Ignatius: Good morning, everybody. This really is a city of early risers. We’re sorry that Mika and Joe couldn’t be with us this morning, but we have Senator and the journalist, Senator Corker and me, to have a good early morning conversation with you. Briefly to introduce Senator Corker, so I’m sure this audience knows he is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; one of the truly distinguished positions in our Congress. He’s a two-term senator. He was a mayor of Chattanooga, if I’m not mistaken. He has been on key legislative issues; somebody who really has read into the details. He played a very influential, I want to say, decisive role in the final Senate consideration of the Iran Sanctions Bill two years ago. We’re going to talk about that.
But senator, first, it’s great to have you hear.
Corker: Good to be here, thank you.
Ignatius: Coming early in the morning, we promise next time we won’t ask you for 6:30. We’ll move it back in the day.
Corker: Remember, I was in the construction business, so this is not early.
Ignatius: Well, these days, it seems like, you know, if it’s either Fox & Friends, or Mika and Joe, or sometimes Securing Tomorrow at The Washington Post, that that’s how people are starting their day.
Ignatius: It’s a new world. Let me ask you, the issue that is immediately on your legislative calendar, and that is the Russia sanctions bill.
Ignatius: Which you’ve already passed one version of it. It’s come back to you from the House. Let me ask you first about negotiating this with a White House that did not want its hands tied in terms of its ability to take sanctions off if it thought appropriate; wanted to have that freedom as presidents traditionally have had. That’s the normal part of negotiations. In this case, you’ve tied his hands. Tell us why, and tell us about how that negotiation went.
Corker: So increasingly, I’ve been chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee for a few years. My goal was to bring back to the Senate, and to Congress, more of the power and control over foreign policy that, for years—as you know, decades, generations really—has been easing away to the executive branch. It really has just been to—I mean, the overall goal has been to establish more of an equal relationship. We understand the executive branch has powers that we do not have. So this has been going on for some time. We did it under President Obama.
There were concerns in the beginning that possibly, quote, “some kind of cheap deal would be made with Russia over Syria.” As you know, there were some executive sanctions that had been put in place, and so the idea of codifying those. And then, in addition, pushing back against the cyber activities that have been taking place relative to the election, but in many other areas. Pushing back against some of those people that had been involved, both in the defense and intelligence arenas. Adding sanctions for just the nefarious activities that have taking place; supply of arms to Assad in Syria. So there was a whole host of grievances that Congress wished to push back on.
With Ben Cardin, at the right time, if you remember. I had multiple conversations with Secretary Tillerson, who wished to have a period of time first to spend with Lavrov and others, to see if he could change the trajectory of our relationship.
Ignatius: You used the threat that you might do this to try to get some—[OVERLAPPING]
Corker: We did. I mean, it wasn’t a threat. It was a statement of fact. We were going to do it, okay? But you know, in the event there was a breakthrough with Russia, obviously, that would alter somewhat what we did. So I told him during two work periods ago, that we would not take it up. And I met with Ben and others, and said, “Look, let’s give him a chance to move this relationship along.”
The first day of the new period, last work period, I had a classified call with Secretary Tillerson. He was somewhere over the Atlantic. And I told him we were going to be moving ahead. So we put together what I’m really proud of. It’s a great piece of legislation, from my perspective. Importantly, this is something more and more we’re going to be doing, and that’s something called “congressional review,” which says that in the event the executive branch chooses to lift sanctions, if Congress believes that that is not a wise step, that somehow or another, this is changing our trajectory foreign policy wise, in a manner that is not healthy, we have the ability to try to overturn that. And that’s a tough step. You know, the president can veto that. Then it takes two-thirds of each body. But I think it’s an important aspect, and should be a part of all that we do in the future.
Anyway, we didn’t really negotiate. We put a bill together. The banking committee was involved. We worked closely with Crapo and Brown. We got an excellent piece of legislation. There were some technical issues. It went over the House. We worked very well with House members, Kevin McCarthy in particular, to fix those. It was not a watering down in any stretch of the imagination. It was fixing a few technical issues it needed to fix. Some of our European allies had a couple concerns. Again, not a watering down, but a statement of us working with them on a couple of issues. But it came back overwhelmingly with three dissenting votes yesterday.
To the question of negotiating with the White House, we didn’t. I mean, this was done totally—it was really within the Senate, 100%. I’m in no way trying to be audacious in my statement, we just didn’t. We didn’t negotiate with the White House or the State Department.
Ignatius: Just so we understand the practical impact of this, there were sanctions that were announced December 29th.
Corker: I thought this was coffee. It’s just water. That’s a shock.
Ignatius: Senator, you know we are a struggling newspaper still. You don’t expect—
Corker: If anybody has any coffee, I will take it, okay? What a shock.
Ignatius: Somebody could bring some coffee back. Mr. Bezos doesn’t think that coffee really is a good thing in the morning. Just so we understand the practical impact of this, on December 29 last year, President Obama announced a series of sanctions: the expulsion of 35 people, the seizing of two diplomatic properties. The Russians had been holding various other, more limited, particular sanctions. One thing that this bill does, if I understand it, is make those moves, which were taken by executive authority in December, acts of legislation as well, that can’t be undone without this process. Am I right in describing that?
