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Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker speaks to reporter in Washington Friday.
Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor | Caption

One key senator weighs in on the Trump transition so far

Chat with a bridge-builder

Sen. Bob Corker is respected by Republicans and Democrats and is often a key cog in bipartisan efforts. He's bullish on Rex Tillerson, cautious on Russian hacking, and surprised by Trump's cellphone habits. 

Leading up to the confirmation hearings he will chair Wednesday for Rex Tillerson, President-elect Trump’s nominee to be secretary of State, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee talked at a Monitor-sponsored breakfast for reporters Friday.

Respected on both sides of the aisle as a results-oriented senator and a dealmaker, Senator Corker said he was bullish on Mr. Tillerson’s potential effectiveness, urged caution in assessing Russian hacking, and lauded the access he receives from the Trump team. 

Tillerson as secretary of State

Senator Corker offered an optimistic assessment of the odds for Tillerson’s confirmation and his potential effectiveness as secretary of State if confirmed. Tillerson, former chairman and chief executive of ExxonMobil, “is going to be overwhelmingly supported” by senators, he said.  

As the leader of an enterprise with 70,000 employees, Tillerson had extensive business dealings with Russian President Vladimir Putin, raising questions for critics about how the nominee would approach United States-Russia relations. Corker quipped that “oil resides in many places where autocrats exist.” He noted that Senate Democrats like the fact that Tillerson “is a scientist and an engineer and believes in science.”

In the end, Corker said, “people are going to realize that his views on Russia are not in any way out of the mainstream.”

If confirmed, Tillerson will get “huge freedoms to put in place the people that he thinks will serve him best” on his State Department management team, Corker suggests. And given Mr. Trump’s “orientation toward business” and the former oil executive’s extensive experience with leaders outside the US, Corker said Tillerson would be positioned “to have a very substantial role in being able to shape” policy.

Russian hacking

Corker said that in seeking to influence the 2016 election by hacking Democratic National Committee computers, the Russians “have done very nefarious things.”  

But Corker said that before considering retaliatory steps, “you have got to really dig deep” to understand what the Russian’s intent was and whether it went beyond information gathering to attempting to change the outcome of the election. Corker said he was waiting to read the classified report on Russian hacking which Trump received on Friday and Congress will get next week.

“My sense is it’s going to be very incriminating,” he said. His view is that Russian “intent relative to this issue evolved as the landscape evolved, and they began to see success in what they were doing.”

The senator noted that “hacking is a tool that is used by sophisticated countries around the world to gain information” including the US. So, he said, “when you put in place sanctions you have got to make sure you are sanctioning a country for doing something that you, yourself, are not” doing.

Access in the Trump administration

Corker also talked about the ready access he has to the incoming Trump administration. Corker was several minutes late arriving at the breakfast since he was on the phone with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and an influential adviser. 

“It is an amazingly accessible group of people,” Corker said, noting that he called Trump’s cell phone on Sunday and the president-elect picked up. Corker said his phone does not transmit a caller ID. “I am not saying it has anything to do with me.” Corker said this level of accessibility was “very, very good and highly refreshing.”