HH: I open with the man who has been called President Trump’s favorite senator, Arkansas’ Tom Cotton. Senator Cotton is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School from which he joined the United States Army after 9/11, became an Army Ranger, commanded combat troops in the heart of Baghdad during the surge, and served a tour in Afghanistan as well before leaving the Army and joining the battle for sanity in Washington, D.C. Elected to the House in 2012, Cotton then ran and won his Senate seat in 2014. Now from seats on the Senate Armed Services Committee and Senate Intelligence Committee, he’s become a frequent visitor to the Oval Office and one of the legislators that President Trump is said by many to trust. Tom Cotton, thanks for joining me this morning.
TC: Thank you, Hugh. It’s good to be on with you.
HH: My first question comes from our mutual friend, Dr. Larry Arnn. He says you know terms are four years, and even though this one’s been rocky, how do you make a four year term of this president successful?
TC: Well, I think it’s important that we try to deliver on the agenda on which the President campaigned, and also that we campaigned in the Congress. So we’re working right now on tax reform to put more money in the pockets of working class Americans and get our economy growing again so people can get back to work and wages will start growing again. Also working a long term budget solution so we can fund our military just like the President promised on the campaign. And then there’s some issues from which the President deviated from what you would call conventional Republican wisdom, on immigration, for instance. You know, I’ve longed believed that our immigration policy doesn’t serve the interests of American citizens and American workers. The President saw that as well in the campaign, and it’s important that we in Congress try to help him deliver on that agenda. If we do that, then we’ll be successful politically in 2018, and the President will be successful politically in 2020.
HH: I want to start with your RAISE Act, co-authored with David Perdue and endorsed by the President. And I want to begin with a graphic that demonstrates to the audience exactly how much we’re talking about when it comes to immigration. In 1970, the country had 9.6 million immigrants, 4.7% of the population. In 2015, it had 43.3 million immigrants, 13.5% of the population. Of those, 800,000 are DACA children, people who were brought here as minors, not necessarily in accordance with their will. What do you make of the overall immigration trend? And how does DACA fit into that, and what does RAISE do to both?
TC: Well Hugh, you’re right that the immigrant population in our country has quadrupled over the last 40 years. But it’s not just the size of the immigrant population. It’s also what they bring to this country. The vast majority of those immigrants have been unskilled and low-skilled workers. Only about one in fifteen immigrants come to this country because of their job skills or their education. I don’t think it’s a coincidence therefore that over the last 40 years, if you work with your hands or you work on your feet, you have the kind of job where you have to take a shower after work and not before work, that your wages have been stagnant or declining. That’s why the RAISE Act that I’ve introduced with David Perdue from Georgia and President Trump has endorsed, reorients our legal immigration system. It doesn’t solve every problem in our immigration system, but it reorients our legal immigration system from unskilled and low-skilled workers to the high-skilled workers our economy needs. It simply awards points for various criteria like English language ability, education level and the type of degree, age, the value of the job offer you have relative to the local economy and so on and so forth. That will guarantee that we’re getting workers who are filling needs in our economy like say in the high tech industry or in the medical industry, but also not bringing in workers to take jobs from Americans or to depress American wages when so many blue collar Americans have already been struggling.
HH: Does overall legal immigration, in your opinion, have to drop significantly? Or is it okay at the levels it’s been at in the last couple of years?
TC: At this point, it’s elevated, and it should decline. I’m more motivated and focused on the policy, though, as opposed to the absolute numbers. The biggest single policy change besides reorienting those green cards based on employment to high-skilled as opposed to unskilled workers is stopping family chain migration. Today, if you become a green card holder and a citizen, you can basically bring in everyone in your extended family. The only limitation is the time it takes.
HH: This has been one of your objections to a simple DACA codification.
TC: Yeah, absolutely. So I think most Americans agree that we should encourage the reuniting of spouses and unmarried minor children. But we shouldn’t extend it to one’s entire family – parents and siblings, who then can bring in their spouses and their children, who can then bring in their parents, and so forth. That’s why 14 out of 15 green cards every year out of the million plus that we give have no relation to skills or education or job salary or what have you. And that will be an inevitable negative side effect of codifying the DACA program. If you give legal status to these 600 or 800,000 people, however many it turns out to be, under current law, they can then legalize their parents as well. Well, we say that we’d be willing to give legal status to these 600,000 or 800,000 people in their 20s and 30s today, because they came here through no fault of their own. The fault lies with their parents. Those are the ones who brought them here. We shouldn’t allow them to create a new way to legalize the very illegal immigrants who created this situation in the first place. A second negative side effect of giving legal status to the DACA program is that you will also encourage future illegal immigration with children, which I think is dangerous and even immoral when you look at, for instance, the people that…
HH: You have less than a month to finish off this session. Are you going to get to a deal on DACA, RAISE and the border barrier/security issue by the end of the year?
