Senator Tom Cotton joined me this morning. We discussed tomorrow’s “Capitol Challenge” before turning to the nomination of Gina Haspel to be the next Director of the CIA:
HH: I am now joined by Senator Tom Cotton of the great state of Arkansas. Good morning, Senator.
TC: Good morning, Hugh, good to be on with you.
HH: Now I am told that Rangers lead the way, but apparently not in the Capital Challenge.
TC: Hugh, I suppose you’re talking about that ingrate Mike Gallagher, for whom I campaigned in 2016 and then snuck by me in the last moments of the ACLI Capital Challenge race last year.
HH: Yeah, that’s who I’m referring to.
TC: I don’t, yeah, I knew I shouldn’t have campaigned for that guy, and I hereby endorse every opponent that ever may run against him.
HH: Now he beat you by 8 seconds last year. Are you going to make it back? Tomorrow is the Capital Challenge, is it not?
TC: Well, yeah, Hugh, unfortunately, this is going to end my streak of running in the Capital Challenges. We have an unusual hearing and vote on the Intelligence Committee tomorrow morning. You know, normally, the Intelligence Committee meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but we’re meeting early tomorrow morning to vote on Gina Haspel’s nomination to be the CIA director. So under the whacky rules of the Senate, we have to do it Wednesday morning so we can start that consideration of that nomination on Thursday afternoon.
HH: So this has not been conveniently scheduled to avoid a rematch between the Army and the Marine Corps?
TC: No, as shocking as it is, whenever it comes to something as important as the CIA director’s nomination, we don’t schedule it around footraces. But you know, the ACLI Capital Challenge is a great event to support seeing eye dogs for wounded veterans, so it’s always a highlight of the year in Congress. And I regret that I won’t be able to do it this year, but I strongly support their mission, and grateful for what they do for our veterans.
HH: All right, let me ask you seriously about Gina Haspel. The nomination will be voted on tomorrow. I knew that, and then it goes to the floor thereafter. Do you expect her to clear with an affirmative vote still in the committee?
TC: Yes, Hugh. As I have said for weeks now, Gina will be recommended by the Intelligence Committee on a bipartisan vote. And then next week, she will be confirmed as CIA director in the full Senate on a bipartisan vote.
HH: That will bring the President’s national security team of the Vice President, Secretary of State Pompeo, Secretary of Defense Mattis, National Director of Intelligence Coats, CIA Director Haspel to full strength with John Bolton as national security advisor, Chief of Staff Kelly, best national security team we’ve had in my lifetime. And they are going to confront an interesting situation in Iraq which I would like you to comment on. It appears that Muqtada al-Sadr is going to be the most powerful person in Iraq. I believe when you were carrying a rifle in the slums of Baghdad, he was shooting at you. I think his militias were shooting at you. What do you make of this turn of events in Iraq?
TC: Hugh, you’re right that Muqtada al-Sadr’s ticket seems to have received the most votes in the parliamentary elections on Saturday. Now Iraqi politics are complicated, and they’re far from having a majority. And in those days when I was in Iraq in 2006, they went months without a formal government because of the coalition talks taking so long. So it’s not yet clear who will be the prime minister, how the ministerial offices will be divided. But the most important thing in Iraq is that we not have a government dominated by the ayatollahs in Tehran. And to the extent that Muqtada al-Sadr is willing to have laid down his arms in the past and tried to work through the political process, and have a government that won’t be beholden to Tehran, it’s in the United States’ interest to try to work with anyone who’s willing to stand for a free and independent Iraq that is independent of Iranian influence.
HH: Now it wouldn’t be the first time in history that a former enemy of the United States became an ally. So it’s not beyond thinking that. He appears to be also opposed to Iranian influence in his country. But will he put pressure on the United States to withdraw its troops, which the last time we did that, we know what happened. The ISIS caliphate was established.
TC: That’s right, Hugh. You know, if we hadn’t withdrawn all those troops in 2011, we might have fewer troops today in Iraq than we do now. And I think the lesson of the 2011-2014 time frame is that a hasty withdrawal of American troops, especially when we’re only talking about a few thousand troops that are not in a frontline combat role, is a recipe for instability in Iraq. There have been a lot of twists and turns and ups and downs in that country over the last 15 years, but I think at this point with the caliphate defeated and having another set of free elections in Iraq, that most Americans should be proud of what their armed forces have accomplished there. And we can only imagine what would be happening in the Middle East right now if Saddam Hussein was still in power, the kind of conflict that that could have created after the Arab Spring or with the Iranians’ drive for nuclear weapons.
HH: Last question, in the Wall Street Journal this morning, Seth Cropsey has a piece, America Can’t Afford To Cede the Seas. It argues that China will have 400-plus ships by 2030 and will surpass us on the current spending trajectory and hull laydown that we have for the United States Navy. Have you read this? Do you agree with him? Is there anything we can and will do about this, because it seems to me that the only presidential promise made in the campaign that has not been kept is an actual plan to get to 355 ships quickly.
TC: I have read Mr. Cropsey’s column in the Wall Street Journal today. I agree that we need more ships and more money for those ships. I worry about the Chinese drive for military supremacy. Now the American people should know that Chinese ships are obviously less capable than American ships, but ultimately, as the saying goes, quantity has a quality all of its own, and that’s why it’s important that the Congress provide the Department of the Navy the money that it needs to reach that 350 ship goal with the most advanced cutting edge technology in the world.
HH: Has Trump laid down a plan, yet? Has the President put it on paper, Senator Cotton?
TC: We are moving in that direction, Hugh, but there’s still some work to be done.
HH: Senator Cotton, good luck in the vote tomorrow. I expect you’ll be back in the Capital Challenge in 2019? Can we look forward to a rematch of Gallagher and Cotton in 2019?
TC: No, I said I’m supporting all of his opponents from here and hereafter.
HH: (laughing) Senator Tom Cotton, good to talk to you.
End of interview.