As rumors build that the Trump administration plans to boot Rex Tillerson from his post atop the State Department in order to replace him with Mike Pompeo, it’s worth examining who would lead the CIA in Pompeo’s absence. Trump is reportedly considering Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton to replace Pompeo as the head of the CIA — a pick that isn’t uncontroversial given Cotton’s deep Trump loyalty and relative intelligence inexperience.
The insanity of treating these massively consequential roles as interchangeable aside, here’s a bit of background on Cotton in case the rumors come to pass.
Who is Tom Cotton?
An Army veteran, Cotton served two combat tours in the Iraq war where he received a Bronze Star, among other decorations. He served one term in the House before joining the Senate in 2014 where he is serving his first term.
What does Cotton do in the Senate?
Cotton serves on the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the Joint Economic Committee and the Senate Committee on Armed Services. He serves as the chair of the Air Land Power Subcommittee and the Economic Policy Subcommittee.
Cotton on surveillance and Section 702
Cotton strongly believes in intensive surveillance measures as a prophylaxis against terrorism — a hardline stance that’s vehemently opposed by privacy advocates. “We’ve deprived very patriotic intelligence officials of critical tools that would keep this country safe,” he told Politico after losing a battle in favor of enhanced NSA surveillance measures.
Unsurprisingly, Cotton is a staunch supporter of Section 702, a controversial portion of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that provisions warrantless surveillance of American citizens. As he wrote in September, Cotton supports a full reauthorization of Section 702:
“I’m pleased that Attorney General Sessions and Director Coats have joined me in calling for a clean and permanent reauthorization of FISA Section 702. It’s crucial to collecting the intelligence we need to keep our country safe, and it has all the necessary safeguards to protect Americans’ privacy rights. My bill would extend the program indefinitely, as requested by the Trump administration, and now is as good a time as any for the Senate to pass it. The threats to our nation won’t end anytime soon, and neither should this vital tool.”
Cotton on election security
Cotton has expressed concerns about state-level election security, one of the least partisan viewpoints regularly expressed by the Arkansas Senator.
“These state governors, legislators, secretaries of state need to understand that if their voting systems are connected to the Internet, and they don’t have an auditable paper trail, that what didn’t happen in 2016 could happen in 2018, which is, say the actual impact on tabulated votes,” Cotton told Politico in a wide-ranging interview last month.
“No evidence that happened in 2016, but could happen. And we certainly don’t want that to happen. So I would advise every state, like I’ve advised my own state, to take very seriously this threat.”
In 2016, Cotton told CNN that he didn’t believe that the extreme interrogation practice of waterboarding qualified as torture: “Waterboarding isn’t torture. We do waterboarding on our own soldiers in the military,” Cotton told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “If experienced intelligence officials come to the President of the United States and say we think this terrorist has critical information and we need to obtain it and this is the only way we can obtain it — it’s a tough call. But the presidency is a tough job. And if you’re not ready to make those tough calls, you shouldn’t seek the office. Donald Trump’s a pretty tough guy, and he’s ready to make those tough calls.”
In 2015, Cotton joined 20 other Republicans in voting against a Senate amendment that would ban torture, particularly the kind of practices that proved controversial during the Bush administration.
Cotton’s Trump loyalty remains intact
Cotton has been described as “the GOP’s staunchest young hawk” and doesn’t have a reputation for working with anyone outside his own party. Cotton, a close ally and a loyalist of President Trump, has recently told anyone standing in the way of Trump’s foreign policy ideas to resign.
Cotton fiercely opposes Obama-era policy toward Iran, including its nuclear deal with Tehran, going so far as to draft a controversial letter in 2015 directly to the leadership in Iran that at least one Army general called “mutinous.”
On Russia and the 2016 election
A close Trump ally in Congress, Cotton has gestured toward his disbelief of the CIA’s own analysis of Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election. In a Senate Intel hearing with Jeff Sessions earlier this year, Cotton lobbed Sessions softball questions, at one point eliciting a laugh from the Attorney General with the question “Have you ever, ever in any of these fantastical situations heard of a plot line so ridiculous that a sitting United States senator and an ambassador of a foreign government colluded at an open setting with hundreds of other people to pull off the greatest caper in the history of espionage?”
In later intel hearings, he generally strayed from the task at hand along with the committee’s other deeply partisan Republicans, introducing new threads like a criticism of the FBI allowing Russian diplomats to “wander around the country” in some back and forth with FBI Counterintelligence Assistant Director Bill Priestap.
In June 2017, Cotton used his time in a Senate Intel Committee hearing to mock Hillary Clinton for “blaming her loss” on external factors, going so far as to suggest that she has become an “unwitting agent of Russia’s goals in the United States.” In the same hearing, Cotton used some of his other time to question if states and localities that run elections should avoid Kaspersky Labs security products but received no substantive response.
In an interview with Politico, Cotton seemed to accept the intelligence community’s assessment of Russia’s desire to sow chaos while dismissing the idea that Russia electing Trump was its best outcome:
“But also that they wanted to help elect Donald Trump. I think there’s at least some—an open question, there, not based on classified information, but based on the campaigns that the candidates ran. Donald Trump wanted to increase defense spending. Hillary Clinton didn’t want to, as much. Donald Trump wanted to accelerate nuclear modernization, not so with Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump wanted to expand ballistic-missile defense, not so with Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump wanted to pump more American oil and gas, Hillary Clinton did not.”
While he nearly always lines up with Trump’s more out-there notions, he doesn’t always line up. In June, he voted in favor of Russian sanctions, a departure in his record of voting with Trump 92.3% percent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight’s tracker of Cotton’s voting record.
More footage from Cotton’s committee service is collected online on his YouTube channel.