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Tom Cotton Further Positions Himself as Trump’s Heir

The hawkish young senator lavished praise on Trump's handling of China in a new report, and vowed to build on it. Perhaps he'll get the chance.
Tom Cotton

Sen. Tom Cotton is still a young man in a hurry.

A near-certain 2024 candidate, Cotton is quietly hatching his next plans, picking up his appearances on Fox News and having the conversations with mentors and potential donors that all would-be young presidents do. But, of greatest importance, the Arkansas senator (perhaps very cleverly) has split the baby on the voter fraud imbroglio that has riled the Republican Party.

Cotton declined to object to the certification of the Electoral College vote, as rival senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley did, but did not break with Donald Trump personally. Meanwhile, after registering her disappointment with him in a revealing profile by Tim Alberta, former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley can’t get the former president to return her calls. And if you’ve turned on the news lately, you would have noticed neither Hawley nor Cruz can catch much of a break, with slip-ups of their own making.

But Cotton is, generally speaking, drawing neither the media’s nor a president-in-exile’s fire. Though he never risked going down with the Trump ship, if Cotton is catching his attention, it is, strikingly, only to the senator’s political benefit.

Cotton recently heaped praise on Trump in a new report on China. Succinctly titled “Beat China,” the report advocates for “targeted decoupling” with the country, a phrase only factions of the Trump administration ever threatened.

“The Trump administration’s most consequential policy will prove to be, in my opinion, a tougher stance against the People’s Republic of China,” Cotton writes. “This approach deserves praise, and it ought to form the starting point for a long-term, bipartisan national strategy. The ultimate objective of that strategy should be, to quote the document that launched this country’s ultimately successful strategy against the Soviet Union, the ‘breakup or the gradual mellowing’ of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) power.”

Elected to the House of Representatives in 2012, and then the Senate in 2014, Cotton had considered a presidential run as early as 2016, according to those familiar with the situation. Once Trump secured power in Republican politics, Cotton endorsed him with a gusto that other party elites did not, proclaiming his support for the new standard-bearer at the 2016 convention. Vanquished 2016 contenders Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, for example, were more recalcitrant, with the Florida senator appearing just by video (well before that became a COVID-era norm) and the Texas senator notoriously urging a vote of conscience (before reversing himself that autumn).

When Trump triumphed, administration acolytes tried to recruit Cotton to serve as either CIA director or Defense secretary. Cotton, by most accounts, took a hard pass on a stint in the Trump White House. It was another move in a long line of careful calculations, and another subtle distinction from his conservative rivals.

Cotton was seen in conservative circles as a younger, if more secretive, version of Mike Pompeo, a politician a decade his senior. Speculation about his joining the Trump team reached its apex as the hawkish duo of Pompeo and John Bolton took over the administration’s foreign policy, while Trump perpetually struggled to assert his control over the Pentagon to any degree. Though the two were seen as basically an item in Washington for much of their tenures, Bolton now feuds with Pompeo, openly deriding Trump as unfit for service and chiding Pompeo for nakedly positioning himself for the presidency.

Set to duel in 2024, and occupying remarkably similar turf, it’s plausible a similar fate could befall the Cotton and Pompeo relationship. Contrasting their approaches to taking Republicans back to power, then, may be useful.

While Pompeo is formally banned from and sanctioned by the People’s Republic, with his new report, Cotton is not shy about trying to claim the China topic for himself. The status of Taiwan is a particular point of focus.

“To be sure, the [Chinese Communist Party] will risk a military conflict to preserve its hold on power at home—for example, to secure control over Taiwan—or if tempted by American irresolution,” Cotton writes. Lyle Goldstein of the U.S. Naval War College calls Taiwan “the most dangerous place on Earth.” And many regional experts believe that Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, will mount an invasion this decade. The most aggressive leader since Mao, he will almost certainly secure a third term in office, unprecedented in the modern era.

If Cotton goes further in the coming years, and explicitly vows a military response to such an invasion as president, he will be out of the gate ahead of his competitors. Himself a product of elite institutions, Cotton signals that he realizes corporate America leans heavily Democratic, and is skeptical of a changing of the guard on China: “The most significant domestic resistance will come from the China Lobby: American and Western companies profiting off economic integration with China.”

Cotton is an old antagonist of Iran realists, spearheading the effort to tell the Iranians in 2015 that Barack Obama’s nuclear deal (JCPOA) with Tehran would be null and void under a Republican president; every Republican, even realist Rand Paul, signed on. Regardless of what you think of the maneuver, Cotton ended up being right about what would happen. The deal was null and void under Trump, with Iran hawkishness seemingly the price that had to be paid for a conservative president who was otherwise more skeptical of intervention in the Middle East than any president in a generation. It’s extremely unclear if President Joe Biden will be able to spend or is truly interested in parting with major political capital to revive it.

Cotton, in some ways, is up to his old tricks with a Democratic president. He joined, if not led, the chorus of Hill skeptics of the appointment of Robert Malley, who led negotiations as special envoy on Iran. But there’s something theatrical about the conflict, with the stakes on the Malley appointment seemingly performative, and both sides dug in.

Biden might not move much on Iran, a deeply incendiary issue that will attract a full-court press from the Iran-hawk chorus in Washington. He is getting in his subtle digs, like pointedly only calling Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a conservative who threw in hard with Trump, weeks and weeks after assuming power. But Biden watched his younger, more charismatic predecessor, Barack Obama, struggle mightily on the Iran issue (even getting turned down for a majority Jewish country club after his presidency), and in the end, for what? While the president has appointed Malley, Biden has notably not thrown a bone to Ben Rhodes, the bête noire of the Iran hawks. Those who would still seek a less stringent approach, then, to the country are in a funk. “Biden is, in effect, continuing Trump’s failed ‘maximum pressure’ campaign,” national security analyst Joe Cirincione concludes in a Quincy Institute publication.

While Cotton doesn’t think that approach has failed, he might not think it’s very interesting—or, at least, one that has mass popularity. The senator notably singled out “endless wars” in his 2020 convention speech last summer. Cotton is certainly still an Iran hawk, even an uber-hawk, but recent activity makes clear it is China that is increasingly commanding his focus. One can see here an emerging distinctions between Cotton and Pompeo, who ran a patently neoconservative State Department and, when asked about “endless wars,” said “endless wars are a direct result of weakness.”

If Cotton has a second issue after China, it’s the new culture war. Cotton’s social media feed is replete with castigations of teachers’ unions for keeping America’s public schools closed. And he has set himself apart as the leading, unabashed advocate of military force to repel violent protesters—of all stripes.

Pompeo, on the other hand, has gone the other way, diving further into stateside Iran and Israel trench warfare. This is a gambit to corner the neoconservative-inclined donor base, as he touts his record on Israel to Evangelicals in the early-voting states of Iowa and South Carolina. It could work.

Pompeo tweeted of a former official who is not in the Biden administration:

Critics pointed out that it is probably not what Rhodes said, and noted that Rhodes is himself Jewish; they also dredged up Pompeo’s record of inflammatory rhetoric about Muslims.

And what did Cotton have to say about any of this? For not the first time in recent months, he was studiously quiet.