Corker: Well, the process does not have to be invoked. There is a process that can be invoked. In other words, if a move is made that is deemed to be unwise, deemed to be taking us in a direction that is inappropriate, then Congress can weigh in, but it doesn’t have to.
Ignatius: Doesn’t have to. So if you thought, “Yeah, given the deal that’s been proposed, we think it makes sense to give them back one of the dachas.
Corker: Sure. Absolutely. It’s explained, and Congress is aware, and obviously, this is advancing our foreign policy interest, nothing will happen.
Ignatius: One question, obviously, given recent Russian statements describing the taking of these two properties as theft, one question is how they’re going to react to the passage of this bill. I’m sure you’ve had some conversations with people in the administration who were studying that. And you have your own sources. What would you think the Russians would do once this is passed into law?
Corker: I have no idea. I don’t. Obviously, there will be some type of pushback. Do I think it’s going to affect us in any way relative to Secretary Tillerson or Mattis’s ability to deal with them on Syria? Absolutely not. My guess is, it will be something that’s an irritating thing. But do I think that there’s going to be some massive pushback? I don’t think so. This bill gives the executive branch the ability to maneuver. It’s not like ties their hands. It gives them the ability, but it makes Congress an equal partner—not an equal partner, but a partner, more of partner than otherwise would be the case.
And again, I think it sends a strong signal too that the things that happened in Crimea and Ukraine matter to us a great deal. You know, we do not want some cheap, overarching agreement to be reached that does away with the sanctions that were put in place there too. Again, I talked to Secretary Tillerson last night. The president called me yesterday or the day before. He called me Saturday night. I mean, they’re very aware of all that’s happening, and very aware that this is going to be law, and very, very soon. We’ve got—as you and I talked backstage—a little work to do.
Ignatius: I want to ask you about the tidying up of the legislation. As this was originally proposed, as I’m sure many in our audience know, it also included sanctions against North Korea and Iranian behavior. They were wrapped together with the sanctions on Russia. Senator, you suggested that that may be changed now in the final version. Maybe you could explain the decision to strip it out?
Corker: Yeah. So it went it over as a Russia-Iran package. It sat in the House for a period of time. Then we began discussions about some of the issues that needed to be resolved. And these, again, were all small, but they mattered, and we had a really good negotiation with them. At the end of the day, they decided to send over a North Korea bill. It’s something that we have never sat down and worked through the language on like we did with them on both the other pieces that came through. And so we had people in our body that want to weigh in on those issues. We’ve got a couple of existing North Korea bills that are ready to be dealt with in committees, both banking and possibly foreign relations.
It’s going to be difficult within the timeframe that we have to deal with that. What likely will happen today—and something could change—I had conversations on the Senate floor last night. But likely will happen is we will strip out the North Korea piece and send it back to them so that the two pieces we’ve negotiated together will remain intact. That’s the likely scenario, today at 8:45.
Ignatius: So the bill will have Russia sanctions, and additional Iran sanctions, but not North Korea.
Corker: That’s correct.
Ignatius: And if I was the Reuters or AP guy trying to write this up and explain why you decided to take North Korea out, what’s the answer to that?
Corker: We could keep the legislation as it is, and then begin negotiations with the House on North Korea. There aren’t huge changes, but there are some changes that people would like to put in, and like to add congressional review to it, which it now does not have. Candidly, might want to add it in other places. But the timeframe, with the House leaving on Friday, means that if we were to do that, that would likely go beyond the period of time they’re here. I think most people want to get this bill enacted and into law. So it’s not an affront, it’s just a timing issue.
Ignatius: Before we leave this bill, let me just be the contrarian for a moment. You know, these days in Washington, if you say something anti-Russian, anti-Putin, everybody cheers. But let me ask you, we have a relationship with Russia now that’s as bad as—[OVERLAPPING]
Corker: It’s the worst since 1991.
Ignatius: It just feels brittle. I was just in Moscow hearing some things from Russians there that frightened me, to be honest. So there’s an obvious question. At a time like this, where Secretary Tillerson, the president, are trying to open up channels for constructive discussion of issues, why is the Congress turning the screws again? Does that really make sense in a world that’s as dangerous as this?
Corker: I think it makes a lot of sense. You have to remember, we have fragile allies that are dealing with Russia is doing within their own countries every day. There’s been no response whatsoever to the aggression that has taken place against our country during the election. You know, to have no response to that, I mean, here we are constantly dealing with countries that are on the periphery of Russia. You know, gosh, what’s happening in these countries makes what happened here appear to be elementary. And to have no response to that, and just to continue on, it’s not appropriate to have many other activities that have been taking place continue without out pushback.
Again, I talked to Secretary Tillerson last night. I know he realized with three dissenting votes in the House, this is going to happen. This does not tie their hand. And by the way, some of the sanctions are mandatory, but many of the sanctions, relative to energy, and projects that would be done in coordination with Europe, those are permissive sanctions. The administration has the ability to do those at any time they wish, even without legislation. So it sets a direction. And again, to me, it’s very important, and a piece of legislation that I’m very proud of.
Ignatius: Obviously, your congressional action and messaging through this legislation is important, but the most important voice in our country is that of the president. And the president continues to say, about this behavior—that you just described essentially as an attack on us, similar attacks on other countries—he describes investigation of it as a hoax, a witch hunt. He goes from day to day, sometimes he thinks it’s real, sometimes he thinks it isn’t. Honestly, senator, isn’t that the core of the problem here? That we don’t get a clear statement from the president that our election system was assaulted by a foreign nation last year?
