There are a host of reasons as to why Donald Trump is reportedly considering Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) to be his next CIA director, as part of a broader shakeup of his foreign policy team. Cotton, like Trump, is an unapologetic booster of torture. He’s also been hypercritical of the Iran nuclear deal, which the president has called one of the worst pacts ever negotiated.
But, according to aides, something more superficial is also driving President Trump’s affection for the Republican senator. Trump likes how Cotton handles himself on the Sunday shows.
“[Trump] respects [Cotton] on policy, he loves his advice, and he loves him on TV,” a senior White House official told The Daily Beast.
According to sources close to the president, Trump enjoys watching how Cotton handles himself in TV interviews and in dealing with the press more generally. And though those assets aren’t particularly valuable for a prospective CIA director, they do carry incredible weight in how Trump evaluates his political peers and potential allies.
“Senator Tom Cotton was great on Meet the Press yesterday. Despite a totally one-sided interview by Chuck Todd, the end result was solid!” Trump tweeted on the Fourth of July last year.
Whether any of this ultimately paves Cotton’s path to Langley is not yet clear. On Thursday, The New York Times reported that White House chief of staff John Kelly has developed a plan that entails bringing Cotton into the Trump administration while moving the current CIA director, Mike Pompeo, into the leading role at the State Department to replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Later, it was reported that Pompeo’s move is likely but Cotton’s was to be determined.
What’s clearer is that Cotton represents, to a large degree, the future of Donald Trump’s Republican Party—a tough-talking conservative who rose to prominence by taking particular delight in antagonizing liberals and, similarly, the media. Indeed, Cotton’s attitude toward the American political press is arguably even more aggressive than Trump’s. Over a decade ago, the senator, who is an Army veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, called for the prosecution and jailing of New York Times reporters following the paper’s disclosure of sweeping Bush-era warrantless surveillance.
Cotton has become one of the Trump administration’s top allies on Capitol Hill during the past year. He often communicates with the White House, and the president directly, on major policy priorities, including immigration and attempts to tank the Iran nuclear deal. When Trump wanted to hear a justification for refusing to certify that Iran was compliant with the nuclear agreement, he picked up the phone to have Cotton outline the arguments for him, according to current and former administration officials.
Right after the president struck a now-seemingly defunct deal framework with Democratic leaders to codify an Obama-era program to shield Dreamers from deportation (dubbed Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA), Trump’s senior policy adviser Stephen Miller immediately got to work strategizing with Cotton on ways to nuke chances of a deal that liberals would like. Cotton is the co-author of legislation, dubbed the RAISE Act, to significantly limit the number of legal immigrants to the United States. He was invited over to the White House to debut it.
“[Cotton and Miller have] been in close and constant contact on DACA and RAISE,” a source familiar with their discussions told The Daily Beast in October.
The White House press shop and Cotton’s office did not respond to requests for comment on this story. Sources spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
One of the reasons Cotton’s star is shining so bright in the Trump era is because of his ability to build relationships and remain in good standing among different, sometimes competing, factions of Trump-world. Cotton is close with Miller, Jared Kushner, Reince Priebus, John Kelly, and Steve Bannon, the Breitbart chairman and Trump’s ousted chief strategist. Bannon continues to regularly communicate with Cotton, according to a source familiar with their discussions.
Cotton is also widely considered in Republican circles as one of the most successful lawmakers at bridging the divide between Trumpism and more conventional, establishment conservatism.
“[Cotton] was not out there during the election being an anti-Trump Republican like others were,” another White House official said. “He saw…the imperative for understanding what [Trump] was getting right and why he connected so much with Republican voters. And the president has said how much he appreciates the senator’s strong defenses of him [this year].”
Cotton’s flattering of Trump certainly has captured the president’s attention, and is one of the many reasons he values Cotton’s counsel. The senator’s flattery has ranged from the mundane—labelling Trump a “pretty tough guy”—to the grandiose.
“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 an interview with Politico earlier this year. “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.”