Tom Cotton isn’t quite ready to give the GOP over to being the party of Donald Trump—but he says the party needs to stop pushing back and let the president start to redefine it.
“You have to recognize that our party’s leadership was selling a product that wasn’t that popular,” Cotton said, speaking to me in his Senate office for POLITICO’s Off Message podcast.
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A senator from Arkansas for all of two years, without any preexisting relationship with Trump, and conservative politics that clash with many of Trump’s more moderate senior advisers, Cotton has become a main point of contact for the West Wing on the Hill, and used that to push both policy and personnel moves.
Cotton’s advice for colleagues looking to make their own inroads: “Donald Trump won, and he’s the president and everybody needs to accept that, especially the Democrats.”
He reflected at length on his time in Iraq in 2006.
“It gives you a very compelling appreciation of ground truth,” Cotton said, though he noted that in his case, being shot at and dodging bombs—“I’ll just say that I drive safely because I think I spent eight of my nine lives over there,” he said—didn’t change his thinking much.
“I did not develop my worldview because I joined the Army,” he said. “I joined the Army in part because of my worldview.”
The Republican Party is a rolling identity crisis these days, and nearly everyone expected a civil war after a Trump loss—back in the days when Cotton popped into Iowa in October to tease what many thought would be a 2020 presidential run, and he was going to lean in on hard-right domestic politics and an aggressive approach to foreign policy.
Now, Cotton says, he’s rethinking the core of what being a Republican means with Trump in the White House. Trump didn’t win because he was talking about tax reform or Obamacare repeal, Cotton says—all the Republican candidates were.
“What made him distinctive are issues like immigration, crime, trade, foreign policy and so forth. And the Republican Party as an institution needs to reflect on why he won those primaries and then why he didn’t just beat Hillary Clinton but beat her in places where Republicans had not won for decades,” Cotton said.
I asked him what being a conservative means to him, and whether it’s the same determination to just stop everything with Republicans in control of Congress and the White House, as it was when Barack Obama was president.
“Sometimes,” Cotton said. “Sometimes.”
Cotton supports Trump’s border wall, and thinks it’ll ultimately be better for the country and for winning Republicans votes. He wants to replace Obamacare, though he’s acknowledged at town halls back home in Arkansas that it’s complicated, and the GOP efforts to date have their flaws.
He knows Trump is impatient.
“Congress moves on its own schedule. Presidents always wish Congress would move faster. They always wish Congress would do more exactly what they think,” Cotton said.
Cotton’s happiest with Trump on foreign policy. In the weeks since the president ordered a Tomahawk missile strike on a Syrian airfield, Cotton said, he’s already heard from leaders all over the world about how America’s standing has been restored. He not worried that there’s been no Syria policy follow-up since—he says it’s underway. Same with the Iran nuclear deal, which he opposed enough to write a letter to the Iranian government in the midst of Obama administration negotiations, warning that a future White House might not stick with it.
Trump said during the campaign that tearing up the deal would be his “No. 1 priority,” but he has stuck by it as president.
Cotton says he doesn’t mind.
“It’s part of that broader Iran policy review,” Cotton said. “That’s just one small aspect of our relationship with Iran and the longest term. The greatest consequences of a nuclear deal with Iran is that it has sunset dates and it’s allowed Iran to continue much of its advanced technological work and it will put them on the path to a nuclear—a weaponized nuclear program in a matter of years.”
Cotton’s problem continues to be Obama, and he feels like Trump is returning American foreign policy to where it should be.
“I think most post-World War II leaders would have done the same things that George Bush did in Afghanistan and Iraq, at least at the beginning,” he said. “I think after three months of Donald Trump that it appears increasingly so that Barack Obama is the one who broke with, you know, 70 years of post-war foreign policy consensus.”
Cotton likes to read and talk history. He keeps two Abraham Lincoln books on a side table in his private office, and a painting of a young Lincoln up behind his desk. I asked him what he makes of Trump’s own statements about history, like the interview in which the president, to much consternation among historians and opponents, said that Andrew Jackson might have stopped what could have been a preventable Civil War. He wouldn’t bite when I asked him what message that sends to children and others about paying attention to history.
“Everybody has to unwind in one way or another, and you may look around my office and see Lincoln or Tocqueville or Thucydides. But, you know, there’s a reason why I put those out on display. If you open my closed bookshelf there, you’ll see a lot of Daniel Silva and C.J. Box books as well,” Cotton said. “If the president unwinds by catching some TV late at night or going to play golf, I don’t begrudge him that any more than I did Barack Obama playing golf or George Bush going mountain biking.”
But Cotton’s got his own theory of how Trump fits into Republican history.
“Reagan is still a very influential figure in our party in the same way that Abraham Lincoln is still a very influential figure in our party,” Cotton said. “In some ways, I think, you could say that Donald Trump is resurrecting some of the tenets of the Republican Party of Lincoln and McKinley and Coolidge.”