The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bob Corker is free to speak his mind about Trump. If he could only make it up.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and President Trump are still trading barbs. Here's a look at their feud. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde, Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)
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CHATTANOOGA — It took Bob Corker 21 seconds to begin answering the question.

If the election were held today, would you vote for Donald Trump?

The retiring Republican senator from Tennessee sat silently in a coffee shop that doubled as a church. His gray-blue eyes flicked from his plate of over-hard eggs toward a mural featuring two angels — one wielding a sword and the other clutching a dove — hanging above the pulpit. He fiddled with his tie, steepled his hands, grimaced, and glanced down at his phone.

“If the election were held today between the same two candidates,” he offered, “I would.”

He reconsidered.

“Why don’t you say, ‘probably,’ ” he said, running his hand through a tuft of white hair and bouncing a shiny black shoe under the table. “Between the same two candidates, ‘probably.’ ”

Corker’s mixed feelings may come as a surprise to people who know him only from his public feuding with the president. Just six months ago, Corker was in his sprawling brick Chattanooga home, changing after a vigorous hot yoga class with his wife, when he saw Trump had conjured an angry tweetstorm in his direction.

With his critical statements about the president’s leadership, the senator — who is 5-foot-7 in shoes and had once been in the running to be either Trump’s vice president or his secretary of state — was quickly earning himself a different title: “Liddle Bob Corker.”

The president was saying Corker had “begged” for his endorsement, and decided to retire only after Trump refused. Corker didn’t even take time to get out of his sweaty gym clothes before writing the first tweet he’d ever thought of in his life.

“It’s a shame the White House has become an adult day care center,” he tapped on his phone. “Someone obviously missed their shift this morning.” A short time later, driving through Alabama back roads en route to a beach vacation in the Florida Panhandle, he called the New York Times and said Trump’s recklessness risked “World War III.”

The resulting turmoil, which echoed around cable news throughout the night and announced itself in the next day’s papers, felt “surreal” to Corker, as if he were watching it happen to someone else.

For one of the only times in his adult life, the 65-year-old ­businessman-turned-politician, wasn’t in control of his own story. And as Corker heads to retirement at the end of this year, he’s beginning to realize his legacy may be inextricably linked to Donald Trump.

Would the senator have voted for Trump, knowing that it would turn out like this? That his fate — his party’s, his country’s — would be bound up in the balled fists of a 71-year-old chaos agent?

Corker excused himself to the restroom. He returned a few minutes later in doubt.

“I want to think about that answer,” he said. “It’s a pretty defining thing.”

In today's Republican Party, Corker is not alone in his ambivalence toward the current president.

Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney gave a speech calling candidate Trump a “fraud,” and later munched on frog legs with the president-elect in an effort to become secretary of state. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) once called Trump a “kook,” only to become his golfing buddy. Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) thought Trump was a “con artist” but endorsed him anyway, and even a retiring House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.), once a semi-vocal critic, now says he and Trump have “developed a good friendship.”

Some Republicans have grown to like the president, while others see him as a sputtering but steerable vehicle for their legislative agenda. There are those who feel it’s their patriotic duty to buddy up with him, afraid of who else might have his ear. And there are those just trying to hold onto their Trump-supporting voters ahead of the November elections.

Still, of all the roller coaster relationships with Trump, nothing has the torque of Corker’s Corkscrew.

In July 2016, Corker traveled to Trump Tower to let the president know he would be helpful to the campaign but had no interest in being his vice presidential pick. The plan was to travel that evening to Raleigh, N.C., together, but Corker made it clear to Trump he wouldn’t introduce him at the rally.

“I didn’t want to look like I was auditioning,” he said, looking back.

Throughout the day, various people — Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, Trump himself — asked Corker if he’d speak at the event. No, Corker said, no, no.

So it was surprising to Corker and also completely predictable, when in front of a screaming audience, Trump yanked him to the lectern with a handshake.

It was Corker’s first lesson in what can happen to your reputation when you get within arm’s length of the former reality star.

“I wasn’t going to say anything, I just came to visit,” Corker shrugged on stage. The next day the press razzed Corker for his apparent participation in an ­“Apprentice”-style VP pageant.

Still, Corker, who gets along with everyone, grew close with Trump and his team. As the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, he was often sought for advice on world affairs.

