U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said Tuesday he supports the Trump administration's diplomatic efforts to try to contain the nuclear threat from North Korea even while the Tennessee Republican distanced himself some from the president's threat last week of "fire and fury" against North Korea if it launched a nuclear missile at the United States.
"It's a serious time for our nation," Corker told the Rotary Club in Cleveland, Tenn. "I know there has been a lot of hot rhetoric — some of which should not have been said, quite honestly. But I really do believe that (Secretary of State Rex) Tillerson is working hard with China and others to do what is necessary to help ease this situation."
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who last week threatened to fire missiles at the U.S. territory of Guam, backed off of the threat Tuesday and said he will wait to see what the United States does. Corker said the Trump administration has succeeded in gaining unanimous support from the UN security council for tougher sanctions on North Korea, including a ban on coal, iron and lead from the Asian nation.
Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the U.S. must still work to remove any nuclear threat from North Korea. But he conceded that Kim Jong Un likely is to do whatever he can to retain his nuclear capability, limited though that may be.
"Most people believe that he will not give up his nuclear weapons — ever — because he needs that as a way for survival," Corker said. "I think Tillerson is doing everything he can to resolve this in a peaceful manner. I do think that the president's comments, as a last resort, to move to kinetic activity are not hollow statements. At the same time, we need to do everything we can to make sure this is resolved peacefully."
U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., said Tuesday the U.S. must work with its allies to convince North Korea to either give up its nuclear weapons or limit their use or deployment capability.
"Sadly, (North Korea) proved to the world that it has joined that [nuclear] club," Fleischmann said in an interview with the Times Free Press. "They've demonstrated to the world they've got the ability to deliver it. We're probably going to have to sit down with them and say 'Look, if we can come up with a way that you have to give this up, what is there out there in the international community to incentivize that?"'
Corker said 28,500 U.S. troops remain stationed in South Korea and any nuclear firing by North Korea could threaten South Korea, Japan, China or other nearby neighbors — and potentially the United States if North Korea develops the technology to deliver its nuclear warheads.
Corker praised the foreign policy leadership in the White House from Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James "Mad Dog" Mattis, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Trump's new chief of staff, John Kelly.
Corker didn't include Donald Trump in his praise during his speech to the Rotary Club. But Corker said he talks regularly with the president and his top staff, "probably as much as anyone in the entire Congress."
Corker, who was on a short list by Trump for both vice president and secretary of state, said he remains close to the president even though he has differed with Trump at times in the manner Trump communicates or oversees the White House operations. In May, Corker told reporters the White House was in a "downward spiral" and needed to get "under control" amid reports that Trump had revealed classified information to high-ranking Russian officials during an Oval Office visit.
Corker on Tuesday again defended Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who Trump criticized last week for not leading the GOP-controlled Senate to repeal the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. Corker said he was disappointed that the Republicans in the Senate did not fulfill their campaign promise to repeal Obamacare, but he said support for repealing Obamacare outright appears to be waning in Washington.
Corker emphasized that Congress needs to focus on tax reform to help economic growth and debt control. The rising federal debt is America's biggest threat, Corker said.
Corker said he is eager to continue his work on both foreign relations and domestic policies that promote better economic growth. He told Cleveland Rotarians he will soon make an announcement about his expected re-election bid in 2018 for a third term in the U.S. Senate.
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