For Cotton, Which Road Leads to the White House?

The senator from Arkansas is rumored to be in the running for CIA director—a move that might not help if he wants to run for president.

President Trump, flanked by Sens. Tom Cotton (left) and David Perdue, speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Aug. 2 during the unveiling of legislation that would place new limits on legal immigration.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Adam Wollner
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Adam Wollner
Jan. 2, 2018, 8 p.m.

Tom Cotton may soon be taking his talents to the CIA. And that has some Republicans wondering if that would be the right move for one of the party’s rising stars.

Multiple news outlets have reported that President Trump formed a plan to replace Rex Tillerson as secretary of State with CIA director Mike Pompeo. Then Trump would likely nominate Cotton, who has become a top White House ally on Capitol Hill, to fill Pompeo’s post. The administration has largely dismissed those reports, and none of these moves has actually happened—not yet, at least.

If they do, Cotton’s shift to Langley would be a major promotion for the youngest current U.S. senator, who’s only been in Washington for four years. But tying himself even closer to an unpopular president and assuming a role that is conducted almost entirely behind the scenes would also be a gamble for someone who appears to harbor national ambitions.

“In this day and age, it’s not a conventional position to launch an effort to get on the national ticket from,” Ryan Williams, a former Mitt Romney campaign aide and New Hampshire-based GOP operative, said of the CIA post. “It bolsters his resume but it removes him from the day-to-day back-and-forth of politics.”

As a Harvard Law School graduate, a veteran of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and a sitting senator, Cotton already has the background of a presidential contender. And he’s taken steps over the past few years to suggest that he is interested in becoming one at some point. Cotton made several trips to early-voting states, and during the 2016 Republican National Convention, he visited with the Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina delegations.

Helming the nation’s foremost intelligence agency, however, is not the traditional next step for White House hopefuls. Only one former CIA director has gone on to be president, George H.W. Bush, and he spent eight years as vice president first. The public is usually not very familiar with the person in that position, since the nature of the work is sensitive. Meanwhile, senators have a much greater ability to stake out their own ground and get their message out.

“If someone wants to guess that Tom Cotton wants to run for president, it would make more sense for him to stay a senator than to become a CIA director,” said Ari Fleischer, who was President George W. Bush’s White House press secretary. “I think the free-wheeling platform a senator has is superior to the constrictive platform a CIA director has.”

Running for president from the Senate is no easy task either. In total, 16 senators have become president, but only three—Warren Harding, John F. Kennedy, and Barack Obama—have gone directly from the upper chamber to the Oval Office. Senators are forced to take tough votes that could come back to haunt them, and Congress as a whole remains widely unpopular. Having a role like CIA director under his belt could help Cotton distinguish himself from the pack.

“If you get into a big campaign later and you’re viewed as a creature of an institution that people don’t like, it’s easier for people to sort of paint you as one of the insiders,” said Scott Jennings, a former George W. Bush political aide. “I think a wealth of experience is always, if you’re just looking at it from a pure resume perspective, terrific.”

Using the Trump administration as a springboard to higher office would bring its own set of dangers. The cloud of the Russia investigations still hangs over the president, whose approval rating is still hovering at around the mid-30s in the polls. And as evidenced by Tillerson and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Trump can quickly sour on his own Cabinet picks.

“I think [Cotton] can overcome being a member of an unpopular legislative body,” said Rick Tyler, who worked on Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign. “I think it is far more risky to be part of an administration that voters may want to eliminate entirely.”

Heading to the CIA could also limit Cotton’s timeframe for launching a presidential campaign. Representing a safe seat in Arkansas, Cotton could have conceivably stayed in the Senate for as long as he wanted before choosing the right moment to run for president. By contrast, CIA directors typically only stay in the position for a few years.

“If you’re in the Senate, you have a lot more control over your political destiny,” said Alex Conant, a former Marco Rubio presidential campaign adviser. “He could be a senator for the next 30 years. He’s a young guy and he could pick his opportunities to potentially run for president multiple times in the Senate. Whereas if he goes to the CIA, he’ll presumptively have one shot at running for president and that would be the first election Trump’s not running in.”

After the Democrats’ stunning Senate special-election victory in Alabama, some Republicans questioned whether it would be wise to open up another seat next year. Despite the tough political environment, most in the party think they should easily hold onto Cotton’s red-state seat with the right candidate.

“Alabama was such an outlier because of Roy Moore,” said Austin Barbour, a veteran Republican strategist based in Mississippi. “It’s almost impossible to dream of another scenario like Alabama.”

Cotton’s spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment for this story. Cotton himself has shot down speculation that he may become CIA director, but hasn’t ruled out the possibility either. “Last time I checked, the CIA has a director and he’s doing a pretty good job, and I’m pretty happy serving the people of Arkansas in the Senate,” Cotton said last month.

At 40 years old, Cotton can afford to wait. “He has time to play the long game,” Williams said. “He has options.”

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