Corker: I mean, in some ways, the lack of recognition of what has occurred has helped drive this legislation. You know, the Senate intelligence committee is going through, and they, to me, are handling themselves in a very good way. I saw Mark Warner briefly last night. I talk to him and Burr on a pretty continual basis. They’re doing a job of focusing on what Russia did. I don’t think anybody has ever said that that shouldn’t be taking place. I think what the president has said about the other piece is investigating him is a hoax; that he colluded. I don’t think he’s ever said that there shouldn’t be an investigation into what Russia did.
But there’s no question what also has not been said is that Russia, no doubt, was trying to affect, influence the outcome of an election. That would have been helpful, but it hasn’t occurred.
Ignatius: So my takeaway from that is that if the White House, the president, doesn’t like the legislation that’s being passed today, basically, he as nobody to blame but himself since a stronger statement by him might have reduced your feeling that this was needed.
Corker: Let’s face it. I mean, it’s Putin’s actions that initially drove it. I think the fact that there began to be—there was just a feeling that possibly many of the sanctions that had been put in place would be washed away; that maybe the issue of Ukraine and Crimea would be cast aside. Look, at the end of the day, Congress wanted to make sure that the foreign policy that’s been—the fact that Europe has been whole, democratic, and free has been our policy for 70 years, right? I mean, that’s been the United States policy towards Europe. And I think that Congress wants to make sure that that’s the policy going forward.
Ignatius: So if the moderator could just put an exclamation point, it does seem to me that it’s a significant moment when the Republican led Senate and House, in effect, insist on what they think of as appropriate foreign policy sanctions against Russia initially, despite resistance to that from the White House. So it’s a moment in this story that’s worth noting.
Corker: I would say that for the entire I’ve been the Republican leader of the committee, whether in the minority or majority, we’ve been able to work with the other side of the aisle on what I would say—I wouldn’t call this Republican-led. Yes, we’re in the minority. What I would say is is that we have worked in a bipartisan way the entire time I have led the Republican side of the committee, to establish the fact that when we go beyond our shores line, we do everything in a bipartisan way.
And a bipartisan way with this piece of legislation, are laying out foreign policy issues that we believe to be important to our country. That’s the way I would frame it. I would not frame this as a rebuke, which I know some editorial pages have done in the last couple days. That’s not what this is. This is a laying out of what Congress believes to be important to this nation; pushing back against a country which is acting in nefarious ways, challenging democracy, doing things that are destabilizing the world. We are pushing back in an appropriate way. It’s a good piece of legislation.
The administration, I hope, will embrace it. I know that anytime you have congressional view—but we did this with Obama, okay? This is not something against this president. We did the same thing with President Obama, and I led that effort, okay? And we weren’t successful in being able to stop the Iran deal. We got 58 votes towards 60. Would have never gotten the two-thirds majority, but we were able to question. And these 90-day increments that take place now, where the president has to certify, that was a result of that legislation, where Congress is staying involved in this. There are reports that have to be given to us that otherwise would not have taken place.
So this is a bipartisan effort to make sure that Congress is joined at the hip with this administration as we move ahead.
Ignatius: Let me turn to another—
Corker: Joined at the hip decision-making wise.
Ignatius: Turn to another frontier of partisanship. Maybe, in the future, bipartisanship. We’ll see. And that’s the healthcare bill. You had a big vote yesterday in the Senate in which you managed to get 51-50, a bill on the floor, that you could debate and amend. I think there’s some confusion as to where this process is heading. You made some news a few weeks ago by embracing the repeal and delay. In effect, let’s get Obamacare out and then have a period in which there’s a requirement to come up with something new. Tell us where you think this is heading. And given the very short clock, I mean, is it really realistic to think that we’re going to get legislation this time around, or are we simply beginning a process that, down the road, is going to lead to legislation?
Corker: Well, we’ll see. Obviously, we got on the bill yesterday. It’s a reconciliation bill. When Obamacare was put in place, ACA was put in place, it was done with 100% Democratic votes. At the time, they had 60 votes in the beginning, and then Scott Brown won his election. And so there were some elements of it, and so it was done in regular order, with 60 votes in the beginning. And then there were some components that needed to be fixed, and that was done other the same process we’re doing right now, reconciliation. The whole bill, certainly, was not written in that fashion. I know it’s been said that it was. It wasn’t. It just was a super majority, if you will, that happened at that time.
But then reconciliation was used to fix it. So reconciliation was a part of what happened. But it was 100% Democratic votes that caused it to be in place. I think all of us know that, you know, whenever something like that happens, the other side immediately takes issue with that. I mean, big, social policy should take place, as Senator McCain said yesterday, should take place in a bipartisan manner. So now, you know, all the cards are stacked on the Democratic side. I mean, all these policies are in place. Is there any way that there’s going to be any real negotiation, sort of bring that back to the middle of the road? Likely not. I’m just being honest. Likely not.