“I greatly enjoyed working with Senator Corker,” said ousted secretary of state Rex Tillerson, who had breakfast with him at least once a month. “He was always supportive, was very open and transparent with any concerns.”

On one occasion last June, Corker was at the White House to name a post office after the late Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson when Trump called him into the Oval Office. There, surrounded by top aides, the president sat in front of a speakerphone talking to King Salman of Saudi Arabia. Corker, according to two people familiar with the meeting, was there to help the president take a tough line on the Saudis’ actions in Qatar. Days earlier, the king had severed ties with Qatar and led a campaign to isolate the tiny energy-rich country, raising U.S. concerns that the move could impact a key U.S. military base.

In a photo of the call taken by a White House photographer, Corker leans on the Resolute Desk, whispering in the president’s ear. But when the king opened with lavish praise for Trump, the president’s fortitude melted away and he told aides, “I like the king.”

Around this time Corker started to get regular calls from Trump staffers from “what sounded like the inside of coat closets,” often just to gripe about how things were run at the White House.

“It happened enough where no doubt I was drawn into the drama that was occurring,” Corker said.

What happens when you tie your career to Donald Trump? Ask Sean Spicer in a few months.

But it was precisely this proximity that led him to make his first viral criticism of Trump. After the president refused to fully condemn the white nationalists who had marched on Charlottesville, an upset Corker held forth with the press, offering a sound bite he knew would make waves: The president had not shown “the stability, nor some of the competence” to lead, he said.

That same week, Corker found himself summoned to the Oval Office once again. He printed out his exact statement, prepared to explain himself but stand by what he’d said.

“The president says, ‘Bob, you said I was incompetent,’ ” Corker recalled. The senator pointed out that media reports didn’t paint the full picture.

By the end of the meeting, Corker said, Trump had offered to endorse him if he changed his mind and decided to run for another term. (The president has denied this on Twitter.)

“Despite everything,” Corker said, “we do have a very, very warm relationship.”

After leaving the coffee shop, Corker continued to mull his hypothetical vote.

“I really want to think about that last answer,” Corker said climbing into an SUV on his way to an event with the local chamber of commerce. “I think it’s an unfair question for a reporter to ask. . . . That might be my answer.”

With just eight months until Corker leaves the Senate for good, he was back in Tennessee finishing up a week-long tour of the state.

“I’m going to be a little vulnerable here,” he told members of the chamber. “I’m a bit anxious about what’s next.”

This is a rare feeling for Corker, someone whom friends describe as a happy, charismatic leader with a handle on any situation. He was named senior class president of Chattanooga High without running a campaign and was listed in the 1970 yearbook as the “Best All-Around Boy.” His fraternity brothers at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville remember him as a gifted center fielder and hard-tackling footballer despite having the stature of a jockey, and as a willing partyer who rarely, if ever, drank to excess.

“Pledging was stressful, getting harassed by the upperclassmen and all that,” said Bobby Reagan, a fellow member of Sigma Chi. “But Bob always handled himself well, no matter what they put him through.”

Corker, who grew up middle class, knew he wanted to go into construction before he graduated, and knew he would be rich before he turned 30. He accomplished both. By 2015, his net worth hovered around $70 million.

He was a tornado of a man, a high-energy guy (which he pronounces “gah” in a friendly Southern accent) known to throw his tie over his shoulder and get his hands dirty on development projects.

He ran an unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate in 1994, but landed a gig in state government as finance commissioner. By 2001, he was mayor of Chattanooga. He still considers that the best job he ever had, wielding his executive might to keep companies from moving out to the suburbs and raising millions of dollars to overhaul the city’s waterfront. He ran for the Senate again in 2006, and was the only new Republican senator to win in what was a wave year for Democrats; in a freshman group of one, he was once again a class president without contest.

In the Senate, Corker earned a reputation as something of a centrist (a fiscal conservative who keeps his office television tuned into MSNBC), and had fans on both sides of the aisle. He’s made trying to end human trafficking a signature issue, brought Volkswagen to his state, and was one of 13 Republicans to vote for a nuclear arms-reduction treaty between the United States and Russia in 2010.

“He’s an honest broker,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who serves as the ranking Democrat of Foreign Relations.

