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.