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Jeff Flake and the Do-Nothing Legacy of the “Never Trump” Republican

In all likelihood, Brett Kavanaugh will be confirmed by the Senate and the Arizona senator’s pleas for an investigation will have been only an empty gesture. It’s a fitting final act in an ineffectual political career.

A photo illustration of Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, looking sad, in front of the Capitol Building Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Thursday morning—after five days of harried investigation—the FBI provided the U.S. Senate with findings from the agency’s supplemental background check for President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh.

Senate Democrats had begged the White House to launch the FBI investigation all throughout Kavanaugh’s final day of testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, during which Dr. Christine Blasey Ford detailed her account of Kavanaugh sexually assaulting her. But the White House agreed to request the investigation only after Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, joined the committee’s Democrats in calling for an FBI investigation to follow up on Dr. Ford’s testimony. In the following week, the FBI interviewed the most elusive and crucial witness, Kavanaugh’s childhood friend, Mark Judge, who Ford said took part in the alleged assault; but the agency reportedly avoided other key witnesses. Ultimately, the FBI investigation is set to stall the final Senate floor vote for only four extra days; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has scheduled a floor vote to confirm Kavanaugh for Saturday, and the GOP majority will most likely vault Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

Kavanaugh’s confirmation process has been a gruesome and demoralizing spectacle. From the start—even before Dr. Ford’s account about Kavanaugh leaked from Congress to the press—the Senate Democrats opposed Kavanaugh with a fervor that they spared Trump’s previous Supreme Court appointee, Neil Gorsuch. In light of Dr. Ford’s allegations, Kavanaugh’s nomination has become a prevailing and polarizing concern among likely voters in the upcoming midterm elections—a contest in which Republicans are expected to lose control of the House and, quite possibly, the Senate. But Republicans are surprisingly excited to defend Kavanaugh. Lindsey Graham sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee; he opposed Trump rather loudly throughout the 2016 presidential election, but he’s supported Trump’s Supreme Court nominee just as dramatically in the final stages of Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Graham has accused the Senate Democrats—and, presumably, Dr. Ford, among Kavanaugh’s other accusers—of character assassination. Following Graham’s angry defense of Kavanaugh during the committee’s final day of hearings, Trump delighted a rally by mocking Dr. Ford’s imperfect recollection of Judge and Kavanaugh’s alleged sexual assault. The formal pretense of concern and fairness has disintegrated. Kavanaugh, a former Bush administration staffer, is an inalienable member of the Republican tribe.

Briefly, Jeff Flake threatened to defect. He professed his support for Kavanaugh in the hours after the judge’s climactic testimony, but Dr. Ford’s account did ultimately force Flake to reconsider. The morning after Dr. Ford and Kavanaugh both testified before the committee, protestors cornered the sullen, muttering Flake in an elevator and pleaded for the senator to take Dr. Ford’s testimony seriously. The cable news footage of this confrontation quickly went viral. Hours later, Flake sulked into the camera-filled committee room and offered his support for a minimal, time-limited delay.

Flake is the senior U.S. senator from Arizona, an ambivalent man standing rather conspicuously in the shadow of the late John McCain. A year ago, Flake declined to seek re-election, citing congressional “complicity” in an “alarming and dangerous state of affairs,” originating in a vague, undated malaise but certainly culminating with Trump’s presidency. For the first couple years of Trump’s presidency, Flake and others have played the Good Republican: a supposedly vital, but endangered breed of American conservative who resents and criticizes Trump for disgracing their political party, their intellectual tradition, and white American men, in general. Flake—a previously unremarkable GOP senator—has made a name for himself by threatening rebellion, or at the very least, a stern lecture, in moments such as this. So, too, has Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, another Republican who has used the Senate as a platform to denounce Trump despite voting consistently in support for his political program. “I urged the president to nominate a woman,” Sasse stressed before pledging his support for Kavanaugh. Flake, at least, posed a substantial threat to Kavanaugh’s nomination; he exposed Trump’s embattled, precarious nominee to a few more days of scrutiny from federal investigators and award-winning reporters. In turn, Trump didn’t attack Flake. He simply waited for Flake’s courage to fade, as it always does, as it inevitably would.

The FBI gambit has brought all such languishing among Republicans to a pitiful end. On Thursday, Flake and his fellow GOP holdouts, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, praised the FBI’s “thorough” investigation and said that the confidential findings include no “corroboration” for Dr. Ford’s account of Kavanaugh’s alleged assault. Meanwhile, The New York Times published a column by Bret Stephens—a so-called “Never Trump” Republican—characterizing Trump’s unwavering support for Kavanaugh, including his ridicule of Dr. Ford, as invaluable leadership for the conservative movement. “I’m grateful because Trump has not backed down in the face of the slipperiness, hypocrisy and dangerous standard-setting deployed by opponents of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court,” Stephens writes. “I’m grateful because ferocious and even crass obstinacy has its uses in life, and never more so than in the face of sly moral bullying.”

So Trump’s bullying becomes defensive and righteous, according to Stephens’s disordered thinking. Dr. Ford has told her story about Kavanaugh, and conservatives, such as Stephens and Graham, are obliged to “believe” Dr. Ford while insisting that the opposition to Kavanaugh’s nomination amounts to “bullying,” the bullies being a Democratic minority in the U.S. Senate.

The Never Trump coalition folded. Kavanaugh’s inevitability resumed. This dreary reconciliation is what political analysts, discussing the final weeks before an election, would generally describe as wary or disgruntled voters “coming home” to their respective parties. In the week since Kavanaugh’s apoplectic testimony, national polls have closed the enthusiasm gap between Democratic voters, favored to gain congressional seats in the midterm elections, and Republican voters, eager to avenge their embattled president, the Republican Party’s living martyr. Flake won the news cycle. Kavanaugh won his seat. Once again, Trump won the interminable war.