Corker told voters in 2006 that he planned on sticking around only for two terms, and last year he made good on that promise, announcing he would not seek reelection. It was a tough decision, made easier by the fact that he considered the Senate “broken” and that he fancied himself more of an executive than a legislator.

“It’s strange,” he likes to say. “But I’m a lawmaker who hates laws.”

Corker keeps in his Senate office a large sculpture of a man whose head is encased within a wooden cage. By the end of his second term, he had started joking to staffers that he was beginning to empathize.

"I'm still thinking about that answer," Corker said, unprompted, as he arrived at the campus of Covenant College, just over the Georgia border. "You're going to give me a break, I know."

Three hours had passed since he’d been asked in the coffee shop about whether he’d still vote for Trump, and he had come to a chapel at this Christian college to speak to a group of students about whatever they pleased. They asked about Trump.

“He’s a very complex person,” he told them. The president cares more about his base than any politician he’d ever met, Corker said. He’s friendlier in person than people might expect. He’s smart. But, yes, his tweets can be a problem.

The president, despite what he may tweet, was not a factor in his decision not to run, Corker says. But people close to him believe Trump played a role in his ultimate decision to retire, or at the very least made the decision easier.

“The feud took some steam out of him,” said Republican Lamar Alexander, Tennessee’s senior senator. “He’s a high-impact, high-energy guy, and it threw him off balance. He’s been a little more subdued in the last few months.”

“Bob is not a flamethrower,” said Jimmy Haslam, the owner of the Cleveland Browns and Corker’s college roommate. “I think he found himself in an uncomfortable and unfortunate situation when it turned into a big public fight.”

Trump attacks Corker, who responds by calling the White House ‘adult day care’

It didn’t help that when Trump started attacking Corker, the senator’s approval ratings at home turned upside down. It got to the point where, according to two of Corker’s Senate colleagues, he sought their advice on how he should handle his relationship with the president.

Despite all this, Corker did have second thoughts about retiring. He traveled to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and was swarmed by foreign leaders who asked him to reconsider. Senators back in Washington made similar pleas. There were compelling reasons to stay: Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), a fellow member of the foreign policy vanguard, had been diagnosed with brain cancer. The race to replace Corker would be no sure thing for Republicans. And on top of that, Corker felt like he had cracked the code on how to deal with Trump: If you hit him once, maybe twice, but buddy up with him after, he just may respect your chutzpah.

In an effort to convince him that he still had a path to victory, Corker’s staff brought in an outside consultant who said he would win if he cozied up to Trump. But if that was supposed to persuade him to change his mind, it had the opposite effect. He liked his independence.

Without an election looming, Corker admits, he’s been more able to speak his mind.

Had he been running, for example, he may not have said in October that a small group of White House advisers were helping “separate our country from chaos.”

But an uncorked Corker didn’t mean he was suddenly a liberal senator from Tennessee. He cast an important vote in favor of Trump’s tax bill, despite saying he wouldn’t vote for a bill that added one penny to the deficit (some estimates say this bill will add more than 100 trillion pennies). And as the White House gears up for a battle to confirm Mike Pompeo as the next secretary of state, they believe they can rely on Corker to help.

“If you added up the entire time the president has been in office,” Alexander said, “I would bet no United States senator has had more conversations with the president than Bob has.”

But, would he vote for him again?

It’s a question, Corker says, that if you ask someone at 10 a.m. and then again at noon, you might get two different answers. One day the president’s personal lawyer could be raided by the FBI in connection with hush money payouts to an adult-film star, and the next it could be time to unify behind him as he considers military action in Syria (an issue Corker spoke with the president about on the phone last week).

The one thing, Corker told audiences around the state, that stays the same in today’s Washington is nothing stays the same. Everything is fluid: legislation, relationships, legacy.

“Before you print, can we talk about it?” Corker asked leaving Covenant College, his last stop of the week-long tour. “I want to think about it. Because it’s actually a serious question. I wish I had said I don’t respond to conjecture, but now you’ve got me stuck.”

Four days later, Corker called with his final answer.

“I just don’t have any desire to make news,” he said. “So I’ll leave it at that.”

Correction: A previous version of this article gave the incorrect state affiliation for Sen. Lindsey O. Graham.