Sen. Corker pledges an open mind on Rice as secretary of State

Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerTrump backs Blackburn's Tennessee Senate bid Senate committee sets Monday vote even as Pompeo appears to lack support Corker has 'no idea' if Trump will run for reelection MORE (Tenn.), the presumptive incoming ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, declined to explicitly criticize Susan Rice after meeting Wednesday morning with the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. 

Corker, whose panel would have primary jurisdiction if President Obama tapped Rice to become the next secretary of State, pledged he would not prejudge her possible nomination.

A day after Corker said Rice would make a better chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee than secretary of State, he explained that he did not intend to steer Obama away from picking Rice.

Corker said he would fairly consider Rice's nomination, if Obama chooses her to lead the State Department. 

“I know that at some point I may play a semi-important role in who the next secretary of State may be,” he told reporters.

“Whoever the president nominates, I certainly plan to sit down and give a full hearing to, as I’ve said from Day One, regardless of who that nominee is,” he said. Corker promised to “weigh in heavily” when the nomination is made.

However, he suggested the president try to step back from the intensifying debate over Rice and contemplate who would be the best person to succeed Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonJustice to provide access to Comey memos to GOP lawmakers Justice Dept inspector asks US attorney to consider criminal charges for McCabe: reports 'Homeland' to drop Trump allegories in next season MORE.

“I’m asking the president to step back away from all that’s happened and take a deep breath and to nominate the person that he really believes is the very best person to be secretary of State for our country, regardless of relationship,” he said.

He said the Senate holds the secretary of State to a higher standard than other Cabinet members.

Corker said he is unhappy with the FBI’s and CIA’s handling of the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and its aftermath.

“I’m very disappointed in the entire apparatus here,” he said.

Earlier, Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsOvernight Energy: Trump NASA pick advances after drama | White House office to investigate Pruitt's soundproof booth | 170 lawmakers call for Pruitt to resign Trump's NASA nominee advances after floor drama Family, friends mourn death of Barbara Bush MORE (Maine) became the latest GOP senator to raise questions about Rice. 

After an almost two-hour meeting with the ambassador, Collins said she's unconvinced by Rice's explanation of her role after the attack.

“I continue to be troubled by the fact that the UN ambassador decided to play what was essentially a political role at the height of a contentious presidential election ... by agreeing to go on the Sunday shows to present the administration's position,” said Collins, the top Republican on the Homeland Security Committee. 

Collins, a centrist Republican who would be a key vote for Rice if she is nominated, also said she is concerned about Rice's role in denying security requests prior to the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Africa.

Collins's statement comes after three key Senate Republicans — Sens. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainHeitkamp becomes first Dem to back Pompeo for secretary of State Senate committee sets Monday vote even as Pompeo appears to lack support Trump checkmates Democrats in sending Pompeo to North Korea MORE (Ariz.), Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamDems walk tightrope on Pompeo nomination Senate panel moving ahead with Mueller bill despite McConnell opposition Overnight Defense: Lawmakers worry over Syria strategy | Trump's base critical of strikes | Flake undecided on Pompeo | Coast Guard plans to keep allowing transgender members | GOP chair wants to cut B from Pentagon agencies MORE (N.C.) and Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteAudit finds US Defense Department wasted hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars US sends A-10 squadron to Afghanistan for first time in three years No, the US did not spend million on a gas station in Afghanistan MORE (N.H.) — said Tuesday they were “more troubled” than ever after meeting with Rice.

— Julian Pecquet contributed