Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) talks to reporters at the U.S. Capitol in mid-March 2015. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., still hopes he can get a veto-proof majority for legislation that would require congressional review of any Iran nuclear agreement.
But in an exclusive interview Tuesday with Yahoo News, he expressed concern that recent political “drama” involving Congress and Israel has complicated his path.
Corker did not sign on to a heavily publicized open letter to Iran from freshman Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas that included the names of 46 other GOP senators. And in the interview, he downplayed the influence of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on congressional action toward Iran, even as Netanyahu’s controversial address to Congress — widely seen as an attempt to scuttle an Iran deal — became a partisan spectacle.
The chairman dismissed the lasting impact of these events and saved his sharpest criticism for a White House he views as disengaged.
Corker said that he has tried to work with the administration on the Iran bill, but that the White House — angered by the actions of his Republican colleagues — has balked at participating in a meaningful way. Those actions, he said, could lead the 2016 presidential election to be more defined by foreign policy than the previous two presidential races were.
Two likely GOP presidential hopefuls — Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky — serve on Corker’s committee, and the chairman has to deal with a Republican Party more fractured than ever on foreign policy issues and the role of America in the world.
“It does make it certainly a challenge, but it also makes it interesting,” Corker said of the differing foreign policy worldviews of members like Rubio and Paul. “I think the Republican Party is very diverse on foreign policy right now, as is, I might add, the American electorate.”
Below is Yahoo News’ interview with Corker, edited for clarity and brevity.
Yahoo News: A bombshell Wall Street Journal story says the Israelis penetrated the Iranian talks and shared the information with Congress. Are you in a position to confirm any of that? And if the Israelis did what the Journal says they did, did they act appropriately?
Bob Corker: I have never found them actually to be sharing anything different than was in public sources. As I met with Netanyahu the last time, he said, ”You know, all this is Google-able — Yahoo-able!” For what it’s worth, I get more information about what’s happening from foreign ministers than I do from anyone. Not from Israel — foreign ministers that are part of the negotiating teams.
The White House is upset that foreign governments may be giving information to senators because they’re not? Every time they meet with us and give us information down in the classified SCIF [Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility] — they really do that so that none of you can hear questions that are asked — I never learn anything that I haven’t read about on Yahoo or New York Times or some other place.
In terms of the foreign ministers with whom you’re conversing about these negotiations, are those people who actively sought you out to discuss those things?
I have sometimes picked up the phone and called some of these negotiators. But it’s fascinating how we end up picking up far more information about what’s happening in our own foreign policy than you know the administration shares. And I would say that I’m one of the few people around here that at least attempts to work with them. But the fact is we do get most of our information — the real information, or a lot of it — from other sources. I don’t remember ever getting anything from — [Israeli Ambassador Ron] Dermer has never come over here and shared with me any details of the deal. As a matter of fact, when I read that story, I thought, “Well, hell, why aren’t they coming over and talking to me?”
You have legislation requiring congressional review and a vote on approving any Iran nuclear deal, as well as a 60-day period in which the president would not be able to ease U.S. sanctions. Can you get a veto-proof majority for it?
I don’t know. I think we have a really good chance. We’ve been patient, to let some of the drama [subside] … that’s certainly had an effect. I mean, there’s no question that boom, boom, boom. I had a senator come up to me [and say], “Third strike,” just “I’m sorry, third strike.” And no doubt here were numbers of people who were easily gettable, actually in very high positions on their side of the aisle, easily gettable. And I do think the White House has been able to use a narrative of, you know, “Look, this is all about embarrassing the president.” And so we’ve been patient to let some of the drama that’s occurred get into the rearview mirror a little bit more fully.
We, with [Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Robert] Menendez, agreed just to go ahead and set it up the Tuesday that we get back from recess so they don’t try to mess with us anymore.
You were saying that the White House is pushing a narrative that what Republicans have done in Congress is designed to embarrass him. Was there no political intent?
No, what they’re saying is this effort, this bill, is only there to embarrass him. I can’t speak to the other.
Do you think that your work on this bill, though, was affected by those previous actions?
There’s been a lot of drama. There’s been drama, and there’s been certainly a lot of passion and emotion around this. We’ve had to stay focused on our end goal, which is to create a situation where Congress plays its rightful role.
Corker outlines a bill requiring congressional review of any comprehensive nuclear agreement that Obama reaches with Iran. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
Some of your colleagues are clearly listening to Prime Minister Netanyahu more than they are listening to the administration, for a range of reasons. I wonder whether you think that, when it comes to this Congress, Netanyahu has a de facto veto over the nuclear negotiations.
No! Actually, I don’t get that sense. I don’t get that sense at all. Let me put it this way: I can only judge by what’s happening in the Senate. But I just don’t see that at all. I’ve had disagreements, well, I’m just going to drop it there. I just don’t think he’s influenced — I think that people want to play a role. I mean if you look at what happened, he was actually pressing for Kirk-Menendez to be voted on prior to the deal happening. It didn’t happen, did it?
Will the American embargo on Cuba outlive Fidel Castro, or will Fidel Castro outlive the American embargo on Cuba?
I have no idea.
Have there been any conversations here on Capitol Hill about taking steps to ease the embargo? Or are we in a holding pattern?
