Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware forged their friendship in Africa, thousands of miles away from the divisiveness of Washington.
Both spent formative time there as young men in the early 1980s — Coons studying in Kenya during college, Flake doing his mission for the Mormon church in southern Africa — and they bonded over their shared interest on a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee. They traveled to the continent multiple times together, fighting wildlife trafficking, promoting economic development, spending time with a dictator and even being chased by elephants once in 2016.
Flake, who is retiring from Congress this year, said at an event with Coons in Washington on Tuesday that it was that bipartisan bonding — so rare in the Senate these days — that made it possible for them to come together last week and urge an FBI investigation into sexual assault accusations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. The development delayed Kavanaugh’s final confirmation vote and eased, temporarily, some of the partisan wrath over the nomination.
“We’ve been through a lot,” Flake said, recounting, among other adventures, a four-hour meeting with former Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe and a safari outing gone wrong that led to elephants chasing their vehicle. “And the trust that you develop working with each other on issues like that … that’s how compromises are possible, and there’s less and less of that going on.”
Bipartisan friendships, especially in the Senate, weren’t always so rare. But in 2018, locked in a political fight that could determine the direction of the Supreme Court for a generation, senators have found little reason to reach across the aisle.
Flake’s decision to call for an FBI investigation came a day after an all-day hearing in which California professor Christine Blasey Ford testified that she was sexually assaulted by Kavanaugh in the early 1980s when both were in high school. Kavanaugh also testified, forcefully denying the claim and blaming Democrats.
At a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting the next day, Republicans angrily defended Kavanaugh and some Democrats walked out, protesting a committee vote on Kavanaugh they said was being rushed.
Coons stayed in the room and proposed a one-week delay, in which time an FBI investigation could be conducted. Flake later called it a “sober, rational speech.”
After Coons spoke, Flake walked around the dais, tapped him on the shoulder and motioned into the anteroom, where the two began negotiations. With tight margins in the Senate, Flake had the power to withhold his vote and force an investigation. Republicans and Democrats were in and out of the anteroom, but Flake wanted to talk to Coons, and at one point the two ended up alone in a small phone booth for privacy.
‘It felt real’
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., was an early part of the discussions. She said Flake listened to others, but that his friendship with Coons was a key part of his final decision.
“What I liked about it was that it felt real,” she said of the talks between them.
On Friday, shortly after the deal was announced, Coons teared up talking about Flake, calling him his “role model” and mentioning their trips to Africa. He said then that Flake feels passionately that division in the U.S. “teaches the wrong thing to the world about our democracy, and suggests that we are not able to respect each other or work together.”
Several days later, Coons told The Associated Press that he sees his friendship with Flake as in the mold of two other senators from Delaware and Arizona: former Vice President Joe Biden and the late Republican Sen. John McCain, who died this summer after battling brain cancer. Each served more than three decades in the Senate, and Biden gave a eulogy at one of McCain’s funerals in August.
Coons and Flake attended McCain’s funeral together.
“I am determined, in John’s memory, to try to keep building relationships like that,” Coons said. “And Jeff has been one of the greatest partners I’ve had in my eight years here.”
Coons says he’s emotional about Flake’s decision to retire, which came after differences with President Donald Trump and others in his party. He said he is also struggling with the retirement of Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., with whom he has worked closely, and the death of McCain. All three questioned Trump’s leadership and occasionally bucked their party.
Coons says he has considered not running for re-election in 2020, but “I look forward to considering to serve if I can find legislative partners comparable to Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, whom I will dearly miss.” He noted this year’s Democratic primary in his state, in which longtime Democratic Sen. Tom Carper was challenged from the left. Carper won the race handily, but Coons says he is concerned in some ways about the increasingly divisive direction of politics within his party.
He adds, somewhat jokingly: “No rational person would do this job and say, ‘I’m loving it.’ ”
Trust is key
Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee who has worked closely with the Republican chairman, North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, on the panel’s Russia investigation, says bipartisan relationships are rooted in deep trust.
“I think that’s what Americans want from us, to have these relationships,” Warner said, “It means at some point you have to be willing to show that you aren’t always going to be reflexively for your own team.”
Flake is less certain that voters want to see cooperation. He says there’s no currency, or incentives, to work together in a polarized political climate. He says he is leaving the Senate because he “simply couldn’t run the kind of campaign I figured I’d need to run.”
Speaking of Coons, he said, “The thing I will miss the most about the Senate is relationships like this.”