So we’re going through this process, which, again, has the same flaws, the Democratic side. This is now being done with 100% Republican votes. And so there’s been difficulties. I mean, there are 52 senators on our side of the aisle representing parts of the country that are vast and different. And so we ended up getting on the bill last night. There was a vote on a bill that had been put together. I mean, as I said before, it’s felt like a bazaar. I’ve been to most every meeting, and it’s 50 billion here, 100 billion. Hey, what about you? It just has felt, to a degree, not particularly coherent, okay?
As I’ve watched this, I’ve begun to wonder, “Would it not make sense to pass a piece of legislation that forces people to sit down together and do it? And so this scares the bejesus out of a lot of people. I understand just based on the way Congress has conducted itself. But I’ve come to the conclusion that the only way for that happen, possibly, is to repeal it years out, 2020, and force people to come together. You know, I don’t know how much more instability you can have than where we are today. I know people are concerned about that, but we’ll see what happens.
That’s not going to pass either, okay? The real process that’s occurring here is that there was a vote on a Republican-put-together bill last night, which, by the way, it might be really good. I mean, it might be really good, but who knows? And this is like a real piece of legislation. Seriously. It could be just the silver lining in all of this, but who knows? And you know, the bill was produced at six o’clock yesterday. It’s 178 pages. It’s got the Freedom Amendment in, that Ted Cruz has worked on. And by the way, he’s worked in good faith on these issues. He really has. He’s tried hard. He’s bent. He’s been flexible.
On the other side of it, there’s the Portman amendment, which, as you know, has been drafted to deal—and he’s dealt in good faith. And then there’s this base bill. Those two pieces were added on. So here, last night, after 178-page bill is introduced on the floor with no CBO score, there’s a vote. Well, again, this could end up being the best piece of social policy ever known to man, but how can you vote “yes” on a bill you have no idea the affect that it’s going to have on our country? And so it didn’t pass.
Today, we’re going to vote at 12:15 on a repeal that would repeal major components of the bill in 2020, okay? Have a transition period that would force people together. It’s going to fail. And so, I mean, I’m going to support it—[OVERLAPPING]
Ignatius: And that’s the approach you would prefer? The one you that you said is going to fail?
Corker: I don’t know of a bill that focuses the two sides together in a way that—I don’t know you force—and gets the playing field level when you begin. I mean, the way it is right now—and again, not to be pejorative—the Democrats are going to bank their gains, right, and negotiate for more. So, look, who knows where we end up? But the end of this process, on Thursday, what is going to happen is we will vote on the lowest common denominator. What is it that gets 51 votes? It might be a bill that says that David is leading foreign policy analyst in the world. Who know? But it’s going to be a very narrow bill, and then it will go to conference. So then you begin a negotiation between the House and Senate. That’s what going to happen.
Ignatius: But you think there’ll be 51 votes for something. I almost said nothing; that it will be a nothing bill. But you then take that nothing bill to the House and then you [OVERLAPPING] negotiation.
Corker: It just keeps the process alive so that you see if there’s a way for 52 senators and however many House members, with a majority, pass a piece of legislation.
Ignatius: Trying to be straightforward with this audience and the American people, what would you think by the end of this year, the likelihood that both houses of Congress will have passed some substantive reform of healthcare would be? And I’ll just say, looking at what I see, what I just heard you say, I’d say the chance of that would be pretty slim.
Corker: I don’t know. We have got to figure out a way, regardless of what happens with this legislation. We’ve got to figure out a way to deal with the exchange, right? I mean, the exchange issue, when you’re going to—as we should—deal with preexisting conditions—I mean, I think that’s a central element in our society today, and in my opinion, should be. When you’re going to deal with that, and you’ve got a very small number of people, if you think about what’s happened with healthcare, I mean this whole thing—the big expansion, David, that brought millions of people on, is Medicaid expansion, right?
So the actual exchange, which has been the meat of this, is a real small group of people. I mean, it’s not much. And all this debate about premiums, it’s been about that. Now what’s happened is that 10 essential health benefits, no doubt, has affected everybody’s insurance in our country, right? This is the piece that continues to be problematic around the country. I know in Tennessee, we have people, in some cases, that were threatened. You know, had no exchange whatsoever. Lamar and I introduced a bill that said, “Look, if there wasn’t an exchange product, you could still use your subsidies to buy and off-exchange product. We want people to have healthcare.” That’s a stock gap.
But we have got to deal before the end before the end of the year. We have to deal. If we don’t pass anything else, Republican wise, we’ve got to deal with solving that problem so that people throughout the country have appropriate choices. But the whole theory, and the way that this is set up, is going to continually lead to premium increases. It’s going to continually—it just is because you have a small group of people, preexisting conditions. You’re really not mandating. You know, people would rather pay a penalty that be on exchange, so your pool is not appropriate.
Let me just say one last thing. The Democrats dealt with coverage. Republicans, in some ways, are dealing with coverage. Now, these 1332 waivers are very important, and really could give states tremendous flexibility. The 1215 waivers, if used properly—1115 waivers. The waivers on Medicaid. It’s early. It’s late actually, for me.
Ignatius: I don’t think at any hour I would really know what these waivers are.
Corker: The waivers on the Medicaid side are very important. And have somebody at CMS that is willing to give states the flexibility they need could really be beneficial and those were a part of the bill last night, and those are important and hopefully they will survive this process. But this escalation is going to continue and what Democrats did not do and what Republicans aren’t doing enough of—attempting to and I’m happy about that. I’ve been involved in those discussions. But no one really has dealt with the cost of delivery. That is the base piece that is so difficult with so many institutional ways that our healthcare is delivered today and until we do that, we’re going to continue on this merry-go-round that really doesn’t take us to a place—when 20% of your GDP or 18% of your GDP is being spent on healthcare delivery, it is a problem.
