“We Take Our Democracy for Granted,” Says Bob Corker, Former GOP Senator and Trump Critic
Former Sen. Bob Corker spoke to FRONTLINE for the documentary "Trump's American Carnage."
Twelve days after the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, Bob Corker, a former Republican senator from Tennessee, told FRONTLINE that “we take our democracy for granted, and yet I think recently we’ve realized how fragile that might be.”
Corker spoke to FRONTLINE for Trump’s American Carnage, a new documentary that examines how former President Donald Trump stoked division and violence throughout his administration, leading to the insurrection that took place earlier this month.
In a broad-ranging interview with FRONTLINE producer Gabrielle Schonder, Corker talked about Trump’s impact on the Republican party, on U.S. democracy and on Americans who believe Trump’s unfounded claims of election fraud. Below are some highlights from the interview; read and watch an extended version as part of FRONTLINE’s ongoing Transparency Project.
“CHAOTIC NATURE” OF THE TRUMP WHITE HOUSE
Corker, who held his Senate seat from 2007 to 2019, had been a critic of Trump while in office. In late 2017, Corker tweeted that the White House had “become an adult day care center.” A couple of weeks later, Trump fired back that Corker “couldn’t get elected dog catcher in Tennessee.”
In his FRONTLINE interview, Corker said he was “very aware of the chaotic nature of the White House” during Trump’s tenure. He described getting calls from White House officials, whom he did not name, while he was chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — a post he held from 2015 to 2019 — asking him to call the president and intercede on policy issues.
“I remember getting a call one morning: ‘Look, Corker, you’ve got to call over here at 9:45. The president’s getting ready to make a decision at 10:00, and he’s really heading into a bad place. Would you please call at 9:45?’ Because you know, [Trump] had a tendency to — the last person that called him ended up having the biggest effect,” Corker said.
He said Trump’s accessibility was not inherently a bad thing but added, “The flip side of all that is that everybody had access to him.” Corker said, “There would be some fringe character that would call at 11:00 at night with this conspiracy-type thinking, and, you know, the president would come in the next morning and upend all the discussions that had been taking place around a particular topic.”
THOSE WHO SUPPORTED BASELESS “ELECTION FRAUD” CLAIMS
After the 2020 presidential election, Trump, his staunch supporters and many lawmakers — including 8 senators and 139 House members who objected to the January 6 Electoral College count — maintained, with no evidence, that widespread voter fraud had taken place.
Corker said talking to people back home in Tennessee opened his eyes to how many people believe Trump’s claims, including people Corker respects and has known his whole life.
“The president was obviously very aware of that attachment that people had to him, right. And how tight it was,” Corker said. “He goes to these rallies; he can feel it. And so, here he perpetuates this total untruth about the election. And intelligent, hardworking Americans … follow him lock, stock and barrel.”
Corker, who left the Senate in January 2019, saw it as “unbelievable” that members of Congress allowed the president to continue to cast doubt on election results. “‘Well, no harm’s being done; we’ve got to let the process play out,’” Corker characterized those lawmakers as saying. “If you called President-Elect Biden ‘President-Elect Biden,’ you were off the team.”
“I mean, they aided and abetted, in essence, this myth that’s been perpetrated — put forth around the country,” Corker said.
“Then you had a group of senators and House members that took it to a different level. They were going to object to the Electoral College,” he said. “So, then, you’re perpetrating this myth even more fully.”
Corker told FRONTLINE: “That feeling of this election having been won fraudulently is going to hang out there for a while.”
THE “FRAGILITY OF DEMOCRACY”
Corker told FRONTLINE his first real public breach with the former president was over Trump’s reaction to the 2017 Unite the Right white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“To me, that was a step too far,” Corker said. He drew similarities between when Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville and when Trump told the January 6 rioters, “We love you.”
“The president, evidently … did not want to discourage that type of activity. As a matter of fact, wanted to encourage it,” Corker said. He sees the strength of white supremacist groups and their influence on current events as having grown over the course of Trump’s presidency.
“I think that the lesson in all of this is, if you accommodate a demagogue … if you accommodate someone who is telling untruths … it can grow into something way beyond what you ever fathomed,” Corker said. “I don’t think people expected that people would actually, you know, break into the Capitol, that five people would die. But I think it does demonstrate the fragility of a democracy and how what you say matters. And hopefully, the whole country has learned a great deal from this episode.”
Corker said one of the other lessons from Trump’s presidency was that “we should never, ever, ever go down this path again. And if we see a person coming down the pike that conducts themselves … like this president has conducted himself, especially here towards the end, we need to make sure we do everything we can to make sure someone else is elected.”