MANCHESTER, New Hampshire—Sen. Jeff Flake, at the center of a bitter confirmation battle over President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, reiterated that if Brett Kavanaugh lied to the Senate Judiciary Committee “it would be disqualifying.”
The Republican lawmaker from Arizona said he and some of his colleagues on the panel “were troubled” by Kavanaugh’s “partisan rhetoric” during a blockbuster hearing last Thursday, when the federal appeals court judge defended himself as he forcefully denied multiple allegations of sexual harassment. Flake added that Kavanaugh should be afforded “some leeway.”
Flake made his comments while answering reporters’ questions after delivering an address Monday evening on political tribalism that he said “is tearing the country apart.” The possible primary challenger to President Donald Trump spoke at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics, a must stop for White House hopefuls.
On Friday, Flake voted to recommend Kavanaugh’s confirmation out of the Judiciary Committee, but said he wouldn’t vote for the nominee on the Senate floor without an FBI probe into the sexual assault and miscount allegations against the nominee.
Lacking the votes to confirm Kavanaugh, Senate Republican leaders agreed hours later to allow the FBI to conduct a “supplemental” background investigation into the multiple claims against the president’s high court nominee, which would delay for at least a week any final full Senate confirmation vote on the federal appeals court judge.
Flake joked at the beginning of his speech that “I've always heard that Saint Anselm (College) was a safe place, populated by calm, reasonable people. I'm counting on this today, you have no idea.”
Turning serious, he said “the left was enraged because I failed to behave exactly as they wanted me to behave. They wanted me to prejudice the testimony against Brett Kavanaugh. The right was enraged because I had similarly failed to prejudice the testimony against Christine Ford. I had failed my tribe. I’ve been failing my tribe for quite some time now.”
Later, Flake told reporters he would vote against Kavanaugh“if there’s evidence that comes back that corroborates Christine Ford’s story, then all of us will look at it that way. That’s why we’re doing the investigation. I’m going to keep an open mind on this and I’m glad we’re having the investigation.”
Christine Blasey Ford, who testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday that she was “100 percent certain" that Kavanaugh drunkenly sexually assaulted her during a high school party in the summer of 1982, is being questioned by the FBI as part of their investigation. So is Deborah Ramirez, who claims Kavanaugh exposed himself to her when they were both inebriated at a party in college.
While denying the allegations, Kavanaugh acknowledged drinking beer as a youth. Democrats have raised questions about his temperament and whether he was lying about the extent of his use of alcohol.
Flake said if Kavanaugh was found to be misleading on how much he drank, “that’s a little tougher, more fungible answer I think as to how what drinking in excess means. But if he lied on particular things that is demonstrable, then that is disqualifying.”
Flake also downplayed Kavanaugh’s angry tone while defending himself last week, saying “when you feel you’ve been unjustly accused, then you’re going to be angry. And he was and so I think you have to give some leeway to that.”
Kavanaugh, in his testimony, slammed the allegations as part of “a calculated and orchestrated political hit” against him by Democrats.
“I think all of us were troubled by that time, that partisan rhetoric. But you give a little leeway,” Flake said. “We don’t want to politicize the court... We’ve got to get away from that.”
Asked by The Daily Beast if he was thinking of the late John McCain, his longtime friend and Senate colleague from Arizona, as he created a firestorm on Friday, Flake said, “You bet.”
“John was always a mentor to men and he always talked about due process in particular and regular order. I don’t want to say what he would have done but I thought that the Senate needed more time and that would be good. I was really thinking of two institutions, the Senate and the court. And both, I think, needed to pause, where the ultimate nominee, if he makes it through, would have more legitimacy on the court. It will be a better situation,” he added.
Flake spoke in New Hampshire after an appearance in Boston at a Forbes Under 30 Summit. At a nearby rally that drew hundreds to Boston City Hall, progressive protesters urged Flake to block Kavanaugh’s confirmation. There was a similar, smaller demonstration later in the day outside the New Hampshire Institute of Politics.
Flake’s stop in New Hampshire was his second this year in the state that holds the first primary in the race for the White House, sparking more speculation regarding his presidential ambitions.
The vocal critic of the president, who’s retiring at the end of the year rather than run for re-election to the Senate, downplayed talk of a primary challenge against Trump, saying that he’s “not really thinking about that. There’s too much going on in Washington now.”
But he didn’t close the door. Asked by The Daily Beast if he’d be returning to New Hampshire, he said, “We’ll see.”
Another vocal Republican critic of the president, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, will also be paying his second visit to New Hampshire this year when he returns a week after November’s midterm election.
Kasich said during his spring trip to the Granite State that “all my options are on the table.”
If the president faces competition from within the GOP, New Hampshire will likely be ground zero.
“Clearly, if you’re going to challenge Trump, New Hampshire’s the state to do it,” said David Carney, a nationally known but Granite State-based GOP consultant who’s a veteran of numerous presidential campaigns.
Both Ronald Reagan—in his 1976 challenge against President Gerald Ford—and conservative commentator Pat Buchanan—who took on President George H.W. Bush in 1992—gave the incumbents major scares in the GOP primary in New Hampshire.
Longtime GOP consultant Tom Rath, a former state attorney general who advised Kasich in 2016, said every incumbent needs to watch his back.
“History teaches us that no incumbent president should ever feel comfortable with their standing in the New Hampshire primary and you should never assume anything,” Rath said. “Pat Buchanan nearly ambushed President George H.W. Bush here.”
Jim Merrill, another nationally known Republican strategist who’s based in the Granite State, predicted that “if a primary challenge comes, a credible one, it will happen here in New Hampshire. And it will do better than people expect.
"Not only does the size of the state make it easy to work in, the media market makes it easy to work in,” explained Merrill, a veteran of the 2004 President George W. Bush re-election campaign, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, and Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 White House bid.
He also pointed to New Hampshire’s open-style primary that allows independents to vote in either Republican or Democratic contests.
“The president’s had his struggle with independent voters, so a Republican candidate looking to make inroads would do well to look at New Hampshire,” Merrill said.
Trump easily won the 2016 New Hampshire GOP primary, launching him toward the Republican presidential nomination and eventually the White House. He finished nearly 20 points ahead of Kasich, who came in second. But Trump took down a divided opposition, thanks to a large field of candidates.
That likely won’t be the case in 2020, when a sitting president may face just one or two party challengers. And Trump wouldn’t be the blank slate of 2016—he now has a record in the White House.
“I do think by the virtue of it being a smaller field and there now being a record to run on or run against, a candidate could conceivably do better here than in 2016,” said Merrill.
Forty percent of state Republican voters would welcome a primary challenge, according to a poll released in August by the Republican-leaning New Hampshire Journal, while 47 percent said it would be a bad idea.
But Michael Dennehy doesn’t buy those numbers. The veteran New Hampshire GOP consultant who served as a leading adviser on presidential campaigns for John McCain and Rick Perry took to Twitter to argue that “Flake/Kasich can’t win running to the left of Trump. Buchanan/Reagan ran on conservative platforms.”
And Carney charged that potential primary challengers haven’t yet found a doctrine that appeals to fellow Republicans.
“They’re fumbling around for a message. They don’t really have a coherent message,” he said.
Steve Duprey, a longtime RNC member from New Hampshire, a former state GOP chair, and a top adviser on both of McCain’s presidential campaigns, pointed out that “to mount an effective campaign would take substantial resources and a plausible case on how you would win… At this juncture those are daunting hurdles.”