In Donald Trump’s wild, real-life audition for his secretary of state, there’s been no shortage of warning flags for the senators who’d have to confirm his eventual pick — whether it’s Rudy Giuliani’s business dealings with foreign governments, David Petraeus’ fumble with classified information, or John Bolton’s ultra-hawkish views.
But there’s one choice that could put an end to Trump’s made-for-TV drama and ultimately breeze through the Senate: Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, whose fans include not just fellow Republicans, but Democrats who’d happily vote to confirm him.
“I think he would be a great pick,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has been a major critic of Giuliani and former Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., who’s also been discussed for the job.
“I do think that in comparison to people like Bolton or Giuliani, that he’s much more reasonable diplomatically,” Paul said in an interview. The libertarian senator added that Corker is “more from the realist point of view, as far as foreign policy.”
Democrats were nearly as enthusiastic.
“I don’t like to predict what happens in the Senate, but I would tell you: He would be very well-received by the Senate,” said Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, who as the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee has worked closely with Corker. “I believe he’s been an outstanding chairman.”
The 64-year-old former mayor of Chattanooga has earned a reputation on Capitol Hill as a no-nonsense legislator who often finds himself in the middle of major deals, from a sweeping border-security compromise to attempts to defuse brewing conflicts over Senate rules on nominations.
As chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Corker’s chief accomplishment was legislation that would give Congress an up-or-down vote on President Barack Obama’s controversial nuclear deal with Iran. That negotiation forced Corker to maneuver between the White House and fierce critics of the administration’s talks with Tehran, such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
“He has advanced a very conservative agenda as chairman, but I really respect him personally,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), another member of Corker’s committee who has traveled abroad with him. “He has an enormous amount of knowledge about the world and our place in it, and I think he would be a strong choice.”
As well-liked as he is among fellow GOP senators, Corker does have detractors on the right. They include Breitbart News, the website formerly run by incoming Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon. The site last year named Corker a top Republican enabler for the Iran deal, blasting him for not fighting harder to block the pact and saying he “was the key figure in turning congressional rules upside-down and rendering the majority powerless.”
It’s unclear whether that criticism is registering with Trump, who railed against the Iran agreement throughout the campaign. Corker ultimately opposed the deal when it came back before the Senate.
Speaking with reporters on Thursday, Corker offered praise for other contenders for the job. He called Petraeus a “national treasure” and said former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney would be “successful at anything he undertook.”
Those diplomatic remarks aside, Corker made clear he wants the job.
“Anyone who is serving in the kind of role that I may where you influence things and you pass legislation, if you had the opportunity, assuming the environment was right, to be successful, you would want to entertain the idea,” Corker said. “The things that you care about, you can act on … any serious person who’s spent a lot of time in foreign policy would want to sit down and explore the idea.”
Senate Republicans are especially mindful not to be viewed as openly lobbying the incoming Trump administration for one particular secretary of state choice over another. But GOP lawmakers plainly prefer Corker.
“I know they’ve got some other people they’re looking at, and there are some really great names out there,” said South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the chamber’s third-ranking Republican. “But I think Bob would be, yeah, extremely capable in that position and be a real asset to the new administration.”
Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, said he would defer to Trump and his transition team on the secretary of state choice, before quickly adding that Corker would be “a fantastic secretary of state.”
Transition officials said this week that Trump has narrowed the field to four choices. Two are Giuliani and former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who dined with Trump on Tuesday night; the officials declined to name the others. An announcement is not expected imminently, incoming White House chief of staff Reince Priebus said on Fox News.
Romney is also well-liked in the Senate and could have bipartisan appeal. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) has said he would likely vote to confirm the 2012 GOP nominee.
But senators typically show deference to other senators for Cabinet-level jobs, particularly nominees for secretary of state. Former New York Sen. Hillary Clinton was confirmed for the job in 2009 in a 94-2 vote, and then-Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry was installed by a nearly identical margin four years later.
Because Senate Democrats in 2013 eliminated the filibuster for nearly all confirmations, it takes only 51 votes for Cabinet appointments to be approved.
Two leading defense hawks in the Senate Republican Conference — Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — both praised Corker as a potential secretary of state choice. They also indicated that they were fans of Petraeus, a four-star general who led Obama’s war strategy in Afghanistan before he was nominated to be CIA director in 2011.
But Petraeus pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges after he shared classified information with Paula Broadwell, his biographer with whom he was having an extramarital affair. Petraeus resigned from his position leading the CIA, and was later sentenced to two years of probation and a $100,000 fine.
Mishandling classified information was a hallmark of Trump’s criticisms of Clinton as they campaigned for the White House earlier this year. However, Graham insisted that Petraeus’ transgression involving classified information shouldn’t be disqualifying.
“His case has been resolved. We know what he did,” Graham said. “He took responsibility for what he did. He’s been punished for what he did.”
Corker was also discussed as a potential running mate for Trump until he publicly removed himself from contention in July. Still, Corker never ruled out serving in Trump’s Cabinet.
Corker has come under scrutiny of his own. Earlier this year, POLITICO and The Wall Street Journal reported that federal investigators were looking into Corker’s personal finances after he failed to report stock transactions involving a Chattanooga-based real estate investment trust.
He has since amended his personal financial disclosures, and no evidence of wrongdoing has surfaced. Corker and his aides have dismissed the investigation as something triggered by political opponents, and it’s unclear whether it would become an issue if he were nominated.
“In some ways, you could look at what has happened over the course of the last year — if that was something that was gonna matter — you could almost look at it as a blessing,” Corker said of the probe earlier this year. “From the standpoint of my finances, I will be the most vetted person here.”
Burgess Everett contributed to this report.
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