Arizona’s Republican Sen. Jeff Flake started off Friday planning to vote with the other 10 Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee to send to the full Senate a recommendation that Brett Kavanaugh be confirmed for the Supreme Court seat vacated by Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy. Before the day was over he had done just that. But he had also injected a new factor into what had seemed to be a slam-dunk for the recommendation. He made his vote conditional on there being a short FBI investigation into sexual predation allegations before the Senate votes on Kavanaugh.
In the wake of the sworn testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh’s evasive and frequently incendiary and highly partisan response, the Democrats on the committee had been calling for such an investigation. But with only 10 committee votes to the GOP’s 11, they had no leverage to make it happen. Flake did. And by late in the day, Pr*sident Donald Trump—to the surprise of some close observers—had ordered the FBI to conduct that investigation to be completed in less than a week. Later still on Friday, reports said the bureau had already begun trying to arrange interviews with two other women who have made their own allegations of sexual misbehavior by Kavanaugh.
So what was it that changed his mind? Mary Coppins at The Atlantic interviewed him to find out:
Jeff Flake: I don’t know if there was any one thing, but I was just unsettled. You know, when I got back to the committee, I saw the food fight again between the parties—the Democrats saying they’re going to walk out, the Republican blaming everything on the Democrats.
And then there was [Democratic Senator] Chris Coons making an impassioned plea for a one-week extension to have an FBI investigation. And you know, if it was anybody else I wouldn’t have taken it as seriously. But I know Chris. We’ve traveled together a lot. We’ve sat down with Robert Mugabe. We’ve been chased by elephants, literally, in Mozambique. We trust each other. And I thought, if we could actually get something like what he was asking for—an investigation limited in time, limited in scope—we could maybe bring a little unity.
We can’t just have the committee acting like this. The majority and minority parties and their staffs just don’t work well together. There’s no trust. In the investigation, they can’t issue subpoenas like they should. It’s just falling apart.
Coppins: So, you were motivated mainly by preserving institutional credibility?
Flake: Two institutions, really. One, the Supreme Court is the lone institution where most Americans still have some faith. And then the U.S. Senate as an institution—we’re coming apart at the seams. There’s no currency, no market for reaching across the aisle. It just makes it so difficult.
Just these last couple of days—the hearing itself, the aftermath of the hearing, watching pundits talk about it on cable TV, seeing the protesters outside, encountering them in the hall. I told Chris, “Our country’s coming apart on this—and it can’t.” And he felt the same.
He was surprised, Flake told Coppins, by the outpouring of stories of rapes, attempted rapes, and other sexual predation from women around the nation, including emails and phone calls directly to the senator from “friends and acquaintances saying, ‘Here’s my story, here’s why I was emboldened to come out.’” Dr. Ford’s testimony “struck a chord, it really did, with a lot of women,” he added.
While the deluge of stories was indeed stunning, what those women—and some men—said about their own experiences as targets of sexual predation, should have been no surprise. While many individuals were telling their stories for the first time, or at least the first time to people other than close friends or family, the overall picture should have been clear long ago to Flake or any other senator.
Indeed, it’s infuriating to realize that more than five decades after the modern women’s movement got underway, more than 40 years after publication of Elizabeth Brownmiller’s seminal book on rape—“Against Our Will”—and all the follow-ups to it since then, that anyone who cares could be so in the dark about the widespread behavior those phone calls and emails and op-ed columns and interviews described.
Of course, nobody should assume that Jeff Flake has suddenly become woke about patriarchy. But at least he, unlike the other white men who make up 100 percent of the Republican majority on the Senate Judiciary Committee, seems to have taken to heart what he’s been hearing, whether on his phone or in a Senate elevator.
Of Kavanaugh, Flake told Coppins: “I plan to support him unless they turn up something—and they might.”
If they do, and it seems unlikely that they won’t, it will be instructive to see how many Republicans will shrug it off and vote to confirm Kavanaugh anyway. But if the FBI’s discoveries are damaging enough, he might step aside. Or Trump might decide to pull the nomination. If he does, or if the nomination goes down in a Senate vote, we might in the months ahead see the fastest confirmation ever of a judge like Amy Coney Barrett, a jurist with much of the ideological baggage of Kavanaugh but presumably nothing so toxic in her personal history. Even so, keeping Kavanaugh off the court would be a significant victory.
This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.