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He’s an Iraq War veteran, a close ally of President Trump, and the second-youngest senator known for his hard-line views.
This week on ‘Firing Line.’
My generation is fighting to make America safe again.
By the time he enlisted to serve in Iraq, Tom Cotton had not one but two Harvard degrees.
A long way to travel for the boy who grew up on a cattle farm in Arkansas.
After the Army, he made it to D.C., becoming a senator when he was just 37.
Many predict he’s aiming higher still.
He doesn’t tweet silly things.
He has a distinguished military war record.
So Tom Cotton is definitely someone to keep an eye on as the Republican Party moves on from Trump.
With domestic policy, Cotton is one of the most conservative members of Congress.
Just because you can become an American doesn’t mean you are an American.
And it certainly doesn’t mean that we have to treat you as an American.
With foreign policy, he says be aggressive.
This administration has been tougher on Russia as a matter of policy than the last administration, by far.
There are some that would dispute that.
Those people would be wrong.
Cotton is one of President Trump’s trusted allies in Congress, but he has found himself at odds with the President over criminal-justice reform.
Someone is going to commit a heinous crime if this bill passes.
What does Senator Tom Cotton say now?
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Senator Tom Cotton, welcome to ‘Firing Line.’
Thank you, Margaret.
It’s good to be on with you.
It’s wonderful to see you.
You are the second-youngest senator in the United States Senate.
That’s a pretty low bar to clear in the U.S. Senate.
An impressive one, nonetheless.
You’re on the Armed Services Committee and the Intelligence Committee.
And you also served in the war in Iraq and also did a tour in Afghanistan.
Being a veteran and your service in the military, such a strong part of, I think, your world view as a senator, but it seems to me that you didn’t always know that you would be in the military.
You were getting your law degree at Harvard before you decided to join.
Yeah, I took something of a circuitous route into the military.
Most young men and women will join after high school or join after college, become an officer.
I was on into law school, and I planned to be a lawyer, but the 9/11 attacks happened in my last year in law school, and that really changed my direction.
I didn’t want to practice law so much anymore.
I did for a couple years to repay all of my loans, but what I really wanted to do was go serve on the front lines.
You were paying off law-school loans, and you could’ve easily gone into — be an Army lawyer or served in a cushier job in the military.
And instead you went to the front lines in Iraq.
It was there, in between patrols, that you really caught the attention of the conservative universe.
You wrote a letter to the editor of condemning them for publishing information about terrorist financing.
Can you recap what you did there?
Well, our young soldiers on the front lines need to have good, time-sensitive, accurate intelligence, and unfortunately, like a lot of folks in the media, developed a bad habit over the last 20 years of disclosing that intelligence.
So I did fire off a letter, maybe somewhat intemperate.
But I was pretty frustrated at the time, and it did rocket around the Internet, and at first, the word came down from our headquarters that this was not a good thing, but fortunately the chief of the staff of the Army at the time sent it out to all Army generals and colonels, e-mail distribution list, so my battalion commander told me the next day that he was supposed to chew me out, but now he was supposed to punch me on the shoulder and tell me good job.
But he encouraged me to let him know if I wrote any more letters to the editor, but I told him I wouldn’t be writing any more letters.
You’ve written a book, ‘Sacred Duty: A Soldier’s Tour of Arlington National Cemetery,’ which was where you worked in between your time in Iraq and Afghanistan, which is part memoir and also very instructive to ordinary civilians, to help them understand the sacred duty of men in the uniform and how they treat our fallen soldiers.
You could’ve written a lot of books.
You’re a policy hawk.
You’re a veteran.
Why did you choose to write about the old guard?
So, I wanted to share the story of the young soldiers at Arlington who put in all those long hours, who train and prepare their uniforms and go the extra mile to ensure that every funeral meets the standard of perfection.
And I talk about what it was like the first time I went to Dover Air Force Base to do the dignified transfer of remains of soldiers who had just been killed overseas, or what it was like to perform a very large funeral for a helicopter crew and passengers that had been shot down in Iraq.
But for the most part, the soldier’s tour is what it’s like to be a soldier in the old guard, coming to that famed regiment and performing those missions in Arlington because it’s the behind-the-scenes look at everything that goes into what you might see at a loved one’s funeral or what many of your viewers will see in the news next weekend over Memorial Day weekend.
