Coons, a Delaware Democrat and onetime volunteer relief worker in Kenya, and Flake, the Arizona Republican who has been one of Trump’s sharpest critics and is retiring this year, have forged a genuine friendship in their official travels around the world, and it showed on Friday. The day began with a bang, as Flake issued a press release announcing that he intended to vote for Kavanaugh in the committee, seemingly ending any suspense about the next step in his confirmation. But within hours, two developments worthy of Frank Capra or Aaron Sorkin turned the tables in a way seldom seen in today’s Washington.
The first was that Flake was waylaid outside a Capitol Hill elevator for several minutes by a group of impassioned survivors of sexual abuse, who demanded to know how he could support Kavanaugh and implored him to look them in the face as he cast his eyes downward and tried to move on. The second was a calm but heartfelt plea from Coons in the committee hearing for a brief delay.
Coons recounted how, as he listened Thursday to Christine Blasey Ford describe how Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her when they were in high school, five personal friends had called his cellphone to convey their own experiences as victims of sexual assault.
“That suggests that there is an ocean of pain in this nation,” Coons said, “not yet fully heard, not yet fully addressed, not yet appropriately resolved. And I, for one, will not countenance the refrain said by too many in response to these allegations that it happened too long ago and that in our nation, boys will be boys. We must do better than that, and we must set a better standard than that for our own families and for our future.”
Jimmy Stewart as Jefferson Smith himself couldn’t have put the stakes more plainly, and when he was finished speaking, Coons and Flake left the committee room to go behind closed doors where, real-time cable-news reports made plain, negotiations on a compromise— ultimately involving other Democrats—got underway.
When Flake returned to the committee room, the grim faces on the Republican side foreshadowed the outcome. Flake said he would vote to send Kavanaugh’s name out of committee, but would be unwilling to vote for it on the full Senate floor without a brief FBI investigation (whose precise parameters remain to be determined).
“The country is being ripped apart here,” Flake said, his face flushed and his mien somber. “And we’ve got to make sure we do due diligence.” Flake had publicly agonized over his vote, and barely spoke in Thursday’s contentious hearing. His agreement with Coons seemed to suggest that he agreed with the logic expressed by virtually all the Democrats: that one could not simultaneously find Ford a credible witness and vote for Kavanaugh without further investigation.
As the committee meeting broke up, members from both parties seemed slightly stunned at what had just happened. “Jeff’s trying his best to bring the country together and vote the best way he knows how,” said Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of Kavanaugh’s fiercest defenders. Asked whether he believed McConnell would agree to the plan, Graham told reporters clustered in the hallway outside the committee room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, “Last time I looked, you need 50 votes.”