TC: I don’t think we’ll get it by our Columbus Day recess in October. We may by the end of the year, but you know, the President extended DACA renewals for six months, so no one who currently holds a DACA work permit has to worry about losing that status until the first of March. In fact, people are still able to seek renewal for two or three more weeks. That gives Congress the time to hopefully work on a bipartisan compromise. I don’t think we can pass a straight codification of the DACA program. Nor do I think we can pass the kind of comprehensive Gang of 8, amnesty first legislation that failed not just in 2013 but in 2007 and 2006. Somewhere in between those is what we have to pass. I think we should pass something that codifies the DACA program with the RAISE Act, and some kind of enhanced enforcement to deter future illegal immigration, like, say, more expansive use of employment verification systems.
HH: Level of confidence that such a bill will happen?
TC: I’m pretty confident. I mean, I think most Democrats are committed to trying to solve the DACA program. The President wants to as well. I’ve discussed this over the months that I’ve worked with the President on the RAISE Act. We knew this moment was coming. And we knew that the RAISE Act was designed in part to try to offset the negative side effects of a codification of DACA. So I’m pretty confident. If people get past the emotions, get past the opinions that are not based on fact as we discussed earlier with that graphic that you showed, and focused on the facts and focus on the right policy, I think we can get a bill. Again, it doesn’t solve every problem, but it’s a sensible, you know, measure that takes incremental progress.
HH: Putting aside the ups and downs of the Defense Act, authorization act and all of the Budget Control Act maneuvering, are you confident that by the end of the year, the Budget Control Act will be no more, and thus the sequester of the Pentagon removed?
TC: I certainly hope so, Hugh. This is the single most important thing that we could do for our military, is to eliminate the so-called sequester for Defense spending. The sequester is automatic spending cuts if spending exceeds caps that were imposed six years ago. The Budget Control Act is not the Constitution. The 112th Congress is not the Constitutional Convention. We should not allow our hands to be tied by something they passed in 2011 in a vastly different circumstance, before Russia had meddled in our campaigns last year, before China had built and militarized islands in the South China Sea, before North Korea had tested intercontinental ballistic missiles, before Syria had become the epic kind of civil war that was radiating throughout the Middle East, before Iran had $100 billion dollars in free cash. We should not allow our hands to be tied by what was passed in 2011. We should set our Defense budget based on the threats we face today and the strategy needed to counteract those threats.
HH: And that brings me where I want to end. Like me, the President, until he became commander-in-chief, was a civilian. You’re a warrior. You’ve been in combat. You’ve been in the surge. You’ve been in the heart of Baghdad when people are shooting at you. Do you have confidence in the President’s ability as a commander-in-chief, and in a crisis that looms with North Korea and other places around the world?
TC: I do. I think he’s handled himself pretty well so far. North Korea is not a problem of President Trump’s making. It’s a problem primarily and first and foremost of President Clinton’s making. In 1994, he signed a nuclear deal with North Korea that is probably just as bad as the Iran deal that President Obama signed. But we also kicked the can down the road throughout President Bush and President Obama’s tenure. But we’re running out of road now as we’ve seen from the recent missile test and nuclear test. Clearly, more talking simply is not going to solve the problem, so I think the President trying to speak Kim Jong Un’s language, for one, but also applying much more pressure to China to pressure North Korea is the best option we have right now while Secretary Mattis and General Dunford and Admiral Harry Harris out in the Pacific work on military solutions to keep the pressure up on Kim Jong Un as well.
HH: Probably the most important question, and the last one. How do you communicate the likelihood of a preemptive military action by the United States against North Korea over the next three to six months?
TC: President Trump and Secretary Mattis have done a pretty good job of communicating that. Kim Jong Un and his patron in Beijing, Xi Jinping have to know that the United States has the military capability to destroy Pyongyang and to eliminate the Kim regime, and that not many Americans are willing to allow Kim Jong Un to hold the United States at risk with a nuclear-armed missile.
HH: Does the country understand it’s an organized crime family with one product to sell, or two – nuclear weapons and ICBMs? We really can’t allow that to continue, can we?
TC: Well, and you raise a good point, Hugh, that North Korea has a long history of collaborating with outlaw regimes like Iran and Syria, even if the more immediate threat is a nuclear-armed missile that can strike not only Guam and Hawaii and Alaska, but quite possibly the Continental United States as well. I don’t think many Americans are willing to live under that threat. I know that many Arkansans with whom I speak are not willing to live under that threat.
HH: How much time are you spending in the SCIF these days, the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility?
TC: We spend several hours a week on the Intelligence Committee, so we monitor things pretty closely to make sure that our military and our intelligence professionals have the budgetary resources and the legal authorities they need to try to keep us safe.
HH: Dangerous times. I’m glad you’re there. Senator Tom Cotton, thank you for joining me.
TC: Thank you, Hugh.
End of interview.