And that’s what we’ve got to do as a nation, to solve our nation’s problems. And by the way, we’re $20 trillion in debt, 70% of our spending being mandatory spending. This will be the end of our nation’s greatness of we do not do that and really, we’re not doing it appropriately. The Democrats didn’t do it appropriately and that is the issue that’s got to be dealt with.
Ignatius: Well, let’s end that with a big amen because I think you’re absolutely right. [APPLAUSE] The issue is precisely that. Our system costs too much. The inputs are too large. The outputs in terms of quality care and good outcomes are too small and that has to be fixed. Let’s turn back to the larger national questions, foreign policy. But I want to ask you to begin by looking at this White House. I sometimes feel we’re all in a rocking boat that’s just bouncing from wave-to-wave. We don’t know from one day to the next, sometimes from one hour to the next what the news is going to bring and I can’t remember a period like this and I’ll bet you’d say the same, senator.
So let me take something that’s very much before us right now, which is whether Attorney General Sessions should continue in his role. We have an extraordinary series of public statements by the president denouncing his own attorney general for failing to disclose that he might have to withdraw from oversight of the investigation. We have continuing leaks saying the president is considering a process that would lead to firing the Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the prosecutor who is investigating this whole issue, what Russia did and what it might have involved. So let me just ask you to speak. You’re one of the respected leaders in the Senate. Do you think that Attorney General Sessions should stay in his job? Let’s start there. What do you think about that?
Corker: Look, I get some grief in the hallways. These are sort of political issues, if you will, and they come up three or four times a day and if you responded to them, that’s all you’d be responding to and I try to stay more on the policy side of things. But look, I don’t get any sense that the president is going to take steps to actually fire Sessions. I think they understand that’s problematic, highly problematic. But I do think it’s evident that the president is making it difficult for Attorney General Sessions. So, look, I think that’s something Jeff has got to decide. I know of no professional reason for Jeff to step down.
I have heard no one complain of how he’s conducting himself in the office. I’ll let Jeff himself speak to these issues. They obviously have a very, very, very close relationship, okay? Jeff went down and spent two or three days at Mar-a-Lago on the front end of the campaign and go to know the president, was his first backer. Obviously, the president hasn’t liked the way he’s dealt with the Russia issues. But this is something that Attorney General Sessions can speak to himself. But I wish it would stop.
Ignatius: And because you’re one of the Republican voices in the Congress that make a difference, I do want to ask you the other question of the moment that matters a lot of our country, and that is whether you think it would be appropriate for the president to seek to fire Special Counsel Mueller?
Corker: I cannot imagine a serious conversation taking place in the White House about firing Mueller. That would be a major mistake, a major miscalculation. For that reason, I cannot believe there’s a serious discussion taking place and discussing it publicly is, I hope and believe, an unnecessary waste of time.
Ignatius: Well, that’s powerful. Thank you for answering the question so directly. So let’s talk about foreign policy generally. You’ve mentioned in a series of conversations that you’ve had recently with Secretary of State Tillerson and it’s clear that you are working with him and have a good regard for him as somebody trying to do the nation’s foreign policy business. That said, as I look at the situation now with our key foreign policy accounts, I see a lot of confusion. I see a lot of policies that haven’t really been formulated yet. Russia policy going in two directions at once. We want to work with them in Syria but we don’t like what they’re doing in the Ukraine and it’s hard to see what the strategy is there.
Look at Syria, a country that has just been shattered by such a tragic war and I see two or three different administration policies and I know that when they’ve tried to boil those down into one through the interagency process they haven’t been able to do it yet. And you keep hearing, to be honest, senator, that Secretary Tillerson is just getting a little fed up with this situation where he feels sometimes like a fifth wheel in these Qatar negotiations. He’s flying out there and trying to mediate and then he feels that the White House issues a statement and he’s undercut. So in foreign policy, as an observer, a journalistic observer, but I’ve been doing this for many years; I can’t remember a moment in which there was quite so much dissidence and I’m curious—you’re following this—what would you think about that? Would you like to see Secretary Tillerson’s position reinforced? How would you want the policymakers to sort out Syria, for example?
Corker: I feel like I have a very, very close relationship with Tillerson and I’m thankful that someone of his stature would be willing to serve as our Secretary of State at this time. I view him as a patriot. I view him as someone who cares deeply about the future of our country and its national security and foreign policy interests. He came from another world, obviously, but I very much enjoy working with him. There’s certain things he could do better, no doubt, but I’ve got to say that he is someone who is constantly focusing on outcomes; on outcomes and I go over and have coffee with him every couple of weeks. As I mentioned, I talked to him last night on the phone. I’m glad that he’s there.
Secondly, he, Mattis, and McMaster have a very, very good and solid relationship and I would just say to you, regardless of personality issues, regardless of what you may think about their companies, whatever. From my standpoint, I think we should thank God that Tillerson, Mattis, and McMaster have chosen to be in the positions that they’re in and that they were chosen to be in the positions they’re in. There is dissonance. These three are focused on longer-term outcomes. They’re trying to put the pieces in place to get there. Tillerson and Mattis never come to the White House with a proposal that they haven’t agreed to in advance. God, how nice is that, okay?
