Corker uncorked: GOP senator’s spat with Trump could have long-term implications

Sen. Bob Corker is speaking his mind more forcefully than ever before now that he’s leaving office next year.

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In a public spat that just keeps getting uglier, President Trump and retiring Sen. Bob Corker from Tennessee had harsh words for each other on social media. Corker went even further in a New York Times interview.
USA TODAY

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.(Photo: Susan Walsh, AP)

WASHINGTON – Sen. Bob Corker has never been reluctant to speak his mind during his decade in Congress.

As President Trump learned Sunday, the influential Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee can be even more forceful  and, at times, downright biting – now that he’s leaving office at the end of next year and unencumbered by the shackles of electoral politics.

“He has always been blunt,” said Kent Syler, a political scientist at Middle Tennessee State University. But, “since he’s not running for re-election, he is perhaps more uncorked than in the past.”

Uncorked Corker let loose Sunday against Trump after the president lashed out at him during a series of early morning Tweets.

Trump claimed among other things that Corker begged for his endorsement and then decided not to run again when he said no.

Corker hit back hard – at first, on Twitter.

“It’s a shame the White House has become an adult day care center,” the senator tweeted. “Someone obviously missed their shift this morning.”

Corker was even more biting later Sunday when, in an interview with The New York Times, he warned that Trump’s threats to other countries could set the U.S. “on the path to World War III.” Corker also said the former reality show host approaches the presidency as if he were still doing “The Apprentice” and regularly tweets statements that everyone knows aren’t true.

The public spat between the Republican president and the Republican senator is just the latest sign of how much their relationship has worsened since last year, when Corker was considered a possible vice presidential running mate for Trump.

It’s also the latest example of the straight-talking approach Corker is taking in his final months in office.

In the two weeks since he announced he won’t run for a third term, Corker has not only feuded with president, he also has proclaimed that three of Trump’s top advisers are keeping the country from falling into chaos. He also has put Senate Republicans on notice that he won’t support any tax reform plan that adds “one penny” to the federal deficit.

More: Trump blasts Sen. Corker as ‘negative voice’; Corker calls White House ‘adult day care’

More: Sen. Bob Corker stands by Trump criticism, but says White House undergoing ‘transformative’ changes

Trump is hardly the first president to fight with Congress members of his own party.

Franklin Roosevelt went to war with conservative southern Democrats and tried hard to oust them during the 1938 election. Lyndon B. Johnson battled southern Democrats who tried to stand in the way of civil rights reform. Then-Sen. Howard Baker Jr., R-Tenn., was a central figure in the Watergate investigation that led to resignation of Richard Nixon, also a Republican.

For the most part, historians say, past presidents tried to keep their squabbles with lawmakers from their own party private in the interest of party harmony.

Not Trump.

“What’s so striking about this Trump phenomenon to me is how belligerent he is, and how often,” said historian Robert Dallek, who has written books about Roosevelt and other American presidents.

Trump hasn’t even finished his first year in office, and yet “he is locked in kind of a warfare with these senators,” Dallek said. “He has demonstrated, it seems to me, little if any skill in understanding how to manage the Congress. If he can’t get along with his own party leaders in the Senate, how is he going to do it with the Democrats?”

While Johnson battled with southern Democrats, “he didn’t blame them for their votes against civil rights,” said Mark Updegrove, an author, historian and former director of the LBJ Presidential Library.

“LBJ was smart enough to realize you don’t alienate lawmakers because eventually you are going to need them to pass something on your agenda,” Updegrove said. “Even if you disagree with them at a certain point in time, you may need them in the future. So you do your very best to keep those relationships intact. It’s in your interests and it’s in the interests of your party to do that.”

In Trump’s case, he needs Corker more than Corker needs him. With Senate Republicans holding a slim 52-48 majority, the president can’t afford to lose Corker’s vote on issues such as tax reform, immigration and health care.

What’s more, Corker is the Senate’s foreign policy expert at a time when Trump is publicly making threats against North Korea. Given his stature, Corker’s willingness to openly question Trump on foreign policy could provide cover for other Republicans who harbor the same doubts about the president but have so far been unwilling to go public.

More: Sen. Bob Corker will not run for re-election in 2018

More: Sometimes a defender, sometimes a scold: Sen. Bob Corker has President Trump’s ear

Corker’s Tennessee colleague, Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, came to Corker’s defense after his Sunday spat with Trump.

“I work with Bob Corker nearly every day,” Alexander said in a statement Monday. “He is a terrific United States senator, and I’m disappointed he’s decided not to seek re-election.”

Syler sees Corker’s and Alexander’s public push-back as ominous signs about Trump and the state of his presidency.

“I’ve said for a long time, if you want to see how Donald Trump is doing, watch Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander,” Syler said. “They are solid Republicans and not really given to political drama. So they are good gauge for the Trump presidency.”

“If you gauge Bob Corker over the weekend, you would conclude things aren’t going well for the president,” Syler said. “Sen. Corker has been an effective, fairly low-key U.S. senator for (nearly) 11 years. I don’t think he would be saying and doing what he is right now unless he’s concerned.”
 

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