WASHINGTON - Sen. Bob Corker says he senses the Trump administration’s expectations for a closer relationship with Russia are “hugely diminishing” and that a “grand bargain” with Russian president Vladimir Putin to fight global terrorism and resolve the conflict in Syria may be off the table for now.
“I just think the perception of what is real in that regard is changing, as I thought it would,” said Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “I don’t get the sense there are plans today of some grand bargain, which was a little concerning on the front end.”
In a wide-ranging interview with the USA Today Network, the Tennessee senator suggested administration officials like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis may be injecting a dose of reality into the Trump administration’s conversation about Russia.
Corker himself also raised doubts about the possibility of establishing a closer relationship with Moscow.
“To the extent that we can find common ground with Russia on issues, I’m all for it,” Corker said from his Senate office, not far from the Capitol. “I just think, though, that we need to look at them for who they are and realize that over the last five years, they’ve done a great deal to destabilize portions of the world that we care about.”
Syria is the place to begin testing whether there is any common ground between the U.S. and Russia, Corker said, “but I don’t get the sense anybody is looking at some big grand plan right now, which is a relief.”
Corker suggested a “slow pace” approach in U.S. dealings with Russia.
“They have equipment and men in eastern Ukraine right now – in eastern Ukraine, not Crimea,” he said. “They took Crimea. But they have people that are killing other people in eastern Ukraine right now with Russian equipment. They are a country that doesn’t abide by international norms.”
On the campaign trail last year, President Trump heaped praise on Putin, even saying he was a better leader than then-President Barack Obama.
Asked for his own opinion of Putin, Corker called the Russian leader “ruthless, calculating.”
“When you look at a country that has got the economic issues they have, has the demographic issues they have – very dependent on minerals and oil, has gone through no reforms – it’s very remarkable he has taken his place on the world stage in the way he has since 2012,” Corker said.
“He has got not much of a hand to play, and yet he has played it incredibly well. We’ve got to figure out a way to begin notching him back away from some of the nefarious activities he has been involved in.”
Democrats have called for a special commission to investigate some Trump associates’ alleged ties to Russia during last year’s election. Last week, California Congressman Darrell Issa became the first Republican call for an independent investigation.
Corker, however, said he doesn’t yet think an independent commission is needed.
Corker said he has talked to both North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, the Republican chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, and the committee’s top Democrat, Mark Warner of Virginia, and believes “there’s a full and robust effort” by that panel to get an understanding of what transpired.
“I personally think the way it’s being handled right now is appropriate,” he said. “At any point in the future, if I feel differently, I’ll weigh in and speak in that manner.”
Reach Michael Collins at 703-854-8927, at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @mcollinsNEWS.