However, the president is more of a personality-based individual and his like for someone influences him. Secondarily, as I understand it, there’s a chalkboard in Bannon’s office that lays out all of the campaign promises that were made, which were many, and they’re checking those off. And so sometimes, those campaign promises that were made at a rally in Tampa conflict with an outcome over here, right? And so that’s where some of the dissonance is taking place today and what I try to do because I have insights into what it is these guys are trying to accomplish, I do everything I can. In most cases, I like what they’re doing. In most cases, I like what they’re doing.
I do what I can as a chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee to try to be a collateral support for that when I can. But there’s no doubt the president listens to lots of voices. He’s on the phone non-stop. There are many voices that are coming in over the transom from all over the place. He’s a prolific phone-caller and receiver of phone calls. So that input that he’s getting sometimes conflicts with—I would call the three principles. In addition to that, there are voices within the White House. Sometimes as I understand it, they’re the voices that he sees very first thing in the morning and so—
Ignatius: Who might those be? [LAUGHTER]
Corker: And so sometimes, those can move things in a direction that are different, again, from the three principles that are out there working towards a different end. So yes, it exists. We see it. It plays out in many ways publicly. Sometimes in conflict with efforts that are underway and sometimes, in ways that can, in fact, undermine what is occurring.
Ignatius: So we hear that this process is pretty tough and sometimes demoralizing for Secretary of State Tillerson, who has flown out to the Gulf, worked hard to mediate the resolution of this dispute between our allies. Saudi Arabia and U.A.E. on the one hand and Qatar on the other and that’s been affected by the dissonance with the White House policy. That’s got to be frustrating for him and he’s thinking, “Maybe this isn’t going to work.” I want to ask you two things. First, I assume you would council Tillerson to stay on, that he’s somebody you’d like to see continuing in this government and not think about pulling out?
Corker: Yes, sir. [LAUGHTER]
Ignatius: And to take that a step further, have you had a conversation like that where you said—Mr. Secretary, Rex, whatever you call him, “Don’t bail.”
Corker: I talked with him last night at 7:15 on a preset call and thanked him for being there and thanked him for continuing to be there. I don’t think—
Ignatius: [LAUGHTER] Thanked him for not being there.
Corker: I don’t think that Secretary Tillerson—I think some of the accounts where people say he’s thinking about leaving, I don’t think that’s right. Again, I know that during his confirmation hearings, he caught some grief. I know he was CEO of Exxon, which many people in our country don’t particularly care for. Tillerson, for whatever you want to say, I know him well. Tillerson is a patriot, he really is, and he wants good things to happen for our country. He’s a strong person. He has the ability to think several steps ahead towards outcomes. I don’t think Tillerson is on the verge of resigning. I don’t see that. I think he understands how important the triumvirate that exists between him and Mattis and McMaster are for our nation today. He understands that and I think he’s willing to deal with all of the things that exist to try to ensure that this administration and our nation is successful in foreign policy.
Ignatius: I was at a dinner last night. I’ll bet you’ve been to one done like this—
Corker: I’m not saying he’s perfect. He’s a strong individual who is committed to good things happening for our country.
Ignatius: I think we got the message on Tillerson. Just an idea occurred to me as we were talking. I was going to preface it by just noting the diplomats at dinner last night from three different countries were saying what I hear everywhere, which is, “Boy, it is tough for us to follow what’s going on with your government.” [LAUGHTER]
Corker; Well, it’s increased ratings with news outlets and publications.
Ignatius: Well, it may be good for page views, but not for other indices of national progress. And so I just wonder, senator, whether you might, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee distinguished body, call for some hearings about how to get a more orderly process in which the role of tweets for the chief executive say, played less a role in the implementation of policy in which cabinet secretaries were better empowered to carry out consistent, coherent policy. The intervention—
Corker: I know you’re just messing with me. [LAUGHTER]
Ignatius: I’m not. Because the intervention that we kept thinking might happen. This son-in-law, this daughter might go in and take the Android phone and say, “That’s it.” Throw it in the White House pool, gone. That hasn’t happened and maybe it’s time for a Senate hearing that explores this and brings a little pressure to say, “This has got to stop.” What about that? Any merit to that?
Corker: [LAUGHTER] I know you’re just having fun. Look, having a hearing to discuss the personality of an administration is not a productive hearing and I think at the end of the day, that’s not the purview of a Senate committee.
Ignatius: Well, they’d be interpreting hearings. I would certainly attend. [LAUGHTER] You can’t even hold a session for an hour, 45 minutes without there being a tweet that’s so important that my colleague has just handed it to me. I promise you that does look—@RealDonaldTrump, looks entirely legit, but it’s pretty important and he says, “After consultation with my generals and military experts”—this was 20 minutes ago—”Please be advised that the United States government will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the US military. Our military must be focused on victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail.” So that’s a bomb. It goes directly to probably the most divisive issue of social policy right now. What do you think about that? Does that make sense for—
Corker: I’m going to give you the same answer that I give in the hallways to everyday voting. I don’t really respond on a daily basis of tweets that are coming out. We’ll look fully—
Ignatius: Well, we’ll let you answer—
Corker: [LAUGHTER] Thank you so much.
