Once a presidential hopeful, Sen. Mark Warner returns to the spotlight with the Russia probe

  • "I'm concerned by a president who seems to lack the empathy that's part of his job whether he likes it or not, at moments of crisis to try to bring the nation together," Warner told CNBC.
  • "I think [Republicans] could be running the government but at the same time distancing themselves from some of the more outrageous comments made by this president, comments that frankly are undermining our standing in the world."
  • "I think the whole nature of our economy is fundamentally changing. The nature of work is changing."

Before Barack Obama emerged as a strong national candidate, some Democrats wanted Mark Warner to run for president in 2008. He was a successful business executive who became a successful governor of Virginia — then a state that Warner's party hadn't captured for 40 years. He instead ran for the U.S. Senate that year, and won.

After earning a moderate reputation, if not many national headlines, Warner has returned to the spotlight a decade later. With his Republican Senate colleague Richard Burr of North Carolina, he leads the Intelligence Committee's investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election that, alongside special prosecutor Robert Mueller's probe, has unsettled the Trump White House. If he successfully concludes that assignment — in the eyes of Democratic voters at least — it could even revive his presidential prospects.

Warner, 63, sat down over breakfast near his home in Alexandria, Virginia, to discuss President Donald Trump, the Russia investigation, the pending GOP tax bill and Oval Office dreams. What follows is a condensed, edited transcript of their conversation.

CNBC's John Harwood: You're somebody who thought about running for president, came pretty close to it. Describe what you're seeing in the Oval Office from Donald Trump right now.

Sen. Mark Warner: In Donald Trump, I see someone who I don't think was prepared for this office emotionally or obviously on an issue basis. I'm not sure he actually expected to win himself. And unfortunately, I think we're seeing in so many ways that lack of preparation, and candidly, the lack of seriousness. You get no sense from Mr. Trump that he is at all awed by the responsibilities of the office or, for that matter, respectful of the responsibilities of the office. Unfortunately, in many ways, our country's paid the price of that.

Harwood: Does it scare you?

Warner: I'm worried about someone who is commander in chief who does not seem to acknowledge or listen to advisors who, I think, bring more facts to the table. I'm concerned about a commander in chief who seems to undermine diplomacy writ large, and then his actual secretary of State when he's deployed, for example, on a mission to China vis-a-vis North Korea. I'm concerned by a president who seems to lack the empathy that's part of his job whether he likes it or not, at moments of crisis to try to bring the nation together. What I thought was one of the low days of his presidency (was) the outrageous comments he made after the tragedy in my state, in Charlottesville.

I don't think he gets the notion that this job is not a reality TV show where he's supposed to pummel whoever is the opposition of the day, but instead where he's supposed to serve the country as a uniter, serve the country as a leader, serve the country in many ways as a comforter in chief during moments of tragedy.

Harwood: How do you evaluate the way your colleagues have reacted to Donald Trump?

Warner: What I fear for my Republican colleagues is that history is not going to judge them well, in this moment where this president has done such outrageous things, that they haven't been more willing to call him out. We do see friends of mine like Bob Corker and Jeff Flake and others, but it seems to be the ones who are quitting who are still willing to call him out. They won and they get to run the government. That's the way our system works. But I think they could be running the government but at the same time distancing themselves from some of the more outrageous comments made by this president, comments that frankly are undermining our standing in the world.

Harwood: How do you think they feel about it?

Warner: I hear lots and lots of private comments, eye rolling, concern. They at first were able to kind of, you know, slough it off a bit. But then when the tweeting continues, when the kind of name-calling with other foreign leaders, not just Kim Jong Un but other leaders around the world who we might have a disagreement with – you know, I think he's called out virtually every foreign leader in the world, with the exception, of course, of Vladimir Putin, which raises a whole other set of issues. I wish that private consternation was more vocal, because at the end of the day I think it would reinforce broad swaths of the country who are deeply disappointed with this president.

Harwood: In terms of what we've seen from the last two elections — Alabama a few days ago, your home state of Virginia before that — what conclusions do you draw about how the country is reacting to the political moment that we're in?

Warner: I'd love to claim it was a sudden resurgence of Democrats. I'm not sure that's necessarily the case. I think it's frankly disgust with the kind of tone and tenor that comes out of this White House. You know, whether it is his — you name the group — who the president has made inappropriate comments about.

From his travel ban to the comments equating Nazis, racists and anti-Semites with folks in Charlottesville who were there to say, "Hey, we're not that kind of community," to the litany of tweets where anyone that he disagrees with he calls out in usually the most kind of schoolyard, childish tone. This is not what people expect from our president. And it doesn't matter Democrat or Republican — I think people are saying, "Enough already."

Harwood: Thirty years after you told your parents you were going to see the White House from the inside, have you given up that dream? Does that still exist in your mind?

Warner: Where I think I can add the most value right now is, 1) to get this investigation done right, get it done in a bipartisan fashion and, 2) both political parties are basically arguing about 20th century issues with a backwards look. I think the whole nature of our economy is fundamentally changing. The nature of work is changing. I'd like to be out articulating some ideas about, how do we create a new social contract that would have portable benefits? How do we take a tax reform effort that would actually focus on investing in human capital? How do we ...

Harwood: That sounds to me like a yes.

Warner: No, it would be a willingness to try to lay out an agenda frankly that maybe somebody else could pick up. I don't get up every morning by any means with the kind of fire in the belly that I might have had a decade ago. I do feel like now that I've kind of earned a spot where, hopefully, I at least get a little bit listened to with friends on both sides of the aisle. And boy oh boy, getting this Russian investigation right — if I can get that and do it in a bipartisan way, that'll be a good piece of work.

"Speakeasy with John Harwood" is now available as a podcast. Subscribe on iTunes and listen to Harwood's extended conversations with political decision-makers.