An early Republican Trump critic feels vindicated
Forgive Bob Corker if he sounds like he’s going to say, “I told you so.”
The former senator was lonely as a Republican critic of President Donald Trump, beginning in 2017. While most GOP lawmakers kept quiet about their concerns, Corker warned the White House had become an “adult daycare” and that Trump’s Cabinet members “help separate our country from chaos.” He even held a hearing to scrutinize the president’s power to use nuclear weapons.
Corker retired rather than run for a third term in 2018 amid a feud with Trump and potentially tough primary. But after a flood of GOP condemnation of Trump for inciting a deadly riot at the Capitol, the Tennessee Republican says he’s been vindicated.
“Nobody’s perfect. You don’t ever have all of the information. But I think I’ve been validated,” said Corker. “My observations about his character and his conduct certainly have been validated, unfortunately, with people’s lives being lost. And our country appearing to be run by a tin pot dictator to people around the world.”
Now with Trump on his way out and the GOP reckoning with Trumpism, Corker isn’t ruling out another run for office. He said that he has completed his self-imposed two-year sabbatical from public life, though his two terms in the Senate were enough to satisfy his desire to legislate.
His state’s governorship is up in 2022, and obviously a wide-open presidential primary waits in 2024. Corker has never considered challenging Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R), according to a source familiar with his thinking.
“Republicans are going to have to have a real debate about who they are going to be,” he said. “The Republican Party has been a party of adults, and people who make tough decisions. Obviously, that hasn’t been the case in recent times.”
Corker also sees a potential silver-lining to this week’s chaos. It was costly, Corker said, but now the president has been exposed in a way that will shrink his political influence permanently.
It allowed “his true character [to be] revealed in a way that hopefully will diminish his impact on our country in the future,” Corker said. “So that is the one plus that comes out of this. People have been able to see firsthand what all of us have known, just who he really is.”
Corker says he doesn’t regret his “last-second” vote for Trump in 2016 given the choice he had at the time between Trump and Hillary Clinton. He says he did not support Trump or Joe Biden in 2020, choosing to write in “someone who I thought had most fully represented, from my standpoint, the kind of person that I thought ought to be president.”
Corker has not been as outspoken over the last two years as former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, another Republican who criticized the president during the first two years of his administration. But both had something in common: the sense that they and the other handful of GOP Trump critics were outliers in their own party, particularly before Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) was elected as a stern counterweight to Trump. Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) also kept their distance from Trump and were among the few Trump critics.
But after criticizing the president so directly, neither Corker nor Flake ran for reelection.
“There wasn’t any support whatsoever,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who was one of the few Democrats that tried to work with Trump. “I give Bob credit for speaking out. Bob did speak out. And Bob tried to do the best he could from a very disadvantaged situation. Because Trump still had the support of the people.”
Corker was considered by Trump as a potential secretary of State and vice president, but withdrew from contention from vice presidential consideration and helped confirm former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson after Trump chose him to be his top diplomat. Corker praised Trump’s foreign policy instincts in late 2016.
The rift between Corker and Trump began in 2017 after Trump defended white supremacists rallying in Charlottesville, Va. From there the feud deepened into Trump attacking Corker as a “lightweight” and “incompetent” as chairman, and Corker contending that Trump could start “World War Three.”
In explaining his vote for Trump in 2016, Corker described an evolution of how he saw Trump the candidate compared to Trump the president. He said Trump at first seemed like a pro wrestling character telling people what they wanted to hear, but ended up as “a crude demagogue.” Of course, many saw Trump that way from the moment he lashed out at Mexican immigrants the day he declared his candidacy.
But Trump’s most damaging rhetoric is now certainly his post-election refusal to admit defeat, which few Republicans initially spoke out against. Many in the GOP took more than a month to acknowledge Biden’s win. Some only recognized Biden as the next president this month.
“You realize in a republic as mature as ours, you can still have someone like this who tells the public non-truths, [people] believe and follow him,” Corker said. “I wish there have been much greater pushback. I’m glad to see it taking place now.”
Corker had previously said he was was “saddened” after some senators, including Sens. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who succeeded him, and new Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.) had a plan to “undermine democracy” by objecting to Biden’s Electoral College win. But he praised Blackburn and Hagerty when they reversed course after the riot.
Most Democrats and some Republicans want to remove Trump from office now, whether it’s through impeachment or invoking the 25th Amendment. Echoing concerns Corker hinted at in his 2017 Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has spoken to the military out of worry about Trump having the nuclear codes.
Even as a top Trump critic and someone who is currently not facing the prospect of a political campaign, Corker doesn’t think the president’s immediate ouster is necessary: “No military officer is going to carry out some crazy command that he might offer.”
“We’re at a weak moment in our country, and certainly foreign adversaries, if they wish to do something over the next 14 days we’re in a weakened place. I don’t think that happens,” Corker said. “If we can somehow survive [until Jan. 20] without doing anything else that undercuts our nation, and undercuts our democracy, I think we’re better off just letting him ease on out of here. Never to return again.”