Politico’s @SeungMinKim has a story on “blue slips” this morning. It should be read along with my Washington Post op-ed on the subject from a few weeks back. I returned to the subject with Senator Tom Cotton this morning after we had talked about the Pentagon’s request for more troops in Afghanistan, and the appointment vacuums at DOD and State:
HH: I’m joined now by United States Senator Tom Cotton from the great state of Arkansas. Good morning, Senator Cotton, thanks for joining me.
TC: Good morning, Hugh, give my best to Lanhee, an old classmate, and even roommate of mine.
HH: I will do that. Now I have three or four things to cover with you in quick fashion. First of all, Washington Post, New York Times today reporting that President Trump’s most senior military and foreign policy advisors have proposed a major shift in strategy in Afghanistan, one that may call for between more than five to eight thousand troops, maybe as few as three thousand, but up to eight thousand. What do you think of the plan? Have you been briefed on it? Do you want it to happen?
TC: Hugh, we’ve been muddling along in Afghanistan for a few years now. President Obama put arbitrary troop limits on our forces in Afghanistan as well as in Iraq. That’s not the way a commander-in-chief should conduct wartime operations. He should set and then state an objective, a strategy, and allow his commanders to work up courses of action. It doesn’t surprise me that the administration has gone through this deliberate policy planning process, and that the commander would be recommending various courses of action that may entail different troops levels to President Trump. So I’ll let them reach the final decision, but it’s been clear for a while that we have not had the forces on the ground in Afghanistan that we needed to accomplish our mission there, which is to prevent the Islamic State from growing its footprint, ultimately to defeat it there, as well as to prevent the Taliban from once again establishing safe havens from which terrorist groups can launch attacks against the United States.
HH: There are some stories that allege this is being called by some in the West Wing McMaster’s war. Dr. Rice was my guest last hour and the hour before. She said McMaster’s one of the finest generals of the generation. Do you sense there’s any conflict inside the West Wing over H.R. McMaster?
TC: Hugh, I would say it’s America’s war. Afghanistan was the place from which the 9/11 attacks were planned, and it’s the one place from which we ejected al Qaeda, and we have essentially held that ground ever since. We shouldn’t allow them to come back. I agree with Secretary of State Rice that H.R. McMcaster is among the finest generals and strategists of his generation. There’s always disagreements within any White House, and within any administration. That’s a healthy thing. You want to have that kind of creative tension, because you want decisions to be framed for the commander-in-chief to make. You should not reach a kind of false level of general consensus at the principals or the deputies level that papers over disagreements when the commander-in-chief, the only democratically-elected official in the White House, can make those decisions.
HH: Sydney Freedberg at Breaking Defense has this story from yesterday – Deadlock: Mattis V. White House on Pentagon Nominees. And this reflects the fact that there are, he’s the only confirmed appointee over there, and it reflects as well deadlock at the State Department, where Rick Grenell’s been passed over for NATO, and he’s basically Secretary Tillerson alone in the building. What do you make of these vacuums at DOD and State?
TC: Well, at both Department of Defense and Department of State, they’ve been slow out of the blocks of populating all the subcabinet positions – deputies and undersecretaries and assistant secretaries. That makes it hard for Secretary Mattis and Secretary Tillerson to drive the President’s priorities in their departments. They’re doing an excellent job as members of the National Security Council and as the public face of American power and diplomacy to our allies abroad. But ultimately, they need a team in place to help drive the President’s priorities inside their departments. Now again, there’s always this kind of tension between White Houses and cabinet secretaries on who’s going to fill those departments. I think it’s particularly challenging for Secretary Mattis and Secretary Tillerson, because the folks in the Republican Party who were most apt to sign those NeverTrump letters tended to come from the national security and foreign policy world. But I’m fully confident that out of 63 million Americans who voted for Donald Trump, we can find a few dozen competent, qualified professionals to work with Secretary Mattis and Secretary Tillerson. And I would urge everyone involved in the administration to start getting those nominations to us in faster form.
HH: And two people who did not sign those letters, John Bolton and Rick Grenell, though, they’re not, and Jim Talent never signed that letter, three…
TC: Or Jim Talent or Randy Forbes. There’s Elliott Abrams, there’s a whole list of very qualified, competent professionals who have deep and rich experiences across the national security and foreign policy making apparatus, at the National Security Council, and in the inter-agency process who would be very loyal, capable subcabinet members for both these cabinet secretaries, and for the President. It’s really important they begin to fill those positions expeditiously so the Senate can confirm them, and they can be on the job driving the President’s priorities. We do not want key cabinet positions to be continuously run by Obama holdovers into late this year.
HH: Okay, key question, Politico’s Seung Min Kim has a story on blue slips this morning. I wrote about this in the Washington Post. They are bad, they are unconstitutional. I know senators love them. But can you get the conference to invite me to come and debate this with somebody, because this is, you know, Al Franken’s going to hold up David Stras. That’s an abomination.
TC: Well, if that happens, then you might see a shift in the blue slip tradition. Hugh, just so your listeners know, the blue slip tradition, the blue slip is actually a blue slip where senators return it to the Judiciary Committee if a nominee comes from his or her state. But let’s be clear. It is not a rule. It is not written down in the Senate rules or in the rules of the Senate Republican Conference. And the tradition changes substantially based on the preferences and the views of the Senate Judiciary chairman. So I think the blue slip tradition can be helpful if it encourages the White House to consult and advance with senators. But we can’t allow Democratic senators to continue to obstruct this president’s agenda if they’re just arbitrarily not returning blue slips. We have to consider changing that tradition to one of its past other forms.
HH: Bravo, Tom Cotton. My form would be Democrats get no blue slips. That’s my form. Senator Cotton, always a pleasure, talk to you next week.
End of interview.