We’re in a holding pattern. I think people are trying to digest, you know, the meetings that have been taking place…. Most of us are just watching and trying to discern what kind of behavior changes are actually going to be taking place in Cuba. And there’s been zero discussions, at any level that matters, regarding the embargo lifting.
We’re starting to hear that 2016 is going to be an election cycle focused on foreign policy. Do you see that as an accurate read of where the politics are right now?
It looks to me like foreign policy is really going to be one of the central issues.… And especially how you look at this particular issue we were talking about before, the Iran deal. I just don’t get why the administration doesn’t just sit down and really embrace … Congress being able to say grace over this. What I think is going to happen is, if they do a deal, and they press forward and go straight to the U.N. Security Council, and basically say, “I’m sorry, Congress, you’re going to play no role,” I think it’s going to end up being a central issue in this presidential campaign.
And like so many issues they’ve been involved in, it ends up being even more unresolved than it was before, if that makes any sense. If you look at the health care … or immigration, I just think that the way that they’re handling things may cause foreign policy to be one of the central issues.
Foreign policy is traditionally one of the issues senators like to run on to contrast themselves to governors. But the thing is, this crop of GOP senators now, they have a very diverse worldview on foreign policy. As someone who is in charge of trying to shape the Republican message on foreign policy in some way, do you see that as a complication?
It’s a great challenge. You know, people a year ago were asking me, “Corker, what is the Republican policy on [these issues]?” And I said, “Are you kidding me? I’ve got John McCain and Rand Paul and you’re asking me for the Republican position?” John’s now off the committee, but Rubio, who looks very likely … to run, he and John actually have very similar positions. You’ve got Rand in a different place. It does make it certainly a challenge, but it also makes it interesting. I think the Republican Party is very diverse on foreign policy right now, as is, I might add, the American electorate.
Where do you fall personally on that spectrum between McCain and Paul?
I am very much a pragmatist. I certainly believe that American exceptionalism is real, but I also realize there’s a limit to our military capabilities to solve all problems. There’s a limit to our military strength. I look at each of these issues and try to come to a very pragmatic place relative to what our national interests are. So I get along well with all of these folks, and there are certain things that I agree with, but I don’t think it would be appropriate to say that I’m in the middle. Because “in the middle” would mean you don’t agree with either side.
Others are characterizing the debate on the authorization of use of military force (AUMF) legislation as “on life support” — what is your assessment of where we are in this debate? Can this ever pass Congress?
So first of all, purposefully, we’re trying to focus on Iran right now because that might actually affect an outcome, right? And I think what you want to do around here is focus on those things where you’re affecting a result. I know there are a lot of people around here that, well — to me, the value of being a United States senator is to end up producing outcomes that are good for our country. And so right now we have that chance with Iran. If you look at the AUMF, it’s not going to affect a single thing on the ground. Nothing. Nothing. OK? So the outcome is that Congress has played its appropriate role. There are many, many people — every single witness that the administration sent down — who said that they were already legally authorized, right? So you’re not going to affect the outcome on the ground.
We plan to take it up. I do appreciate [the White House] sending over an AUMF. But I can tell you this: They’re not going to put one ounce of energy to convince anyone toward their end. Not one. Check the box.
I still want to get to a place where we’ve done something. We plan on doing that during this next work period, knowing it’s not affecting anything on the ground. [But] I want to do everything I can to keep from creating a divide on ISIS [also called the Islamic State]. You know, I asked the people who testified, is there anybody in this world who doesn’t think the American people are behind the administration in dealing with ISIS? No. So I don’t want to create a situation where all of the sudden, to the outside world, it looks like to Daesh [IS] that somehow or another the American people are divided on this issue.
You said that in pursing the AUMF, you were worried that division would send a mixed message to the world and to IS on where America stands. But with the Cotton letter or Bibi’s visit, to the rest of the world, it made it seem like foreign policy was a political, partisan, divided issue here. If you see that as a problem moving forward with the AUMF, did you think it was problematic in some of these instances?
Look, there are 100 senators here that get elected, and each person chooses how to conduct themselves. I can say that on Iran, I’ve done anything but try to act as if we’re divided. One hundred and eighty degrees in the other direction: I’ve worked in a bipartisan way to try to create a mechanism not only to look at the final deal but to say that we’ve said grace over it and it will stand the test of time.
I’m not speaking to others. You’re speaking to others…
But did you raise those issues or concerns or your view of foreign policy with other colleagues who at least acted differently than that?
So, I think everybody understands what my goals are. I cannot speak to some of the things the administration does. I can’t speak to what any other senator does. But I would say that actually my approach on the AUMF is exactly in line with the approach that I’ve taken on the Iran bill in trying to do something that again is bipartisan and creates consensus on the issue.
How often does this come up as a topic of conversation when you’re having bourbon with Mitch McConnell, about how you’re trying to present a certain view you think is right in terms of governing?
So I think most of us who are here who really want to achieve outcomes probably don’t discuss much about their private conversations. And I understand why you’re digging on that, but it’s not a place I can go.
The interview was conduced jointly by Olivier Knox and Meredith Shiner. This piece was written by Shiner.