I think it’s fair to say you’ve been known as one of the senators who works most closely with the White House.
It was also reported that you were considered as the CIA director and may yet have opportunities to serve in other capacities in this administration.
How do you describe your relationship with the White House right now?
We have a very cordial relationship.
We work closely on all areas of agreements.
As I say of any president, I will support them when they’re right.
I happen to think that President Trump is right more often than President Obama was.
And I’ll try to change their mind when I think they’re wrong, and that has happened.
And if I can’t, then I’ll vote in what I think is the best interests of Arkansas and the best interests for our country.
So, now that the Mueller report has been delivered to the public, you’re on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Is it easy for you, on the Senate Intelligence Committee, to accept the findings of the Mueller report and to accept not just the findings but the basic premise, that the Russians interfered in our elections in a blatant attempt to try to help President Trump to become the president?
Well, there’s no doubt that the Russians interfered in our election.
The Mueller report has established that, and the intelligence community’s assessment a few years back established it.
The Senate Intelligence Committee has established it as well.
We have continued reports coming out in the future about what Russia has been up to and what they might do, but this is not a surprise to anyone who’s on the Intelligence Committee or who has worked in intelligence.
This is just what Russia does.
It’s also not a surprise that they had a preference for Donald Trump to you, right?
That the Mueller report concluded that isn’t a surprise to you on the Senate Intelligence Committee, is it?
So, it’s not a surprise that Russia interferes in our democratic processes.
You don’t think they had a preference for Donald Trump?
I think that’s an open question yet, to be established.
You don’t think that was established in the Mueller report?
But if you look objectively and not just at what people testified to —
No, no reading the report, it’s pretty clear.
But if you look at what, objectively, in 2016, the platforms on which the two candidates ran — Donald Trump favored a larger military, favored nuclear modernization.
He wanted to get tougher with Russia on its periphery in places like Ukraine and in Syria, so there’s — He wanted to produce more North American oil and gas.
Objectively, none of those things are favorable towards the Kremlin’s position.
The intelligence community, of course, concluded all those things too and the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded those things too.
It must be clear, from your investigations, it’s so clear in the redacted Mueller report that the Russians preferred Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton.
Is that difficult for you to say?
I think there is evidence on both sides of that, and I think it’s a closer call that —
Where is evidence in the Mueller report that they wanted Hillary Clinton to be president?
Well, the Mueller report is not gospel, on this question in particular.
There is evidence on both sides of that question, whether they favored Donald Trump or they merely wanted to harm Hillary Clinton.
In our system —
Is there a difference?
Well, so in our system, it’s hard to disentangle those two.
If you have two choices for president, if you want to hurt Hillary Clinton, don’t you want to help Donald Trump?
So, that’s why it’s hard to disentangle.
There is evidence that they wanted to hurt Hillary Clinton in ways that did not necessarily help Donald Trump.
That evidence is still classified.
Well, that’s convenient, isn’t it, Tom?
I’m just saying.
When you only have two major parties, two major candidates, usually when you help one or hurt the other, you’re doing the inverse.
It’s hard for me to wrap my head around that explanation, just because it seems very, very clear that the Russians wanted to help Donald Trump.
In fact, Mueller says that.
And that’s what I mean when I say that it’s hard to disentangle those two motives.
They clearly wanted to hurt Hillary Clinton for the actions she had taken as Secretary of State and I think as retribution for what Vladimir Putin viewed as disrespect by her husband in the late 1990s and in 2000.
But there are indicators, in addition to those objective factors about the policy difference between the two candidates, that suggests that it was as much about hurting Hillary Clinton as it was helping President Trump.
The Intelligence Committee also concluded that they wanted to help Donald Trump, but let’s move on that because I don’t think that has any bearing nor here nor there on the results of the election, necessarily, just the intentions of the Russians.
As we move forward from 2016 and the Mueller report, there has been an increasing…noise from some of your colleagues in the Senate to investigate the investigators, and you’re on the Senate Intelligence Committee, so you have access to some of the information that goes into FISA warrants and the FISA warrant specifically that looked into Carter Page, a former Trump foreign-policy adviser.
Are you worried or concerned as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee that FISA warrants have become improperly politicized?
I’m worried that’s a real possibility.
I don’t want to get into the details because not all of those warrants have been released in full that might happen.
