A much-rumored shuffle in the foreign policy and national security leadership of the Trump administration is now apparently underway. According to a strongly sourced report in the New York Times, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has become steadily more estranged from the president in recent weeks, will get the heave-ho before the end of the year. He will be replaced by CIA director Mike Pompeo, the former Kansas congressman who has insinuated himself into Trump’s inner circle. And then Pompeo would be replaced at Langley by Arkansas senator Tom Cotton, who has likewise become a key Trump adviser from his own perch in the Senate.
While a lot of the buzz over this reshuffling will focus on Tillerson, who has been a dead man walking in the administration for a good while, its more interesting aspects involve Pompeo and Cotton. These two men have more in common than congressional experience (Pompeo served in the House from 2011 until his CIA appointment), strong connections to the tea party movement, and success in brown-nosing the president. Both have combined military service (Pompeo is a West Point grad and a former military intelligence officer, Cotton volunteered for active duty in Afghanistan and Iraq) with elite law careers (both are Harvard Law grads). Both are much more likely than Tillerson to encourage Donald Trump’s more aggressive, militaristic instincts.
Pompeo is obviously getting a big promotion to a position that has long been considered the top Cabinet post (as reflected in the secretary of State’s high ranking in the presidential succession). It’s more interesting that Cotton would be willing to give up a safe Senate seat for the CIA. His friends are attributing that willingness to simple patriotism (he “does his duty when the country calls”). But unless Cotton thinks he is the only qualified person for the job (and he surely isn’t), you have to figure this lateral transfer is connected to his intense ambitions (in a recent profile of Cotton, Jeffrey Toobin commented that back home in Arkansas, “the only thing everyone agrees on is that he wants to be president someday.”). And indeed, as Molly Ball observed in an earlier piece on the fast-rising phenom, Cotton has long believed that superior people with burning ambition for national office are essential to the constitutional order, given the weakness and selfishness of the masses.
So why does Tom Cotton want to be Chief Spook? Perhaps he thinks it’s a position where he can help make the case for some of his long-term foreign policy objectives, most notably the deployment of force (diplomatic if not military) against Iran. But a more interesting possibility (via Axios’s Mike Allen) is raised by one of his most influential fans, conservative pundit Hugh Hewitt, who was the first to publicly promote the shuffle.
MSNBC and conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt — who talks frequently to Cotton on and off the air, and first floated the idea of Cotton for CIA — told me that Pompeo, Cotton, SecDef Mattis and Chief of Staff Kelly would be “a quartet of serious intellectuals and warriors in the ‘big four’ jobs.”
That makes a lot of sense. As noted above, Cotton’s career parallels Pompeo’s in many respects. He’s also close to Kelly; according to Steve Bannon, Cotton is the one who brought the current White House chief of staff to the attention of Team Trump in the first place. And the Arkansan most definitely shares Mattis’s obsession with engineering a major boost in defense spending. Looking at the “quartet of serious intellectuals and warriors” the shuffle would create, it becomes much more obvious why Rex Tillerson — a Vietnam-era boomer who never wore the uniform — didn’t fit in. Now we will apparently have two former generals, a West Point grad, and a viscerally militaristic former infantry combat officer, at the peak of the foreign policy/national security structure, all advising another Vietnam-era boomer who never wore the uniform, but who seems to compensate with a passionate love for all things military.
It’s a scary prospect for peace-loving opponents of this administration. But it could be catnip for someone like Tom Cotton, who could view participation in this team of testosterone addicts as vital occupational training for a future commander in chief.