Ignatius: We wanted to give you something to remind you of your visit to The Washington Post. [LAUGHTER]
Corker: Thank you so much.
Ignatius: Senator, maybe we could close out with an issue where you really took a leading position. It’s one of enormous importance and it’s one that is kind of now entering a murky, uncertain area and that’s the JCPOA; a nuclear agreement with Iran. When I say you played a crucial role, I mean that. In terms of the final process, you and Senator Cardin, Senator Coombs, a few others; decided, in the end, to support with certain—
Corker: No, I did not support it.
Ignatius: Well, you’ve allowed it to, as I remember, the committee let it get to the floor and it got—
Ignatius: Am I misstating?
Corker: Yeah, so here’s what happened: the president chose to go directly to the UN Security Council through executive privilege to put in place this agreement. It’s an agreement that’s never been signed. It is an agreement that is a political understanding. And with that, the president waived sanctions that had been put in place through various iterations, ad infinitum item to put this agreement in place. Congress was offended by that, offended by the fact that the president would use a national security waiver to implement an international agreement without congressional approval. Congress was offended by that and it passed on a 98-1 vote to say that Congress should have a congressional review over that issue. So it’s just the opposite. I did not support the agreement. Senator Cardin did not support the agreement. Senator Menendez did not support the agreement.
Ignatius: You came up with a formula that allowed the agreement to go forth.
Ignatius: All I know is what I read in POLITICO and the headline is “How Cardin and Corker Clinched the Iran Deal.” You never know what another politician—
Corker: So I don’t want to get offensive here, but I cannot believe someone that has as much knowledge and background on this issue could even misunderstand so fully what happened and I know that’s a pretty strong statement. But the president was going to implement this agreement without congressional approval, which, to me, was absolutely inappropriate. Other countries, by the way, went to their parliaments. The United States, he went straight to the UN Security Council, waived sanctions that had been put in place by Congress ad infinitum. Not national security waiver, waive them at ad infinitum to implement an agreement that I thought was flawed, that Senator Cardin thought was flawed, Senator Menendez thought was flawed. And so Secretary Kerry, in a moment of being really cute in a hearing, answering questions from Tim Kaine said, “No, Congress is going to have the ability to weigh in in eight years.” And that was my breaking moment to be able to look at other members of the committee and say, “Are you serious? This is when you want to Congress to weigh in? Eight years after you’ve made a deal, where we’ve given away all of the leverage we had on the front end? Are you kidding me?”
And that’s what gave the momentum for us to pass the Iran Nuclear Review Act, which gave Congress the ability to weigh in on this. And if you remember, there were 58 no votes to the deal; 58 no votes. We couldn’t get to 60. I was one of those no votes. I lead the opposition to the Iran deal. But when that bill passed, even though we weren’t able to overturn what occurred, we then put in place this regiment, which the president is now dealing with, where every 90 days, the president has to certify that they’re in compliance and that every six months, we get a tranche of materials relative to what is happening in Iran. So Congress itself has the ability to know whether they’re implementing. So it’s just the opposite.
But that misunderstanding, unfortunately, has been haunting because there are people out there that somehow or another, think that, in fact, Congress approved when the fact is, Congress couldn’t get enough votes to disapprove. But the majority of Congress disapproved with what was happening. The majority of the Senate disapproved of what was happening with this deal, where the president, was in essence, entering into an international agreement that affected us, giving up years and years of sanctions and billions of dollars of money to a regime, releasing all of our leverage on the front end. And so that’s where Congress weighed in.
Ignatius: Fair enough.
Corker: My apologies for being so strong.
Ignatius: No, no, it was a negative process as it were, not an affirmative [OVERLAPPING].
Corker: Well, there was no way. The president decides whether something’s a treaty or not. The president decides whether something’s a treaty or not. He decided not to submit it to a treaty so let me tell you what that means. It’s just like the Paris Accord, isn’t it? The president can actually cause the Iran agreement to go away. He doesn’t even have to certify that there is non-compliance. Every 120 days, every six months, and every year, there are sanctions that are in place right now. All he has to do is not waive those sanctions and this entire agreement goes away. I don’t think the American people understand that. I’m not sure the president understands that yet, okay? But he can cause this agreement to fall apart. He doesn’t even have to certify that there is non-compliance. All he has to do is when one of those waiver periods come up, not waive.
Now, it seems to me if he’s going to do that, he wants to do that at a time that he has a policy objective. In other words, what’s your next step? Once you do that, you’re self-creating a crisis, right? And unless you’ve aligned your European allies and others towards an end—but because the president, executive fiat, this agreement is easier to get out of than the Paris Accord. All he’s got to do is not weigh [ph].
Ignatius: So that is the question that I wanted to ask you, whether one describes the process as positive or negative, the deal is in effect. And you were very clear in January that you thought that tearing this agreement up, whether the Congress had formally voted to approve it would be unwise. Your phrase was it would create a crisis and that instead, we should radically enforce it. That was your phrase.
Corker: Yeah, that’s right.
Ignatius: And we’ve now had, I believe, two periods of recertification. The second one just happened. It was apparently, a very rocky one. The president really resisting recertifying and I wonder what you would say first about the benefits of having this treaty in place. Everybody I talk to at the CIA, everywhere else, says in a grudging, difficult way, Iran is abiding by the rules of the agreement and there’s certain clear benefits.