I know, but you know what’s in them.
But I will say that I have concerns at the highest levels of the FBI and the Department of Justice in the last administration that the use of domestic surveillance techniques were politicized against political opponents.
If that’s the case, that’s one of the biggest political scandals in the history of our country.
Now, I don’t want to reach that conclusion yet because both the inspector general and the attorney general have access to much more information than I do as a member of the Intelligence Committee.
One of the other areas you have seemed to be quite aligned with the President is on immigration.
Some say that you’ve even done the work of translating Trumpism into legislation.
You have recently reintroduced your RAISE Act, which does a few things.
It prioritizes high-skilled immigrants, it lowers future legal immigration levels, it gets rid of the visa lottery, it reforms family-based admissions.
What, Senator, is the governing philosophy behind your immigration-reform legislation?
American jobs for American workers first.
We have clear needs in our economy in the higher skilled parts of the economy for, say, engineers or doctors or computer scientists.
My proposal would significantly shift the way we allocate Green Cards towards those high-skilled categories.
It would reduce reliance on things, as you say, like the visa lottery that just gives visas away at random, or extended family reunification.
We’d still protect the nuclear family — spouses and unmarried minor children.
And if you look over the last 30 years, where people have been struggling the most are blue-collar workers who work all day long on their feet and with their hands.
We’re starting to see wage increases for blue-collar workers for the first time in a very long time.
My immigration proposal would make sure that we’re continuing to see more jobs and higher wages for blue-collar Americans.
Jared Kushner, the senior White House adviser, the President’s son-in-law, is working on his own immigration plan that increases border security while also rebalancing immigration a lot like you say — rebalances with higher skilled workers while keeping also low-skilled workers coming legally to the extent that they’re necessary.
I sense that you are not in favor of the low-skilled worker.
I’m skeptical that they really are necessary.
It’s better that we focus on those Americans who have been on the margins of the workforce than we provide those jobs to foreigners who want to come in and just work temporarily.
And a lot of these jobs are jobs that Americans would do.
I mean, the H-2B visa program, for instance, brings a lot of kids in from Eastern Europe to work at resorts in the Rocky Mountains or on the beaches.
There’s a president who does that too.
I bet a poor kid from Izard County, Arkansas, or Jefferson County, Arkansas, would be thrilled to go to Aspen this summer and be a lifeguard at a fancy resort or operate a ski lift there this winter.
There’s an economist who I follow, George Borjas, from Harvard, who’s an immigration expert.
He’s an economist, and he’s also a restrictionist.
And his view is that low-skilled immigration doesn’t hurt the economy over the long term.
So it’s hard to square some of the data of restrictionist immigration positions with a temporary-worker visa program.
But does it mean, Senator, that you would be opposed to the proposal?
Well, I’ve met with Jared Kushner about his proposal.
He’s been meeting with a lot of Republican senators.
I’ll just say that right now we’ve had very productive conversations, and I hope that we end up in a place that gets us the kind of high-skilled workers we need while protecting American jobs and addressing the urgent crisis we face on the border.
I think we’re moving in that direction.
Some people think that Tom Cotton’s views generally will end up epitomizing Trumpism post-Trump.
One of the places where you haven’t been aligned with him is on criminal-justice reform, which was surprisingly and, I think to the surprise of many in Washington, probably one of the most important sweeping bipartisan pieces of legislation that’s come through this administration, save the Russia sanctions.
Chuck Grassley and Cory Booker stood together and shook hands and hugged over the achievement of this bill, and you were one of 12 senators who opposed it.
I will articulate why 88 senators were wrong about that bill.
So, this effort started primarily as a prison-reform effort, which I strongly support.
So, providing things like drug rehabilitation and treatment, faith-based programs in prison, job skills.
I strongly supported that.
Also supported measures to make prisons safer.
Neither prisoners nor prison guards should be thrown into what, in some cases, essentially be a jungle.
But if they moved in the direction of sentencing leniency, especially for drug dealers, I couldn’t support it, and unfortunately, once the bill got to the Senate, it moved in that direction and it started eliminating the three-strikes laws or reducing mandatory minimums.
It would allow early release for all kinds of pretty serious criminals.
I don’t think that’s the right way to go in the time we face —
To be fair, what it did is it created a system in order to incentivize some convicts through good behavior and through new rehabilitation programs to be eligible for early release.
