How Jeff Flake fumbled his way into pulling off the most bizarre trick play in Senate history

Republican Senator Jeff Flake outraged mainstream Americans earlier today when he voted “yes” on Brett Kavanaugh in today’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, and then he managed to simply confuse everyone when he subsequently asked for an FBI investigation into Kavanaugh before the full Senate vote. It was weak, tepid, weird, and yes, flaky. Yet somehow it worked, and the FBI is now going to investigate Kavanaugh. There may have been a lot more to this than Flake merely getting lucky and fumbling his way into the end zone.

Last night it was widely reported that Jeff Flake, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and red state Democrat Joe Manchin held a private meeting. These are four people who, for various reasons, do not want to have to vote on whether to put Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court. Flake would have to vote “yes” in order to avoid alienating the conservative billionaire donors who will fund his post-Senate career. Manchin would have to vote “no” because otherwise he’d be finished in the Democratic Party, but it would hurt his reelection bid in West Virginia. Collins and Murkowski are the two actual swing votes who could go either way, but they would have a hard time getting reelected no matter how they vote.

The common solution for the four of them was to engineer things such that they wouldn’t have to vote in the full Senate at all. So it wasn’t difficult to parse that they were plotting last night to figure out how to prevent a full Senate vote from happening at all. Flake is the only one of the four who’s on the committee, so he was going to be the linchpin.

Was the plan for Flake to vote “yes” in committee and then call for an FBI investigation after he had already given away his best leverage? Probably not, considering that it ended up being a nonsensical series of events. The most logical guess would be that the four of them decided last night that Flake would demand an FBI probe before the committee vote, and the other three would then come out in support of it. Flake then wimped out this morning and voted “yes” after all, but then his mind was changed by a combination of the two courageous women who confronted him in an elevator with the television cameras rolling, and the pleadings of Flake’s close friend, Democratic Senator Chris Coons.

The giveaway was that once Jeff Flake finally did call for an FBI investigation, Lisa Murkowski – who has mostly been doing a good job hiding from reporters this week – suddenly happened to be easily found by reporters, and she immediately threw her weight behind Flake. Manchin then did the same. That’s when Mitch McConnell realized he had a problem, and met with Murkowski and Collins. When McConnell left that meeting, he was on board with the FBI probe, which means Collins and Murkowski were “no” votes unless it happened.

You’re free to assign Jeff Flake and the rest of the Flaky Four as much or as little credit as you think is warranted. And of course we still don’t know if the FBI investigation will rough up Brett Kavanaugh enough to sink his nomination before a full Senate vote can even take place. But what we saw today was nonetheless remarkable. If you’re looking for the heroes of the day, we’d suggest starting with the two women in the elevator.

Bill Palmer is the publisher of the political news outlet Palmer Report

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