Jeff Flake Explains Himself

The Arizona Republican’s dramatic call for further FBI review came because he felt the Senate was “coming apart at the seams.”

Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty

Jeff Flake barely slept the night before he upended the battle for the Supreme Court.

The Arizona senator had spent days agonizing over what to do with the explosive allegation that Judge Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted a young woman when he was in high school. For hours on Thursday, Flake—a key Republican swing vote—listened intently to raw testimony from the accuser and the accused, searching for something like certainty. But when it was over, he felt he was no closer to knowing for sure what happened in that suburban-Maryland bedroom 35 years ago.

The next morning, Flake’s office announced that, given the lack of corroborating evidence, the senator was prepared to move forward with Kavanaugh’s confirmation—but in private, he remained conflicted. “I was just unsettled,” he told me.

A few hours later, Flake shocked Washington with a dramatic last-minute call to delay the confirmation so that the FBI could spend a week investigating the accusation against Kavanaugh. The move was greeted with scorn from the right and plaudits from the left. But when Flake called me Friday, just before midnight, he was quick to emphasize that this was not an act of ideology.

Ever since I first interviewed him early last year for a profile, Flake has struck me as a politician preoccupied with unfashionable ideas. As a pro-immigration free trader and an outspoken critic of the president, he is generally out of step with the GOP of Donald Trump. And as he nears retirement, he prefers to talk about things like process, and decorum, and safeguarding democratic institutions. This is what he’s fixated on in the fight over Kavanaugh—and it’s why his approach is unlikely to please many partisans on either side of the aisle.  

In an interview Friday night, Flake told me about why he changed his mind on the Kavanaugh vote, what it was like to be confronted by sexual-assault survivors on Capitol Hill, and what he hopes to learn from the FBI investigation in the coming week.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

McKay Coppins: As of Friday morning, you were planning to vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh. By the afternoon, you were calling for an FBI investigation before you could support his confirmation. What happened in those few hours that changed your mind?

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 Republicans 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.

Coppins: Heading into Friday, what factors were you weighing as you decided how to vote?

Flake: It was a sleepless night. I was getting calls and emails for days 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.

Coppins: What was it like hearing from some of those women?

Flake: I didn’t expect it. I mean, we’re getting women writing into the office. People we don’t know. Other offices, I’m told, are having the same experience.

Coppins: The footage of sexual-assault survivors confronting you in the elevator Friday has been widely viewed. What was going through your mind when they were talking to you?

Flake: Obviously, it’s an uncomfortable situation. But it was—you know, you feel for them. It was poignant.

I mean, keep in mind, their agenda may be different than mine. I think some of their concern was how Kavanaugh would rule on the court. They may have been there prior to the allegations against him because of his position on some issues. But it certainly struck a chord.

Coppins: Some conservatives say delaying the vote will just give Kavanaugh’s opponents more time to engage in bad-faith efforts to derail his confirmation. What do you say to that?

Flake: I’m sure that will happen. There are already people saying, “Oh, a week’s not enough.” We tried to limit the time duration for the investigation, and limit the scope to the current allegations. But no doubt some will try to use it, and its time, for more accusations to come forward.

Coppins: As of now, are you planning to vote to confirm Kavanaugh unless the FBI finds something in the next week that changes your mind?

Flake: Yes. I’m a conservative. He’s a conservative. I plan to support him unless they turn up something—and they might.

Coppins: What do you want to know from the FBI? Are there any specific questions lingering in your mind, or witnesses you’re eager to hear from?

Flake: Well, obviously, Mark Judge. That’s the one that sticks out because he was mentioned so much by Dr. Ford, and he might be able to shed some light on her recollection of time and events.

Coppins: Your colleague, Ted Cruz, predicted that Mark Judge will just plead the Fifth if he’s asked about the allegations—would that change the calculus for you?

Flake: You know, all we can do is ask. We’ve got to try.

Coppins: There were reports that President George W. Bush called to lobby you to support Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Is that true?

Flake: Oh yes. I’ve spoken to him a few times in the past few weeks.

Coppins: What did he say?

Flake: He obviously worked closely with Brett, so he’s a big fan. And he’s called me and a number of my colleagues.

Coppins: You talked earlier about the crisis of authority facing American institutions. Do you worry that confirming Kavanaugh with these allegations hanging over him will do some damage to the long-term credibility of the Supreme Court?

Flake: Obviously. I’ve felt that this delay is as much to help him as us. My hope is that some Democrats will say,“Hey, we may not change our vote, but this process was worthy of the institution, and we feel satisfied.” That means something. The country needs to hear that.