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Trump's Defense Secretary Could Be Military Industry Sweetheart Tom Cotton

Arkansas senator Tom Cotton has made a career out of supporting waterboarding and the defense industry while denouncing radical Islam and illegal immigration.

by Cheree Franco
Nov 18 2016, 7:50pm

Tom Cotton speaking at the 2016 Republican National Convention. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Remember the senator who, in March 2015, tried to sabotage President Barack Obama's nuclear negotiations with Iran by writing an open letter to that country's leaders, warning that any deal would be dismantled because the president only stays for eight years but senators can be lifers?

What about the senator who, when his constituents fought a law legalizing discrimination against LGBTQ people, urged them to "have a sense of perspective" because "in Iran they hang you for the crime of being gay"?

Or, more recently, the pro-Brexit senator who took to Twitter to defend Donald Trump's proposed Muslim registry as a "visa-tracking system, nothing based on religion?" (It's not that he doesn't want to help Syrian refugees. He just doesn't want to help Sunni Muslim Syrian refugees.)

These are all bullet points on the same résumé. Arkansas's Tom Cotton, a 39-year-old Harvard graduate and two-time combat veteran, is apparently on the list of candidates to become Trump's secretary of defense.

Like most of the men ( and it's nearly all been men) floated for top positions in the coming Trump White House, Cotton is from the rightmost wing of the conservative branch of the Republican Party, and has a particular focus on denouncing radical Islam while fostering an almost religious fervor for the US military. But what makes him distinct is how quickly he's climbed up the ladder.

He won a seat in the House of Representatives in 2012 as part of the Tea Party wave of conservatives, and in 2013, after only seven months in the House, Cotton announced his bid for the Senate, in which he's currently the youngest legislator. During both races, he campaigned heavily on his veteran status, and still brings it up in nearly every interview and address.

The rhetoric resonates. When you ask Arkansans why they voted for Cotton, his army service almost always tops the list. "He's very smart, a Harvard-educated lawyer. After 9/11 he could have done whatever he wanted... He could have had a lot of jobs that weren't dangerous. Instead he fought two wars," says Nick Stehle, a 34-year-old business owner and father of four, from Benton, Arkansas. "Because he's a soldier, I know he understands the concept of obeying orders and of service."

For many Republicans, Cotton's appeal is deeper than the undeniable patriotism of military service. He represents an antidote to what they view as Obama's weak foreign policy.

"When President Obama took office, he went around the world explaining how... we're sorry for our imperialism, and we won't do it anymore," says Bob Ballinger, 42, a state legislator who represents rural northwest Arkansas. "Meanwhile back home, we're saying wait a minute, that's not what we're about. We're the ones going around providing for other countries when they have a tragedy. We're the ones protecting the defenseless."

But Cotton also has the "it factor," Ballinger explains. "He's like Michael Jordan or Lebron James." Cotton walks into a room, and he "dominates."

Ballinger sees Cotton as one of the few "cool" Republican politicians, the guy he'd want to grab a drink with, if he drank.

Cotton and the president-elect seem to have different views of Russia (Cotton depicts an enemy to be cowed by military might, while Trump seems downright chummy with Putin), but they seem aligned on other core issues.

Trump has promised to beef up America's armed forces, and Cotton would jump into that project with both boots if he were made secretary of defense. Cotton wants more drones, more troops in Afghanistan and Syria and more military spending. He's advocated blowing up Iranian nuclear facilities more than once. This week, at Atlantic Media's Defense One Summit, he suggested lining the West Coast with ballistic defense systems, to fend off an attack from North Korea.

Cotton also supports the border wall, which will probably stymie all those ISIS-intwined Mexican drug cartels that he thinks are directly threatening the citizens of Arkansas.

The two men would likely work together to refill Guantánamo Bay; both have cheerfully endorsed waterboarding among other "enhanced interrogation" techniques. Cotton seems to harbor no regrets about any of the CIA's controversial practices or the Abu Gharaib scandal—just after Election Day, he told CNN's Wolf Blitzer, "America has never tortured. We never have, and we never will."

Like Trump, Cotton has expressed anger by calling for the prosecution of his antagonists. While still deployed, Cotton wrote a letter to the New York Times (published not by the Times but by the conservative blog PowerLine) accusing the paper of violating "espionage laws," and warning, "By the time we return home, maybe you'll be in your rightful place: not at the Pulitzer announcement, but behind bars."

Cotton is naturally beloved by defense contractors. The morning after issuing his famous Iran letter, he spoke to a gathering of military weapons manufacturers over breakfast—and he's a top pick of pro-Israel lobbyists. (They donated more than $2 million to his campaign, including $960,000 that came directly from the Emergency Committee for Israel, a right-wing PAC.)

His track record on supporting women is less robust. This is concerning when you consider that whoever leads the Defense Department will inherit, in addition to the residue of a 14-year war, a sexual assault crisis. While Cotton believes women should be protected from combat, a danger they would freely choose, he wasn't willing to vote for the Violence Against Women Act.

He also voted against an act to close gender wage gaps, and, as part of a personal grudge against Obama, blocked the diplomatic appointment of a qualified black woman named Cassandra Butts. In doing so, he devalued the public service she made her life's work and missed an important opportunity to help diversify the largely white, male diplomatic team. (Butts's story garnered media attention when she died suddenly without being confirmed by the Senate, more than 800 days after she was nominated.)

Under Cotton, the US military would be bigger, more expensive, perhaps more inclined to saber rattling, and quite possibly less open to advancing opportunities for women. Judging from his campaign rhetoric, this may be exactly what Trump wants.

Cheree Franco is a writer and photographer, mostly working in Arkansas, Mississippi, New York, and Pakistan.