Moments after pivotal Sen. Jeff Flake announced his support for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, the Arizona Republican was confronted with the consequences.
Two women cornered Flake as he got on an elevator Friday, pleading for him to reconsider his support for the appeals court judge who’s been accused of sexual assault when he was a teenager. The raw, emotional moment was caught on television, capturing the charged atmosphere in the Capitol as a lifetime appointment to the nation’s highest court hangs in the balance.
“Look at me and tell me that it doesn’t matter what happened to me,” said 23-year-old Maria Gallagher, reportedly a Northeastern University graduate.
Flake and his colleagues on the Senate Judiciary Committee had heard hours of testimony Thursday from Christine Blasey Ford, a California psychology professor who told them Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her decades ago. Kavanaugh strongly denied the allegation.
Flake had lobbied Republican leaders to give Ford the chance to speak. He was viewed as a possible “no” vote, until the Friday announcement.
But the Capitol confrontation may have made an impact. Flake, at a committee hearing Friday afternoon, asked for a week delay in the Senate’s consideration of Kavanaugh so the FBI to investigate.
Gallagher said in a tweet that she felt relieved that Flake seemed to have heard her. “We absolutely need an FBI investigation for him and all Senators to vote NO,” she tweeted.
Flake was later asked whether the elevator confrontation swayed him.
“I can say this whole process has affected all of us,” he said. “I can’t pinpoint anything to say this is what caused me to come today to say let’s postpone.”
He said it was “remarkable” the number of people who saw Ford and “were emboldened to come out and say what had happened to them. I’ve heard from close friends and I had no idea. That’s important.”
Flake was on his way to the morning hearing when the two women, both affiliated with advocacy groups, told him they were sexual assault survivors.
“On Monday, I stood in front of your office,” Ana Maria Archila, co-executive director of the nonprofit Center for Popular Democracy Action, told Flake. “I told the story of my sexual assault. I told it because I recognized in Dr. Ford’s story that she is telling the truth. What you are doing is allowing someone who actually violated a woman to sit on the Supreme Court.”
Archila, 39, appeared to block Flake from closing the elevator door.
Then Gallagher said: “I was sexually assaulted and nobody believed me. I didn’t tell anyone, and you’re telling all women that they don’t matter, that they should just stay quiet because if they tell you what happened to them you are going to ignore them.”
“That’s what happened to me, and that’s what you are telling all women in America, that they don’t matter,” she said through tears.
She begged Flake to look her in the eye. “Don’t look away from me,” she said.
Flake, cornered in the elevator, shifted between looking at them and looking down. He said, “Thank you,” but didn’t response to questions on whether he believed Ford’s testimony.
When a reporter asked whether he wanted to respond to the women’s questions, he said no.
“I need to go to the hearing. I just issued a statement. I’ll be saying more as well,” he said.
The elevator doors closed.
Flake voted to advance Kavanaugh’s nomination from the committee to the full Senate, but announced he wanted to delay a confirmation vote a week in order to let the FBI investigate.
He said he had been speaking with Democrats “to making sure that we do due diligence here.”
President Donald Trump later agreed to order the FBI to open a supplemental background investigation into Kavanaugh that would be completed in a week.
The women do not identify themselves in the video, but Archila’s group sent a press release following the confrontation confirming it was Archila speaking on camera. Gallagher confirmed via phone to The Associated Press that it was her, and she consented to the use of her name.
The AP does not usually name people who say they are victims of sexual assault unless they come forward publicly about the allegations, as these women have done.
Speaking to the AP by phone after the confrontation, Gallagher said she didn’t intend to tell Flake about her assault — she had never told anyone before. “But I saw him, and I got really angry,” she said.
She was in town as a volunteer with the liberal activist group Make the Road New York. She said she was on her way to talk with her family, because she worried they were seeing what happened to her in the news.
Archila told the AP that she was sexually assaulted when she was 5 years old by a teenager when she and her family lived in Colombia. She said she didn’t tell anyone before this week.
“I had planned to just talk to him nicely, but once when I saw that he was voting for Kavanaugh my niceties went out the window,” she said. “What are you doing to our country? You are sending the wrong message you’re saying that all of us who put our pain to the world to confront don’t matter.”
After hearing about Flake’s request, she said the sequence of events suggested their conversation helped move him.
“What it tells me is that telling our stories and showing up can actually change their minds,” she said.