On the surface, it has strong potential to become a lasting political marriage: Donald Trump and Bob Corker, two rich and loquacious real estate developers who are both relatively new to national prominence and look to benefit from the other’s success.
And yet their first date did not go all that swimmingly — yet another indication of how GOP power players in Congress aren’t anywhere close to getting over the profound ambivalence they have about their presidential candidate.
“It was a good start, but I continue to want to know more” was about the most crisply positive thing the senator from Tennessee had to say Monday after returning to the Capitol from Manhattan, where he’d spent an hour in Donald Trump’s office.
And then, the classic diplo-speak construct for expressing disappointment in a hoped-for ally: “My sense is that he will evolve.”
As chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee the past 15 months, Corker is by far the most prominent lawmaker to make a pilgrimage to Trump in the three weeks since the Manhattan businessman effectively secured the Republican nomination .
That fueled frenzied speculation that he’d been summoned for a preliminary audition as a running mate . Just as obviously, Corker could have been invited by a candidate ready to enhance his understanding of international affairs and willing to hear some nuanced explanations of the how the party’s congressional wing views the globe.
Either agenda would have afforded Corker an opening to wax effusive about Trump. And that stamp of approval would have carried serious weight among many of the Republicans on the Hill who have still never laid eyes on their party’s new leader — and who remain as deeply worried about his personal temperament and understanding of the issues as they are about his commitment to conservatism or his electability.
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] But no such praise was forthcoming. In fact, when asked twice whether he believed Trump was ready to be the most powerful person on Earth, Corker demurred — offering a blizzard of no-sound-bite-possible rhetoric about how the experiences of campaigning can turn out to be adequate preparation for governing.
According to the senator, neither his own foreign policy views nor the vice-presidency got broached. Nothing that was said led Corker to believe the search to fill the ticket’s second spot had begun. And when it came to geopolitical challenges, Trump did all the talking.
“I had never met him before, so it was a good opportunity to get a much better sense of who he is and his thought process relative to some issues that are very important to me, and I was glad to be able to do it and appreciated it very much,” Corker said. “It’s something that helps me understand where he’s going and helped us to know each other a little bit better.”
If a partnership eventually forms between the GOP’s presumptive standard-bearer and its senior voices on the Hill , in other words, it was not germinated this week in Trump Tower.
That’s all the more surprising because, in background and temperament, Trump would have had trouble finding a more similar senator with whom to start cultivating the relationship.
Corker, now 63, supervised building crews after college and then, at age 25, started his own construction firm with a pickup truck and $8,000 in savings. By the time he sold it in 1990, it was operating in 18 states. Like Trump, he also created an eponymous real estate development company, the Corker Group, which has made him the second-richest Republican in the Senate — with a minimum net worth of $18 million two years ago, according to his most recent financial disclosures.
Corker also led a major redevelopment of the Chattanooga’s waterfront during four years as mayor, ending in 2005. But the next year, he successfully branded himself as the only “non-career politician” in the field for an open Senate seat. With the help of $5 million from his own wallet, he defeated two former House members for the GOP nomination and a sitting congressman, Democrat Harold Ford Jr ., in the fall.
During the decade since, a shorthand version of Corker’s Senate reputation has developed that sounds similar to the way Trump looks to be perceived: A workaholic who’s succeeded at making deals on policy by bringing a businessman’s outsider sensibilities to an insider’s game.
He’s also a senator who, like the presidential candidate, finds it very difficult to avoid making assertive statements whenever he confronts an open microphone, without talking points that have been scripted in advance and on whatever topics reporters toss out.
His congressional and life experiences would therefore seem to fit the bill for a position in Trump’s inner circle. And Corker’s credentials on foreign policy would bring helpful gravitas to Trump’s general election campaign – if only the two were not so far a part on that front .
One of Corker’s most important bipartisan achievements was a deal to bolster border security in the immigration bill the Senate passed in 2013, which Trump derides every chance he gets . Corker has been a reliable supporter of trade liberalization deals, including the pending agreement among a dozen Pacific Rim nations, which the presumptive nominee deplores.
Corker has made nuclear non-proliferation a priority of his time with the Foreign Relations gavel. Trump has suggested nations including Japan and South Korea should be urged to have nuclear arsenals instead of relying on U.S. atomic weapons as a deterrent.
His time in New York, the senator said, only began to open a window into the “sort of realist” worldview of one of the two people with the potential to become the 45th president. “It’s a little bit more of a focus on core national interests,” he offered. “Less of a highly active role — but one where America leads.”
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] Corker encouraged other Republicans in Congress to reach out to arrange similar meetings, and there are hints the campaign operation is working to set up more getting-to-know you sessions for influential senators and House members.
But if the report from Monday’s get-together is any indication, Trump is a very long way from assuaging even his most obvious potential compatriots and collaborators on the Hill.