Corker to wield his clout against Trump

With Flake on panel, se­na­tor can re­shape for­eign pol­icy

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY GUY TAY­LOR

President Trump has dubbed him “Lid­dle Bob Corker” on Twit­ter, but the Ten­nessee Repub­li­can still wields big­time in­flu­ence over Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy.

While the re­cent crit­i­cism of Mr. Trump from Mr. Corker and from Sen. Jeff Flake — both long­time mod­er­ate Repub­li­cans and both on their way out at the end of next year — might seem like gar­den-va­ri­ety the­atrics from two lame-duck law­mak­ers, Capi­tol Hill sources say the im­pli­ca­tions are deep.

Mr. Corker heads the Se­nate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee, of which Mr. Flake is a mem­ber, and has sug­gested he in­tends to use the panel as a fo­rum in the com­ing months to air con­cerns about Mr. Trump’s lead­er­ship on a range of fronts, in­clud­ing Iran, North Korea, Rus­sia and the Mid­dle East.

“The com­mit­tee is go­ing to be very ac­tive,” Mr. Corker told re­porters last week be­fore an­nounc­ing plans to hold a se­ries of hear­ings, which could gen­er­ate head­lines that dam­age the pub­lic’s view of Mr. Trump.

“It’s go­ing to be a very ro­bust pe­riod of time,” Mr. Corker said. And it all starts last, when Sec­re­tary of State Rex W. Tiller­son and De­fense Sec­re­tary James Mat­tis ap­pear be­fore the com­mit­tee for ques­tion­ing over the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s “per­spec­tive” on war pow­ers and whether Congress ought to re­vise the Au­tho­riza­tion for Use of Mil­i­tary Force, which was passed in the wake of the 9/11 ter­ror­ist at­tacks.

“I think it will be very in­for­ma­tive to the Amer­i­can peo­ple and to the rest of the Se­nate about what pow­ers the president has, should [and] shouldn’t have,” said Mr. Corker.

He also sits on the Se­nate Bud­get Com­mit­tee, where his long-held an­tid­eficit pos­ture could af­fect the president’s tax cut plan. But Mr. Corker’s com­ments on Mr. Trump’s mil­i­tary and for­eign pol­icy “pow­ers” were par­tic­u­larly omi­nous given his chair­man role on the For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee.

A war of words be­tween the men has es­ca­lated since early this month, when Mr. Trump ac­cused Mr. Corker of re­tir­ing from the Se­nate be­cause the president re­fused to en­dorse him for a third term. Mr. Corker re­sponded by call­ing the White House “an adult day care cen­ter” where Mr. Trump had to be mon­i­tored closely lest he un­leash in­cen­di­ary tweets.

The president then re­ferred to the se­na­tor in a tweet as “Lid­dle Bob Corker” af­ter Mr. Corker told The New York Times that Mr. Trump’s con­duct “would have to con­cern any­one who cares about our na­tion” and that the president’s un­bri­dled threats to other coun­tries could set the U.S. “on the path to World War III.”

Re­la­tions be­tween the two men have changed dra­mat­i­cally since last year, when Mr. Corker was ru­mored to be on Mr. Trump’s short list for sec­re­tary of state nom­i­nees.

Where Mr. Corker will take the dis­cus­sion next re­mains to be seen. Se­nate hear­ings, par­tic­u­larly those re­lat­ing to for­eign pol­icy, tend to veer to­ward what­ever ter­ri­tory a given com­mit­tee chair­man and his al­lies deem wor­thy.

Capi­tol Hill sources say Mr. Corker is likely to tem­per his state­ments in pub­lic but is poised to work be­hind the scenes to­ward pur­su­ing his own for­eign pol­icy agenda re­gard­less of whether it matches that of the president.

It could mean stalling Mr. Trump’s plan to re­verse Washington’s com­mit­ment to the Obama-era Iran nu­clear ac­cord and pres­sur­ing the president to fol­low through on re­cently passed leg­is­la­tion call­ing for harsher sanc­tions against Rus­sia.

On the North Korea front, Mr. Trump has yet to ap­point an as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of state for East Asian af­fairs or a U.S. am­bas­sador to South Korea. Both po­si­tions re­quire a sig­noff by the For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee.

Mr. Corker showed his dis­taste for Mr. Trump’s pro­posed cuts to the 2018 State Depart­ment bud­get, assert­ing in June that it would be “a waste of time” to se­ri­ously con­sider the cuts. In Septem­ber, the Se­nate Ap­pro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee ap­proved a depart­ment bud­get of about $51 bil­lion, some 20 per­cent more than Mr. Trump wanted.

While all that hangs in the back­drop, how­ever, Mr. Corker has claimed that his prob­lems with Mr. Trump won’t im­pact the com­mit­tee’s busi­ness. “My re­la­tion­ship with the president is not rel­e­vant,” the se­na­tor said on MSNBC last week. “I’m deal­ing with the prin­ci­pals who con­duct for­eign pol­icy, and I hope that, more and more, he’ll leave th­ese is­sues to them.”

Mr. Flake, mean­while, has said nei­ther he nor Mr. Corker will al­low his crit­i­cism of the president to spill into the hear­ings. “Bob, he’s straight up,” Mr. Flake said, ac­cord­ing to USA Today. “He does what he thinks is right. I’d like to think I’ll do the same.

“Our views on for­eign pol­icy are known,” the se­na­tor added. “We’re con­cerned about in­sta­bil­ity. And ob­vi­ously, we want ef­fec­tive for­eign pol­icy. I think we have some is­sues there. But they are not borne out of an­i­mus for the president or be­cause we dis­agree with the president. It’s just the way we feel.”

Mr. Flake made his com­ments af­ter his own an­nounce­ment last week that he will not be seek­ing re-elec­tion next year. The Ari­zona Repub­li­can stunned Washington with a sober­ing speech in which he sharply crit­i­cized Mr. Trump.

The se­na­tor ac­cused the president of en­gag­ing in ir­re­spon­si­ble and dam­ag­ing state­ments, in­clud­ing per­son­al­ized Twit­ter at­tacks against mem­bers of his own party that have amounted to a “degra­da­tion” of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics.

“Reck­less, out­ra­geous and undig­ni­fied be­hav­ior has be­come ex­cused and coun­te­nanced as telling it like it is when it is ac­tu­ally just reck­less, out­ra­geous and undig­ni­fied,” said Mr. Flake, who ac­knowl­edged that other Repub­li­cans may frown on his at­tack on the president.

“I’m aware that there’s a seg­ment of my party that be­lieves that any­thing short of com­plete and un­ques­tion­ing loy­alty to a president who be­longs to my party is un­ac­cept­able and sus­pect,” he said, be­fore adding that “the no­tion that one should stay silent … as the al­liances and agree­ments that en­sure the sta­bil­ity of the en­tire world are rou­tinely threat­ened … is ahis­toric and, I be­lieve, pro­foundly mis­guided.”

The se­na­tor’s ref­er­ence to for­eign “al­liances and agree­ments” were read by some as an in­di­ca­tion of his readi­ness to take a stand against Mr. Trump on the For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Sen. Bob Corker, Ten­nesee Repub­li­can, heads the Se­nate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee, of which Sen. Jeff Flake, Ari­zona Repub­li­can, is a mem­ber, and has sug­gested he in­tends to use the panel as a fo­rum in the com­ing months to air con­cerns about President Trump’s lead­er­ship on a range of fronts, in­clud­ing Iran, North Korea, Rus­sia and the Mid­dle East.

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