Republicans Like Bob Corker Have Nowhere to Go

The former senator from Tennessee famously clashed with President Donald Trump. After two years of silence, he still thinks his party is the future.

Senator Bob Corker in black and white with colorful geometric shapes around him
Pete Marovich / Getty; The Atlantic

Senator Bob Corker had just gotten out of a hot-yoga session with his wife on a Sunday morning in 2017 when his phone started blowing up. President Donald Trump was tweeting about him, falsely claiming that the Tennessee Republican supported the Iran deal (he did not) and that he had begged Trump for a reelection endorsement (Corker says he never did such a thing). “I got to my house, and I was dripping wet, standing in my closet, getting undressed to go jump in the shower,” Corker told me recently from his office in Chattanooga. He typed out a response: “It’s a shame the White House has become an adult day care center. Someone obviously missed their shift this morning.” Corker sent it to a couple members of his staff—“No public officials should ever send their own tweets,” he says—whom he expected to talk him down. “No, it’s too good,” they told him. “We’re going to let it go.” The comment has now been retweeted nearly 148,000 times.

Corker’s tweet seemed to resonate because it stated plainly something that few Republicans were willing to say out loud at the time: The country was being run by someone who regularly broadcasted false information, seemingly without forethought or input from his staff. But Corker, who left office in 2019, gets frustrated by the focus on this kind of dramatic episode. “I spend not one second of my day thinking about any of those things. Okay? Not one second,” he said. “It’s such an irrelevant part of our life.”

Still, he is also starting to recognize that his legacy as a United States senator—and as mayor of Chattanooga, where he got his start in elective office—was defined not just by the legislation he passed or his work as the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee but by his willingness to call out racism and moral failings in his own party. Corker still believes in what he sees as the core mission of the Republican Party: to promote free enterprise, fight for equal opportunity for everyone, and protect citizens’ safety. But it’s not clear where a person like him fits in today’s version of the GOP. In 2020, Corker didn’t vote for Trump, but he also couldn’t bring himself to support Joe Biden. He cast his ballot for a Republican senator who, Corker believes, has no desire to be president. (He wouldn’t say which one—even his wife doesn’t know.) That ethos is hard to find in Washington, but Corker still believes it’s worth pursuing.

Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Emma Green: Let’s start with some ancient history. In 2006, you were running for Senate, and the Republican National Committee financed an infamous ad about your opponent, Harold Ford Jr. (The ad showed fake “man on the street”–style interviews, including one with a scantily dressed white woman who declares, “I met Harold at the Playboy party!”) At the time, you said, “We don’t want this. We want it pulled,” and it was gone in a few days.

The ad seems to be an early sign of where the Republican Party might have been headed. Were there elements at that time in the national leadership of the party who might have been thinking, How do we mobilize against the Black opponent of the white front-runner in Tennessee?

Bob Corker: You’re maybe overthinking what actually happened. Probably the type of person who thought up that ad was some political operative or some pollster. Matter of fact, I had very tough conversations with the entity that ran that ad.

Green: What were those conversations like?

Corker: Oh, it just cratered us. We were at plus-six in the race, and it took us to minus-four over seven days. The ad came out on a Friday night, and it ran throughout the weekend, but you can’t pull it down. And we couldn’t talk directly with the RNC, because it was illegal. The ad was constantly on the air—Wolf Blitzer and Chris Matthews. Every outlet in the country was talking about it.

And it painted me. I mean, how did I evolve to the public arena? I saw that we had poverty in our inner city and people who weren’t able to live in decent housing. I led the creation of a nonprofit that helped 10,000 people here in our community have decent, fit, and affordable housing. Predominantly, they were African Americans. That was my history. So I come to this race. People didn’t differentiate between me and the RNC. They did so much damage to us and hurt me personally. People who didn’t know me thought I was a part of that.

Green: Was your criticism that the ad was strategically unwise? Or was there a bigger-picture conversation about, “Who are we as a party, and what kind of message are we trying to send?”

Corker: When you’re 30 days or three weeks away from a nationalized election, you’re not thinking at that moment about what this says about us as a party. You’re livid over what people have done to you in the election in the name of helping you.

I’ll fast-forward to an event that, to me, is more indicative. When I ran for Senate in 2006, we had a Democratic governor, and the election was very close. We were a mixed state. West Tennessee was Democratic. Look at what happened when President Obama was elected. Look at west Tennessee today. To me, that’s a little more indicative of how race possibly affected the state of Tennessee.

Green: Say a little bit more about that. You felt, even at the time when President Obama was running in 2008, that there might be political changes happening?

Corker: We were in the height of a financial-system breakdown. I was highly involved, as a young senator, in shaping the future of the automobile industry. So, no, I’m not thinking about that at the time. What I’m reflecting upon is that by 2010, Tennessee had become a solidly red state. Obviously, people in our state railed against President Obama’s policies and health-care bill. But there was certainly a turn in our state to bright red from being purple just a few years earlier.

Can I say that race had nothing to do with that? I don’t think that I can.

Green: In the period you’re pointing to—2008, 2010, the Tea Party surge—there was a turn within the Republican base. At the time, did you look around and say, There’s something going on in my party?