And that you have a problem with.
If you’re getting released from prison because you’re showing up at a woodworking shop or you’re going to a counseling therapy session, because you’re gonna get up to a third of your sentence off, you’re much less likely to actually benefit from those programs.
You’re just doing what you’re told to manipulate the system to get out of prison early.
Texas and Georgia are states that have reduced their prison populations and reduced crime simultaneously.
And so the opponents of your position argue that the proof is in the pudding.
I think it’s hard to compare a lot of the state experiences to the federal level in part because of the nature of federal offenses and federal prisons.
If you’re in federal prison, you’re a pretty bad guy.
Like, you don’t get into federal prison just for handing out a dime bag of marijuana or for jaywalking.
Only the hardest of the hard-core felons go to federal prison.
Many of the sort of criminal-justice-reform folks argue that we have an overincarceration problem, but you argue the opposite.
Let’s take a look.
Take a look at the facts.
First, the claim that too many criminals are being jailed, that there is overincarceration ignores an unfortunate fact.
For the vast majority of crimes, a perpetrator is never identified or arrested, let alone prosecuted, convicted, and jailed.
Law enforcement is able to arrest or identify a likely perpetrator for only 19% of property crimes and 47% of violent crimes.
If anything, we have an underincarceration problem.
Do you still believe that?
It’s just a simple fact.
If you’re one of the half of violent-crime victims who never get justice, I bet you’d probably think we have an underincarceration problem.
Well, hold on.
Part of the criminal-justice reform — the reason it’s caught fire is that racial disparities, especially, in sentencing tend to be quite Draconian.
I mean, you look at — The NAACP has said that African-Americans are incarcerated at five times the rate of white people.
How do you think about addressing these kind of inequalities?
A lot of those disparities go back to African-American members of Congress in the 1980s who wanted to adopt laws because they saw what crime and drugs were doing to their communities.
But does that mean it doesn’t matter and we shouldn’t try to correct it?
No, if there’s obvious evidence of it.
But I don’t think the evidence is so compelling of it.
So, then, where should criminal-justice efforts be focused?
Or should they not at all?
Not letting violent felons out of prison.
Truman Capote was on this program in 1967.
He was the author of ‘In Cold Blood,’ and I’d like you to take a look at what he says about violent criminals.
Well, in effect, yes.
Do you believe that a homicidal mind is incurable?
So, first I say, Truman Capote was famous for his in-depth research of the criminal mind and true crime.
I’ll say that I enjoyed my research with soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery for ‘Sacred Duty’ a lot more than he probably enjoyed his.
But he’s right that there are just some incurable minds, and all you can do is incapacitate them.
Not everyone who commits a crime, obviously, is irredeemable.
That’s not consistent with our faith, but it’s not consistent with good public policy either.
Are sentencing laws working?
I mean, I think sentencing laws that we just changed are not gonna work as well because I think there is gonna be crime resulting from some of these early releases.
It’s just a matter of time.
It’s almost a mathematical certainty.
Let’s go to foreign policy.
This is your sweet spot.
And one of the first things you did once you were elected to be a U.S. senator was organize a letter that 46 of your colleagues signed, and it was a letter to the ayatollahs, warning them in the midst of Barack Obama’s negotiations on the Iran deal that whatever deal they entered into with Barack Obama, because it wasn’t a treaty and didn’t have the strength of force of legislation in the United States Congress, could be undone by whoever Barack Obama’s successor was.
That was exactly what happened.
Donald Trump pulled out of the Iran deal, and I wonder how would you grade Donald Trump on his interactions with Iran to date?
So, I’ll just say that letter we posted to the ayatollahs generated a lot of controversy.
I don’t really see why it was controversial.
I mean, it was a simple statement of constitutional fact.
All the senators and I wanted to make sure the ayatollahs understood exactly what our system of government required.
Do you think they maybe did understand that, were just happy to make the deal with the United States?
Do you think you really educated them?
I think we brought it to their attention, given the controversy it generated.
If you want to have a lasting, binding agreement with the United States, you don’t make simple executive agreements.
You require a treaty that gets a vote in the United States Senate, and as we said in that letter, it could be upended by a single stroke of a pen by any future president, and that turned out to be the case, as the President rightly did about a year ago, and right now, I think things are moving in the right direction with Iran.