Ignatius: And so be careful about jumping into something different. And I’m curious, senator, what your advice is going to be at the next recertification period? Do you think on balance with all of the problems in Iranian behavior, and its grudging compliance, even so, this is in our national security interests, that of Israel, and should be recertified or should be on the path to getting out of it?
Corker: So this is where I’ve been from day one. We already gave up all of our leverage. The deal the day happened, we gave up all of our leverage. So you look at where we are, there’s some nuance to this certification. What it actually says is that they are implementing the deal. Iran is implementing the deal. They do have technical violations that take place. Most of them have not been what I would—it’s like a loan covenant. This is the way I’ve talked to the president, “Mr. President, we’re in loan covenant.” There’s a technical issue and then there are material breaches that matter, right? Well, right now, they’ve had some technical non-compliance but they get back into compliance from time-to-time.
So over the next two years—I’m just making up a number—nothing bad is going to happen relative to nuclear weapons in Iran over the next two years. There’s not going to be a breakout, okay? We are pushing back. This bill that’s getting ready to pass pushes back against their terrorist activities. It pushes back against their human rights activities. It pushes back against many things that they’re doing in a nefarious way and unfortunately, this Iran deal became President Obama’s Middle East policy. Everything was around this and you’ve seen the problems that that has created and we’re getting back in balance. So we’re pushing back against those activities.
But what I say to the president, and this is what Tillerson, Mattis, and McMaster say to the president is—well, these are my words, not theirs. “You can only tear the agreement up one time. So when you’re going to tear it up since nothing bad is happening today.” And when I say, “bad”, it’s not like a nuclear weapon is getting ready to be developed. We gave up all of our leverage already. So wait until you have your allies aligned with you. Radically enforce it. If you radically enforce it, they’re liable and right now, I know that we’re asking—I know we’re asking to get into various facilities in Iran. If they don’t let us in, boom.
But what you want is you want the breakup of this deal to be about Iran. You don’t want it to be about the United States because we want our allies with us. We want our allies with us and at the end of the day, I know Tillerson’s goal is to negotiate a follow on that ensures that they never enrich uranium. That’s the problem here.
Think about it: I had a group that came in the other day. They want to be involved in developing nuclear plants in the Middle East. They’re serious, by the way, and they have a consortium together that’s working on it. Well, think about it: is any Sunni country ever going to negotiate a 1-2-3 agreement—and that’s the agreement we enter into with countries relative. Are they ever going to enter into an agreement that’s like our gold standard? Like U.A.E. entered into that says they’re going to give up the right to enrich? Never. If a Shia country has a right to enrich, they’re going to want the right to enrich.
So this has implications far beyond the agreement that was put in place. So we’ve got to ultimately get to a place where we renegotiate this deal and they never have the right to enrich or there’s going to be problems down the road, and as president, Obama said after year 10 or so, they are in a breakout mode. So what we’ve got to do is get our allies with us. We’ve got to radically enforce. When we have a plan where we’re going to develop a policy outcome that is the time. That is the time. But to do it today where you self-create a crisis, you’re out of the agreement, you start putting sanctions in place, and you lose your European allies.
We’ve got a crisis in Syria. We’ve got a crisis in North Korea. We’ve got issues to deal with Russia. I would just say that maybe you think about a better time to do it when you’re looking for a strategic outcome. I told the president—I did this just in the last few days. I did it last Monday, “Mr. President, have you ever been in a situation where somebody did something to you in business and you weren’t in a place to react? They took advantage of you? They took advantage of you but you were not in a place where you could react?” “Yeah, absolutely.” “Well, what’d you do? You remembered. You couldn’t do anything about it then, but when the time was right when you could actually do something that mattered, that generated an outcome, you did.” And so that’s kind of where we are here, isn’t it? We’re in a place where we don’t like the deal. We don’t like the fact that this country has the right to enrich.
That’s incredible. They have the right to enrich. They have right to continue research and development on R2s, R4s, R6s, R8s, which by the way, in a room like this, a room a fourth the size of this can produce incredible amounts with R8 of enriched uranium. Incredible amounts. How can you find this in a country like Iran? So the agreement has got to be redone so again, when you deal with this, deal with it at a time where you can get a policy outcome that matters and you’ve got our allies with us. If we radically enforce it and we really ask for inspection; Iran is likely not to comply and then it’s about them.
There will be some other opportunity, but just to tear it up today because at a rally in Tampa you said you were going to tear it up. I don’t know which rally it was, by the way. He also said in a debate, he also said he was the only one, if you remember, on the stand that had the courage in one of the early debates to say he would make a decision about the Iran deal when he was elected. He was the only Republican candidate who said it, if you remember.
So he’s said a couple of things on this and I would just say, “Let’s make sure whenever we renegotiate change, tear it up or whatever, we do it in a way that furthers US national security interests. Let’s don’t do it out of emotion.” Sorry to take so long.
Ignatius: Well, what a concept, making rational policies and thinking before you act. Senator, our conversation is a reminder of what I like about the Senate and what I like about the leadership of both parties to really talk and think things through. Thank you so much for coming and being so honest with us. [APPLAUSE]
Corker; Thank you, sir. I appreciate it.