The tension in the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing room was almost unbearable in the hours and minutes before Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake announced that he wanted a limited FBI investigation of the sexual assault claims against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
The committee, and the Senate, seemed to be careening toward bedlam. Republicans gave fiery speeches defending Kavanaugh. Some Democrats walked out of the room, irate that the committee was voting on Kavanaugh less than 24 hours after hearing from his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford. Protesters roamed the halls outside and yelled at senators, including Flake hours earlier as he tried to get into an elevator.
As Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar said, it was “not normal.”
Then Flake made his move, signaling Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware to come talk to him in a small private room off the dais.
Suddenly, the mood in the room began shifting from death match to deal making as senators huddled in a back hallway off the anteroom.
Ultimately, Flake, a Republican who is retiring from the Senate this year, said that he would not be ready to vote for Kavanaugh until the FBI conducts a background investigation into the sexual misconduct claims. He said he would vote for Kavanaugh in committee, but wanted a week for the investigation before a floor vote.
The announcement upended his party’s plans to move quickly to confirm Kavanaugh and made clear what many had suspected: that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did not have the votes to proceed to Kavanaugh’s nomination over the weekend. McConnell, R-Ky., soon called for the investigation as well, after resisting that step since the allegations became public.
Inside the anteroom, Flake had huddled with Coons and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the committee, as other Republicans and Democrats came in and out. The senators crowded in the back corridor of the room as staff filled the main area.
“At one point there were 14 senators jammed into a corner,” said Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat on the Judiciary panel.
Talking to his colleagues, Flake voiced discomfort with the accusation against Kavanaugh and said he was leaning toward asking for an FBI investigation, according to two people in the room granted anonymity to discuss the private conversation.
Other Republicans entered, including Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, to make their case to Flake. Coons said afterward that Flake’s fellow Republicans tried “vigorously” to get him to drop his concerns. According to one person in the room, Flake tried to reach FBI Director Christopher Wray on the telephone, but ended up talking to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Ultimately, Flake stopped short of where Democrats hoped he would land, which was putting a hold on a committee vote. Instead he wanted the one-week delay on a final vote on Kavanaugh’s confirmation while allowing the nomination to move out of committee to the full Senate.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, mostly stayed out of the discussion, instead sitting awkwardly on the dais as people in the room buzzed about what might be happening behind the closed doors. Grassley did walk into the anteroom briefly, where Flake told him his decision.
The senators then filed out, and Flake announced the agreement.
“This country is being ripped apart here,” Flake said. “We’ve got to make sure that we do due diligence.”
The short delay would allow time for an FBI background investigation, Flake said. President Trump would reluctantly authorize one later in the day.
Flake later said he knew his Republican colleagues Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine — key swing votes on Kavanaugh — would feel more comfortable moving ahead if there were an FBI review.
“But most of all the country needs to feel better about this. This is ripping us apart, and there are enough things ripping us apart,” he said.
Flake’s made-for-TV moment in the hearing room was indicative of how wrenching things had become on Capitol Hill in the 24 hours since Ford publicly accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault when they were teenagers. Kavanaugh, in testimony that alternated between anger and tears, denied ever doing such a thing to Ford or anyone else.
The charged emotions were mirrored by the senators in the room, including Lindsey Graham, who at one point on Thursday delivered an angry diatribe against the “sham process.” Red-faced and pointing his finger as he spoke, Graham reached nearly reach the same heights of anger Kavanaugh displayed in his more than 40-minute opening statement.
After Friday’s meeting, Coons said that Flake had approached him on the dais, wanting to talk about the Delaware senator’s call for a one-week delay on Kavanaugh’s nomination. Flake “asked me to come into the anteroom to talk to him about how that might be made more real,” he said.
The Delaware senator said there were some “sharp conversations” as the discussions went on about how partisan the committee had been, and how he and Flake wanted to improve on that.
Coons’ eyes welled with tears as he told reporters afterward about the deep respect that he and Flake share for the Senate as an institution. He said Flake had been a role model to him, “as someone who is willing to take a real political risk, and upset many in his party by asking for a pause so the American people can hear that we are able to work together on some things.”
Flake, for his part, said he didn’t expect the FBI investigation to change many Democratic votes. “But they will feel better about the process,” he said.
Tom Beaumont and Kevin Freking contributed reporting from Washington.
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