Look, we just announced that we were going to go to zero oil exports for Iran.
That is going to take their economy from where it is today, at recession levels, I suspect, to depression levels in the near future.
So your hope is that by instituting economic sanctions with Iran, even though the United States has pulled out of the Iran deal, that continued pressure from the United States will prevent Iran from continuing to try to develop a nuclear fissile material or nuclear warheads?
Well, that’s part of it, but it’s not just the nuclear deal.
Part of the fundamental problem with the nuclear deal is it didn’t address all of Iran’s other outlaw behavior, like supporting terrorism against the United States and our allies or arming rebel organizations throughout the Middle East or the abuse of its own people.
And as they face more economic pressure, as they face more military and political pressure throughout the Middle East, that puts them in the defensive position, as opposed to being on the offense, which is what they were for most of the Obama administration.
How does positioning the strike group and carrier in waters outside of Iran help that position?
We’re extending the clear message to Iran that we will brook no kinds of attack, either by their own forces or by proxy forces, against the United States or against our interests and allies in the region.
Could we win a war with Iran?
That didn’t take you a second.
Two strikes — the first strike and the last strike.
What are the conditions or the circumstances that would justify going to war with Iran?
Well, if Iran struck out militarily against the United States or against our allies in the region, then I would certainly expect a devastating response against Iran.
As somebody who fought in two fronts in the Middle East, both in Iraq and in Afghanistan, do you think it would be a good idea to go to war with Iran?
No, I don’t advocate military action against Iran.
I’m simply delivering a message that if Iran were to attack the United States, it would be a grave miscalculation on their part, and there would be a furious response.
Now, we don’t want to govern Iran.
We don’t want to rule 80 million Iranians.
We want 80 million Iranians to be able to govern themselves and do so in peace and security with their neighbors and to take in account our interests in the Middle East.
Where are you on regime change?
What I want is to have an outlaw regime change its behavior, to rejoin the civilized world and stop supporting terrorism and trying to overthrow the governments of so many of its neighbors.
Ultimately, if you have people like Ayatollah Khamanei in charge in Iran, it’s hard to see how the United States and allies like Israel can live in peace in the Middle East.
Ultimately it’s up to the Iranian people and their leaders to decide how they’re going to govern their country, but with men like those in charge of Iran, I think we’re going to see what we’ve seen for the last 40 years, which is a revolutionary theological movement that’s hijacked the powers of a nation-state.
I wonder if that means on any level to you that war is inevitable.
War is never inevitable.
War is always the product of human choices.
And, again, we don’t want to go to war with Iran and its people.
We want the Middle East to be stable and secure.
We want to protect our citizens, our troops, and our interests in that region.
It’s in large part up to Iran, based on how they behave, regarding our interests and our troops and our allies on whether there ever is a military conflict with the United States.
As you think through the strategic threats and the long-term and middle-term threats to this country — China, Russia — who keeps you up at night?
No one keeps me up at night.
What national-security threat —
The United States keeps other people up at night.
Are you more concerned about China or Russia?
Oh, China, no doubt.
It has got the second-largest economy.
It has a rapidly modernizing and growing military.
It has the clear and demonstrated intent, if you read Xi Jinping’s words, to displace the United States as the world’s largest economy and the world’s superpower.
So there’s no doubt that China is the main threat we face going forward in a nation-state to nation-state environment.
Now, that doesn’t mean that Russia is not a threat.
We saw what they can do through their intelligence capabilities, which are top notch anywhere in the world, in 2016, just like they did throughout the Cold War.
They still have the only nuclear arsenal in the world that is capable of destroying our way of life.
Many people suspect that Tom Cotton will have a career beyond being a U.S. senator from Arkansas.
Like be an author?
What do you say to those who suggest you have presidential ambitions?
I say that I’m running for re-election in Arkansas in 2020, and I’m hoping to tell the story of the old guard in ‘Sacred Duty,’ and I’ll let the chips fall where they may.
Look, one thing I’ve learned is it’s great to have a plan, but it’s even better to write your plan in pencil ’cause you never know what kind of obstacles you’ll have to overcome, what kind of opportunities you may be able to seize, and in the meantime, you should focus on doing the best job you can in the job you have now and try to make the biggest difference you can for the most number of people in your life.
With that, Tom Cotton, thank you for coming to ‘Firing Line.’
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