In 2009, Tom Cotton was a 32-year-old Army veteran and consultant running for Congress for the first time.
Now a freshman senator, Cotton is expected to head to Langley if President Donald Trump decides to nominate current CIA director Mike Pompeo to replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, according to two senior administration officials.
Cotton’s appointment would cement his meteoric rise in Republican politics, the result of qualities that have taken him, in a matter of years, from freshman congressman to the youngest serving U.S. senator to, potentially, the youngest CIA director in American history: loyalty, brains and raw ambition.
He also embodies one of the GOP’s responses to Trump. Having already shared some of the president’s populist leanings, he has worked to co-opt and shape the president rather than rail against him.
An ideological conservative from the American heartland, Cotton came up through the Ivy League and was groomed by some of the country’s leading conservative thinkers, from the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol, one of Trump’s leading critics, to the acolytes of Leo Strauss at the Claremont Institute who have been far more supportive of the president.
And Cotton represents a future for the GOP after Trump that welcomes the president’s base but rejects Trump’s tendency toward conspiracy-mongering.
“He is super smart and — this sounds like a backhanded compliment,” said South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy, who served alongside Cotton in the House. “It is not intended to be one. There are super smart people that are reluctant to give their counsel and super smart people that are not reluctant to give their counsel, and he is not reluctant to give his counsel.”
Cotton’s relationships in the White House transcend ideology and faction, and he’s been able to leverage pre-existing friendships — such as those with former chief strategist Steve Bannon and chief of staff Reince Priebus — into alliances with Trump’s inner circle. When he visited Trump Tower to interview for national security jobs during the transition, he exchanged phone numbers with presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, and the two now communicate regularly.
During the campaign, Cotton emerged as one of the few vocal Trump defenders among his Senate colleagues, and in Trump’s first year he has been perhaps the administration’s most important liaison on national security in Congress.
Like Pompeo, he has the sort of résumé that impresses this president, including two Harvard degrees and post-9/11 stints in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The two are close friends and ideological allies. Both have been outspoken critics of the Iran nuclear deal and advocates for a more restrictive immigration system, views that align with those of the president.
That support of Trump’s agenda, as well as his frequent defense of the president on television, has endeared Cotton to the president and to senior White House officials.
As the president has soured on Tillerson — “He’s weak on everything,” Trump has groused to advisers — he has grown increasingly fond of both Cotton and Pompeo.
Pompeo has developed a close relationship with the president during the daily intelligence briefings he delivers in the Oval Office and is widely seen as the favorite to replace Tillerson. “Rex is not long for this world and when he goes, this is what we wanna do,” said a senior White House aide.
If that happens, and Trump offers the CIA job to Cotton, the daily briefings will fall to him, a responsibility that will afford him an extraordinary amount of face time with the president and access to the West Wing’s inner circle.
He’s already had a hand in shaping the president’s team. It was Cotton, among others, who helped bring retired Marine Gen. John Kelly, now the White House chief of staff, to Trump’s attention during the transition. Cotton had developed a relationship with Kelly, then the head of U.S. Southern Command, when he was serving in the House, and recommended him for a Cabinet position shortly after Trump’s victory.
“I think it was pretty early on that he was pushing Kelly’s name for consideration for really any high-level Cabinet role in the transition, right after Trump won,” said a Cotton aide.
Cotton was among several lawmakers and outside advisers who pushed Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster as a candidate for national security adviser in the wake of Michael Flynn’s resignation. McMaster, Pompeo and Kelly — then serving as Secretary of Homeland Security — all attended Cotton’s 40th birthday party last spring.
He has also defended the president against the seemingly indefensible, including the president’s Inauguration Dayspeech at CIA headquarters, which he used in part to recount his election victory, and his refusal to release his tax returns.
Elected to Congress in 2012, Cotton never behaved like a newbie who had much to learn from his longer-serving peers. In the House, he led the conservative opposition to the Gang of Eight immigration bill and was responsible, in part, for the fact that it never got a vote on the House floor. Just two years after his election to the House, he decided to run for Senate against longtime incumbent Mark Pryor, routing him by 17 percentage points.
He hasn’t hung back in the Senate, either. Just months into his new job, he circulated an open letter to Iranian leaders warning that any agreement they reached with the Obama administration that wasn’t approved by Congress was “nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei.” Democratic lawmakers and several political observers decried the letter — which was co-igned by 46 Republican senators — as a circumvention of the duties of the secretary of state.
Within the intelligence community, Cotton is viewed as a political grandstander who might lack the experience to lead a workforce largely older and more experienced than he is. It’s also a post, some said, that has left many of its occupants politically bruised no matter how much experience they have brought to Langley.
Among Cotton allies, views on his possible elevation to the Trump Cabinet are mixed. Some cheer it as a promotion that offers a natural jumping off point for a man whose presidential ambitions are a poorly kept secret.
“The Senate is a horrible place, who would want to spend their life there?” said one Cotton ally. “Six years ago, he was a kid looking for a job and running for a House seat. People who are head of the CIA have a history of being vice-presidential nominees and going on to serve as presidents.”
Just one CIA director — George H.W. Bush — went on to serve as vice president and then as president, though others, including Leon Panetta and Robert Gates, have gone on to serve as secretary of defense.
Others close to Cotton fret that, if he is offered the job and is confirmed by the Senate, he would be giving up an influential perch in Congress and tying his reputation to an administration whose future is uncertain.
The Bush administration’s enhanced interrogation program — something Cotton has vocally defended — left George Tenet, Porter Goss and Michael Hayden politically wounded, and the Obama administration’s liberal use of drones took a similar toll on John Brennan, one of Obama’s agency directors.
Trump has also shown a willingness to cast blame on the agencies when crisis strikes — a reality for which some inside the CIA and elsewhere in the intelligence world have already braced.
For the GOP, which has faced a number of special elections after the president tapped several Republican lawmakers to serve in the administration, Cotton’s potential nomination would add an additional stresser to the 2018 midterm elections. Under Arkansas law, Gov. Asa Hutchinson would appoint an interim senator to serve until then, but Arkansans would elect a new senator in 2018. Cotton is not up for reelection until 2020.
Though Republicans have prevailed in the special elections held to fill posts vacated lawmakers who have joined the administration, they have caused a collective headache for the party. Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke’s confirmation as interior secretary left the party with Rep. Greg Gianforte, who assaulted a reporter on the eve of his election; the party poured millions of dollars into Georgia to save the House seat long held by Tom Price, only to lose him as Secretary of Health and Human Services amid a private-plane scandal; and longtime Sen. Jeff Sessions’ confirmation as attorney general has the party shuddering at the prospect of Roy Moore’s election in Alabama.
Republicans say they are determined to be more aggressive if another opening appears, jumping in early to back a candidate acceptable to the establishment and palatable to the right-wing base. Someone, in other words, who looks something like Tom Cotton.
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