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Jeff Flake’s Brett Kavanaugh delay, and difficult history with Trump, explained

The retiring Arizona senator successfully called for a brief FBI investigation into Kavanaugh allegations.

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Jeff Flake
Jeff Flake after announcing he will not seek reelection on October 24, 2017.
Win McNamee/Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Sen. Jeff Flake, the retiring Arizona Republican who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, gave Washington whiplash this week. First, he announced Thursday evening that he’d vote to confirm Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

But then — after being confronted by sexual assault survivors and holding tense closed-door discussions with colleagues of both parties — he surprisingly changed course. To give the FBI a chance to investigate the sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh, Flake said, he wanted to delay the full Senate confirmation vote by a week.

And it seems he had enough swing senators on his side to get his way, because Republican leaders agreed to do just that. It remains to be seen how crucial Flake’s delay will ultimately prove to be — perhaps he’s merely postponing the inevitable. But a delay is clearly not what the GOP leadership wanted. After all, who knows what another week of all of this controversy might bring.

But this episode is merely the latest in the bizarre saga of Flake in the Trump years. Unusually for a sitting GOP politician, the Arizona senator remained a prominent critic of Trump even after he won the presidential election in 2016. Flake even wrote a book last year, Conscience of a Conservative, that bemoaned the “nationalism,” “populism,” and “xenophobia” that he thinks have compromised conservatism — and called out Trump by name.

But rather than try to keep his Senate seat as a check on Trump, Flake — who was facing a conservative primary challenger — announced last year that he’d retire rather than run again. Sure, he was trailing in the polls and might have lost. But it seemed odd that he didn’t even try to make his case. (Though he’s said he might challenge Trump in 2020.)

Meanwhile, despite all this drama, Flake has overwhelmingly continued to vote for Trump’s appointees and his agenda. Even when he has spoken out in protest of a GOP agenda item, it’s become common for him to end up voting with his party, often having won little of note.

Which is why the Kavanaugh delay is at least somewhat unusual: Flake finally made something happen. Not much, perhaps — but something.

Who is Jeff Flake?

Washington Post/Laura Segall/Getty

Born in the small town of Snowflake, Arizona, Flake grew up in a Mormon family and lived on a cattle ranch. But the most revealing thing about him may be that when he looked for a political role model, he chose Barry Goldwater.

Goldwater, a longtime Arizona senator and the GOP’s unsuccessful 1964 presidential nominee, was a favorite of politically involved conservatives who were interested in principles and big ideas. His book The Conscience of a Conservative was a formative text of modern-day conservatism, making the case for principles of limited government, free markets, and anti-communism at a time when the ideological right had much less power in the party.

Much of Flake’s book (including the title) is a paean to Goldwater, and the young Flake in fact served as executive director of the Goldwater Institute think tank in the 1990s. That tells us a lot — unlike many of his colleagues, Flake didn’t get into politics as a next step after a law or business career. Instead, he was interested in ideas all along, and particularly drawn to movement conservatism’s ideological orthodoxy.

The ideas he initially got the most attention for after joining the House of Representatives in 2001 related to economics, as he enthusiastically sought to slash taxes and federal spending. “I believe that holding a conservative line on the growth of federal agencies, the federal budget, and the national debt is the most important part of my job,” he writes.

But after moving up to the Senate in 2013, he distinguished himself as a supporter of immigration reform including a path to legal status for millions of unauthorized immigrants, joining fellow Arizonan John McCain as part of the “Gang of Eight” that passed a bill through the Senate (but no further) that year. This put him against the tide of a party increasingly influenced by anti-immigrant passions — and starting in 2015, it put him against Donald Trump as well.

Flake’s criticism of Trump made him so unpopular in the GOP that he decided to retire

In his book, written in the early months of 2017, Flake expressed disillusionment with the Republican Party’s trajectory over the past couple of decades. He criticized past party leaders like Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay for engaging in the politics of destruction and “petty partisanship” rather than focusing on a constructive agenda.

