WASHINGTON – After a sleepless night wrestling with “lingering doubt” over sexual assault accusations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake orchestrated a surprise plan Friday to advance the nomination but delay it for an FBI probe.
Flake provided the swing vote that let the Senate Judiciary Committee give preliminary approval to the nomination, but only on the condition that a vote by the full Senate is put off until after an FBI investigation is done.
That investigation, ordered late Friday by President Donald Trump, is to last no longer than a week and only look at “current credible” assault allegations before the committee.
The deal satisfies Democrats who have been demanding a full investigation and Republicans who have accused Democrats of delaying tactics.
“I wanted to support him (Kavanaugh) – I’m a conservative, he’s a conservative judge – but I want a process that we can be proud of, and I think the country needs to be behind it,” Flake said Friday. “We need a more bipartisan process, that’s why this is important.”
The unexpected deal came at end of two days of emotional, highly partisan hearings and debate on the nomination by the committee.
On Thursday, the committee spent the whole day taking testimony from just two witnesses – Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, the psychology professor who said he sexually assaulted her in 1982, when they were both in high school.
She testified that they were at a party in suburban Maryland when a drunken Kavanaugh pinned her to a bed, put his hand over her mouth and tried to remove her clothes before she was able to get away.
Since Ford’s name became public less than a week ago, two other women have come forward to say they, too, were assaulted by Kavanaugh when they were in high school or college with him.
Kavanaugh has categorically and repeatedly denied all the accusations, a defense he repeated in Thursday’s hearing before going on the offensive and accusing Democrats of an “orchestrated political hit” on him.
At Friday’s hearing, senators on both sides of the aisle said Ford was a credible witness who suffered a horrible assault – but Republicans said there was insufficient evidence that Kavanaugh committed the attack.
Flake said as much in a statement Friday morning in which he said he believed both witnesses, but that Kavanaugh was entitled to a presumption of innocence.
But Flake was silent as Friday’s hearing progressed, eventually pulling committee members to a back room, where he said later that they discussed how to improve the process of confirming Kavanaugh. That ultimately led to the deal that advanced the nomination but demanded the FBI investigation.
“She was credible and he was persuasive,” Flake said of Thursday’s testimony. He said that made it difficult for people to make a decision on the case, “particularly when … there wasn’t a full FBI investigation.”
After a meeting in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office with committee members and other senators, Flake said both Democrats and Republicans were happy with the plan.
He said the scope of the probe will be left to the FBI, but he is confident the agency can complete a thorough investigation in a week or less. He repeatedly cited the three-day investigation the FBI did during the 1991 nomination hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, whom Anita Hill had accused of workplace sexual harassment.
Kavanaugh, in a statement released Friday by the White House, said he will “continue to cooperate” with investigators.
“Throughout this process, I’ve been interviewed by the FBI, I’ve done a number of ‘background’ calls directly with the Senate, and yesterday, I answered questions under oath about every topic the Senators and their counsel asked me,” Kavanaugh’s statement said. “I’ve done everything they have requested and will continue to cooperate.”
When asked Friday if he was thinking about replacing Kavanaugh, Trump said “not even a little bit.”
The president, who has regularly defended Kavanaugh, said he thought Ford’s testimony Thursday was “very compelling.” He said he was not concerned about possible delays, praising the Senate for its work so far and adding that “they have to do what they think is right.”
Flake said it’s important to get it right – and that it can be done quickly.
“There’s lingering doubt out there among a lot of people that we haven’t taken every measure that we should to make sure that these allegations are dealt with, so that’s what this effort is about,” Flake said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, said he does not necessarily agree with the call for an investigation, but he is not upset with Flake because “this is democracy.”
“He believes if the FBI had a few more days, some Democrats have told him that would alleviate their process concerns,” Graham said, even though they still might not vote for Kavanaugh.
“So I think what Jeff is trying to do is end this the best he possibly can to accommodate some people on the other side and to, you know, bring the community together if possible,” he said.
Flake said that whatever the outcome, he hopes both sides will be more comfortable with how it was reached.
“I’m not saying that this is going to change votes in the end and a bunch of Democrats are now going to vote for him,” Flake said after the meeting in McConnell’s office. “They may not, but they’ll feel better about the process and I think you’ll have a number of them say so, and the country needs to hear that.”