Corker: I mean, obviously, I was very aware. During the Tea Party period of time, I did 66 town-hall meetings across our state. I remember walking into the Loudon High School auditorium. Town-hall meetings typically are not particularly interesting. But there were over a thousand people there with placards. They were angry—at Republicans, too. I was very concerned about where we were going fiscally as a nation, but I was unaligned with them because I was from Washington, and I didn’t say the red-meat things because I don’t believe them. I’ve never been able to say those kinds of things. I cannot bash the other side of the aisle. I’ve just never been able to bash a Democrat because they’re a Democrat.

The Tea Party—they liked me. They didn’t love me.

Green: When you first saw candidate Trump coming onto the scene a few years later, it seems like you thought, Okay, there’s something here that could be potentially useful and productive.

You’re shaking your head.

Corker: There were other candidates I preferred who washed out. I was just amazed at it. But I’ve always attempted to be constructive. I remember watching a foreign-policy speech that Trump gave. It was okay. What I tried to do, especially being chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, was to take a few sentences of what he said and applaud those and try to build on those—almost leave a trail to a better place. Not to flatter him or get in his good graces. But, hopefully, I would be one of the few people saying something positive at that time, and he would read that and think, Yeah, yeah. Sure enough, he called right after that, thanking me for saying something positive.

Green: You talk about the rally in Charlottesville as a defining moment. What were you thinking as you were watching that on television and the press conference that happened afterwards?

Corker: I took a few days to take in everything that happened. I think the rally was on a Saturday. Tuesday at Trump Tower, the president made the comments that he made. I knew I was going to be here in Chattanooga on Thursday, in my hometown.

I got a call early one morning from someone at the White House. I was a recipient of calls from a number of people—almost like they were standing in a coat closet in the White House: “Corker. You cannot believe what has happened.” I received a call from someone well known, probably about 6 a.m. Everybody knows I get up early.

I knew what I was going to do. I thought through the words I was going to use very carefully. I used the words not yet: “The president has not yet demonstrated …” That gives this person the ability to become something different than they were at that time.

Green: In retrospect, we can all recognize that Charlottesville was a turning point in the Trump presidency. But what was it about that moment that made you think, I have to say something?

Corker: I was mayor of a city. I spent my time dealing with issues in our inner city. These were my friends, my fellow citizens, my constituents, the people that I worked with on a daily basis. To have a person who was blatantly dog-whistling to white supremacists was totally unacceptable. Something needed to be said. Not in a way that was a personal attack but to focus on the fact that this person was not rising to the occasion as a president.

Green: In the days leading up to January 6, the two senators from Tennessee were part of the effort to challenge the certification of the Electoral College results. One of those people was your replacement. Did you call them up and say, “This is not how we do this”?

Corker: I made a statement. I go out of my way to not ever name people. I just don’t think that’s constructive. But we know from other quarters that it stung. I served for 12 years in the Senate, a year and a half as commissioner of finance, and four years as mayor. I know how receiving calls like that is. I’ve tried to not be one of those people. They’re the senators now, and I am not.

Green: What do you imagine your work ahead will be? Where will your labors be most valuable?

Corker: I’ve got a lot of energizing, fun things going in business. But I know, down in here [Points to his chest.], that while I will always continue to love the world of business, there will be some missional thing that will evolve as a part of my life. I don’t know what that is yet, but I just know what my DNA is. It’s been that way since I was in my late 20s. I’ve had the greatest privilege of my life serving publicly. The most rewarding period of time was being mayor of a city, where you touch people in a real way.

I’ve earned the right for a period of time to be in this state that I’m at. I’ve got the freedom to be uncluttered, mind-wise, with all these things that you’re talking about.

Green: I want to ask you about something that’s actually more local, and perhaps more symbolic. The once-defunct Walnut Street Bridge, which is now a vibrant pedestrian pathway, is a beautiful symbol of Chattanooga’s future. It’s also where the Ed Johnson lynching memorial has been built. To me, this really captures the challenge ahead for the city: to thrive and grow and attract people to live here, but also to talk more openly about the history of this place, where lynchings occurred.

This is a really big struggle in the country right now—figuring out how to work optimistically toward the future, but also to be more open and honest about our past. I think people in your party have struggled with this. What I want to know from you is: What’s the right way forward in this hard moment?

Corker: Just as it relates to the memorial, my wife and I contributed to it. I read about it in the paper, and I signed a check the next day. That’s something that we, as a family, support.

Neither party is addressing the race issue in a manner that represents the greatness of our nation. I think the Democratic Party is doing as much damage—or more—on the issue of race today than even some of these subtle but real undertones in the Republican Party that you’re speaking of. We should be doing everything we can to give every student of every race and every young person every opportunity possible. But then to say, “We’re not going to do everything we can to have equal opportunity. We’re going to have equal outcomes”—all that does is exacerbate it, and then you’ve got white people who feel disenfranchised.

I can’t believe what’s happening in Atlanta right now. I cannot believe the total lack of concern for allowing the crime issue to be what it is. I don’t understand what’s happening with these big-city mayors, how they would disrespect their citizenry so much that they would let crime be rampant.

Generally speaking, Black people in our country somehow have had lesser opportunity. That’s what we ought to be focusing on, because that’s the future. That’s solving a problem. That’s taking us someplace. Should we be aware of our past? Yes, we should be aware of our past. But some of the things that are happening right now today are not benefiting racial equality. They’re actually taking us down a hole that leads to a place that is not constructive.