But it was Trump who most disturbed him. In public comments, and in his book, Flake essentially melded three distinct critiques of the president. He condemned Trump’s intolerance and willingness to demonize minorities (particularly with the “Muslim ban”). He rapped him for his departures from conservative policy dogma (on free trade and foreign policy). And he argued that Trump’s temperament and behavior are deeply troublesome and hurting America.

“To carry on in the spring of 2017 as if what was happening was anything approaching normalcy required a determined suspension of critical faculties. And tremendous powers of denial,” Flake wrote. Though it would have been easier for him to fall in line with his party, he continued, “In good conscience, I could not. The stakes, for the future of conservatism and for the future of our country, are simply too high.”

The release of the book in August 2017 was a remarkable challenge to a sitting president, from a senator of his own party.

But though it got media attention, the book may have torched Flake’s political future in the GOP. He had already drawn a primary challenge from Kelli Ward, and despite some serious weaknesses in Ward’s background, she led Flake by more than 20 points in two polls — a positively atrocious showing for an incumbent.

In August, Trump tweeted that it was “great” that Ward was challenging Flake, calling him “toxic” and “weak.” It seemed that Flake was headed for a showdown with the president — a showdown he’d likely lose. So he blinked, announcing in October that he wouldn’t seek reelection.

“There may not be a place for a Republican like me in the current Republican climate or the current Republican Party,” Flake told the Arizona Republic. “The path that I would have to travel to get the Republican nomination is a path I’m not willing to take, and that I can’t in good conscience take.”

And there has continued to be no love lost between Flake and Trump afterward — particularly after Flake said he hadn’t ruled out challenging Trump for the presidency in 2020.

Flake hasn’t used his senatorial powers much to challenge Trump — until now

Win McNamee/Getty

Despite Flake’s extremely strongly worded criticism of President Trump, and despite the fact that he held a great deal of potential power as a member of the US Senate when Republicans have a slim majority, Flake has been hesitant to use that power to cause President Trump any problems.

HIs defense, of course, is that he is a conservative and won’t abandon conservative policies just because Trump happens to be president. Temperamentally, he doesn’t want to be an obstructionist either.

The upshot is that he hasn’t really tried to use his powers in more creative ways to take on Trump — for instance, by withholding his support on some important issues to try to win concessions from the administration on others. (He talked tough on the tax reform bill but ended up basically caving for not much in return.)

As a result, many critics on the left dismissed Flake’s concerns about Trump as inconsequential posturing — and expected his professed openness to hearing out Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations about Brett Kavanaugh would be more of the same. Kavanaugh had sterling conservative credentials, after all.

And indeed, Flake said little at Thursday’s Senate Judiciary Committee, limiting his comments to a brief statement that there will always be “doubt” about what happened decades ago. Just hours later, he announced that although he found Ford’s testimony “compelling,” he also found Kavanaugh “persuasive” and would vote to confirm Kavanaugh.

But on Friday morning, a group of sexual assault survivors confronted Flake while he was in a Senate building elevator. “You’re telling all women that they don’t matter,” one protester urged him, her voice shaking. “That they should just stay quiet because if they tell you what happened to them, you’re going to ignore them. That’s what happened to me, and that’s what you’re telling all women in America!”

Flake seemed shaken.

The Judiciary Committee vote on Kavanaugh was scheduled for 1:30 pm Eastern, and Kavanaugh was expected to sail through. But shortly beforehand, buzz began to circulate among senators and staffers present that something was up — and soon, the word spread that it involved Flake.

What seems to have happened is that Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), whom Flake has a close relationship with, urged him to ask for a delay of just one week, for a brief FBI investigation. And enough swing senators agreed to back Flake’s demand — and the accompanying suggestion that he’d vote against Kavanaugh on the floor until he got it — that Republican leaders agreed.

Flake voted to approve Kavanaugh’s nomination in the Judiciary Committee, and said afterward that he’s still prepared to vote for him on the floor. But he seems to be hoping that an FBI inquiry will help legitimize the process.

Many conservatives were furious with Flake for siding with Democrats — former Trump administration official Sebastian Gorka called him “such a coward.” But by the end of the day, the president had instructed the FBI to look into the allegations. The implications for Kavanaugh’s nomination remain unclear, but Flake, at long last, had achieved something: a week-long delay.