Cotton Emerging as Valued Trump Wingman in the Senate
In search of a new national security adviser after Michael Flynn resigned his post earlier this month, President Trump and his inner circle leaned on input from an informal, but increasingly influential, adviser on the outside: Sen. Tom Cotton.
The Arkansas Republican would come to play a leading role at this high-stakes juncture in steering Trump toward Flynn’s replacement, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster — consecrating a fruitful partnership between Cotton and the White House that both sides have cultivated for months.
On the day after Flynn’s resignation, the freshman senator told RealClearPolitics that Trump would need “a national security adviser who will be an honest broker between ... Cabinet members, someone in the Brent Scowcroft or the Stephen Hadley model,” nodding to two former advisers under Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, respectively.
“Dave McCormick and H.R. McMaster are two people who I think would be very excellent in that model,” Cotton added. “They’re not celebrities, they’re not high-profile, but we don’t need that in a national security adviser.”
At the time, neither man was being bandied about as a top candidate. When asked whether he had relayed those recommendations to the White House, Cotton said he was doing so through his statement to a reporter.
But Cotton ultimately did express his preferences directly to the White House, a senior adviser there said — and McMaster, under whom Cotton had served in the Army, would subsequently emerge as an attractive pick. After retired Vice Adm. Bob Harward turned down an offer, the president would land on McMaster.
"He is a man of tremendous talent and tremendous experience," Trump said, announcing his pick this week.
Cotton, the senior White House adviser said, was the first person to float McMaster as a candidate. His recommendation carried unusual sway: With Trump’s loyal wingman Jeff Sessions having retired from the Senate to run the Department of Justice, Cotton very well might be the administration’s new favorite senator.
“Senators can always get their calls returned, and administration officials are polite when a senator makes a personnel recommendation or raises a policy issue,” said Bill Kristol, editor at large of the Weekly Standard. “What's different with Tom is that lots of people throughout the administration, from its Trumpiest to least Trumpiest parts, genuinely respect his advice and assume that he's actually thought things through strategically.”
The Harvard-educated Army veteran has found a particular booster in Steve Bannon, the president’s chief strategist. During a radio interview last year, while chairman of Breitbart News, Bannon praised Cotton for remarks on criminal justice reform (“You threw down,” as he put it), and added that his daughter, a West Point graduate and Army officer, is a fan.
Cotton reciprocated during the campaign, vouching support for Trump when other Republicans wavered. His public show of confidence was all the more impactful and surprising because Cotton, as a vocal defense hawk and emerging GOP leader on foreign policy, would have fundamentally disagreed with Trump on a host of key policy issues.
“If Donald Trump is elected president, I will support him when he is right and we’ll try to change [his] direction when he is wrong,” Cotton explained at the Aspen Ideas Festival during the summer.
Rarely has there been such an opportunity to immediately and significantly mold a president from outside the White House; most presidents arrive in Washington with a pre-defined inner circle, including a trusted foreign policy team working from an established worldview. But not so with Trump, a first-time politician with no policy chops of his own, whose unconventional campaign dissuaded many top Republicans from signing on.
Following the campaign, Cotton “made a strong impression” on Trump during a preliminary interview as one of five candidates for defense secretary, said the senior adviser. Although the post ultimately went to retired Gen. James Mattis, Cotton did not recede from the Trump fold -- instead asserting himself on some of the administration’s key personnel decisions.
Cotton helped to bring in retired Gen. John Kelly to lead the Department of Homeland Security. And he recommended Elliott Abrams, a Reagan and George W. Bush alum, as Rex Tillerson’s deputy at the State Department.
Abrams won the support of Trump’s inner circle, but the president put the kibosh on the pick when he learned that Abrams had publicly opposed him during the election. His top advisers and Cotton “couldn't save Trump from himself,” one senior GOP Senate aide sighed.
But Cotton has forged ahead despite that setback, successfully pushing hard for McMaster in the influential national security adviser role.
Cotton “always gives sound advice,” the senior White House adviser said, and “the president respects his judgment.”
His role informally advising the administration could also reassure skeptical government and policy professionals, who have watched from the sidelines as the young White House has careened from one crisis to the next.
Evelyn Farkas, a deputy assistant secretary of defense during the Obama administration, said Cotton “would be a positive influence because he has experience: military experience, but also political experience.”
And he has lent both to a White House with little institutional knowledge of or involvement with either -- emerging as a key ally in the process.