a one-week FBI investigation into Kavanaugh, and Flake would use his leverage in the narrowly divided Senate and threaten to vote “no” on the floor if Republicans refused to go along.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), whose angry defense of Kavanaugh at Thursday’s hearing shocked fellow senators, interjected Friday to make clear that it was up to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) whether to abide Flake. Graham said he himself didn’t think an FBI probe was needed.

“He’s very sincere. And I don’t doubt his motivates. And he’s in a position that he can dictate the terms in many ways,” Graham said of Flake. “I don’t need it but we’ll see where everybody’s at, it’s called democracy.”

Sen. Jeff Flake and Sen. Lindsey Graham

Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee surround Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) as he speaks with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). | Win McNamee/Getty Images

Yet Flake said he was not “comfortable” moving forward without an investigation, a clear sign of where Collins and Murkowski might come down if the Senate voted on Saturday as originally planned. Collins, Murkowski, Flake and Judiciary Committee Republicans filed into the GOP leader’s office as it became clear that his goal of seating Kavanaugh by Oct. 1 was now in serious jeopardy.

During the closed-door meeting on Friday, McConnell warned Flake, Collins and Murkowski that the Kavanaugh vote “wasn’t going to get easier,” the senior GOP official said. Republicans fear more allegations may surface in the coming days. But with few other options, McConnell begrudgingly agreed to put off further votes on Kavanaugh for a week at most.

Flake had been inching toward his Friday stand ever since the Washington Post reported Ford’s account on Sept. 16. After reading the story, he quickly called for Ford to testify, rattling GOP leaders given his pivotal swing vote role on the Judiciary Committee. Once they moved to set up the meeting, Flake went virtually silent, simply repeating over and over again that he was glad the hearing was happening.

Once it was over, Flake began agonizing over his decision. But his plan began to come into focus when he met with the three other senators on Thursday evening to figure out his next move.

Flake gave nothing away, explaining to reporters late Thursday that he was still undecided but worried that a delay would allow time for more “ludicrous” allegations — two other named women besides Ford also went public this week — to be lodged against Kavanaugh. Then came his Friday morning statement, and it appeared Kavanaugh was safe.

Republicans were ebullient. They were still waiting on Collins and Murkowski but seemed increasingly confident that they’d won one of the ugliest fights in their careers.

“I think the tide has shifted to him,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said of Kavanaugh as he headed toward an informal GOP lunch on Friday. ”Of course it could change. Tide comes in and goes out, you know?”

Little did Shelby know at the time, but the tide was ebbing as he spoke. The Judiciary Committee was plodding toward a vote on Kavanaugh when the atmosphere suddenly changed: Flake, strangely, appeared to skip his opportunity to make a closing statement.

That kicked off the series of talks between Flake and senators in both parties in the back room, away from the cameras, that began when Flake pulled Coons aside. Multiple members of the committee, from Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), were pulled into the discussion as Flake outlined his conditions.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and ranking member Dianne Feinstein

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) listens as ranking member Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) speaks during the committee meeting. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Immediately after Flake’s public turnabout, liberals who have led the anti-Kavanaugh campaign were evidently worried that they’d fallen into a trap after some Democrats endorsed the investigation.

“The White House can define the FBI investigation,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said. “They can control the investigation.”

But Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said that Flake, Collins and Murkowski would have their own effective leverage over any FBI process that they believed was incomplete in investigating Kavanaugh.

“It’s better than where we were before,” Klobuchar said. “I’ll just leave it at that.”

Whether Kavanaugh will ultimately be confirmed seems to hinge on what the FBI does or doesn’t find. GOP leaders have tried to meet all the requests made of them.

Collins asked that Kavanaugh’s friend Mark Judge, whom Ford alleges was in the room during the alleged assault, sign a letter and send it to the committee rather than let his lawyer do it, according to two Republican senators. The letter was turned around in a matter of hours. And Murkowski had endorsed an FBI investigation days before, only to change her tune after meeting for more than a half-hour privately with McConnell.

But Flake’s use of his leverage was the most surprising. No one thought he would change course after explicitly endorsing Kavanaugh, even amid heavy pressure from the left. And even in derailing McConnell’s best-laid plans, it’s clear Flake could still anger anti-Kavanaugh crusaders when all is said and done.

“I am a conservative. I would like to see Judge Kavanaugh confirmed. And I hope to be able to do that,” Flake said after leaving the meeting with McConnell. “But I want a better process … involving the FBI, reopening the background investigation, which is what so many of my colleagues and people across the country have been asking for.”

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