The White House has readied a plan to oust embattled Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and replace him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who has become one of the most personally loyal and politically savvy members of President Trump’s national security team, two administration officials confirmed Thursday. . .
Under the plan, Pompeo would probably be replaced at the CIA by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), one of Trump’s most steadfast defenders and a confidant to some leading members of the foreign policy team, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the White House has not publicly announced the moves.
While Pompeo may or may not do better than Tillerson, it is far from clear that any star player would be asked or would take a job in the three-ring Trump circus. The much more problematic part of this is Pompeo’s replacement.
Cotton, a strident right-winger who has often played defense for Trump and is known by a body of ambitious men and women to be excruciatingly ambitious, would be a controversial choice for CIA director. While Pompeo was also a politician and cultivated a close relationship with the president, he did side with his professionals over the president when Trump disparaged their work or said it was an open question as to whether Russia tried to interfere in our election. Cotton, some foreign policy professionals fear, would politicize and thereby permanently damage the CIA’s reputation.
Frequent Trump critic Eliot Cohen said of the potential Cotton pick: “It’s a bad idea to put a hard-edged partisan at the top of the Central Intelligence Agency; an even worse idea when it is someone who has no experience running a large bureaucracy, and triply worse when the job demands above all the moral courage to speak truth to a President who doesn’t really believe in it.”
Longtime Hillary Clinton adviser Philippe Reines is equally critical. “This is Pompeo’s reward for backtracking on the IC’s conclusion that Russia meddled in 2016,” he said in reference to remarks saying that the intelligence community had determined Russia didn’t affect the outcome of the election, an assertion that had to be later “cleaned up.” He added, “Replacing one malleable ideologue with another only furthers Trump’s efforts to dispense with nettlesome facts in favor of more convenient alternate facts.” And, he reminded us, “Tom Cotton rabidly defended Mike Flynn even as other Republicans accepted his acts were indefensible.”
Politicians have had a mixed record at the CIA. George H.W. Bush was a politician but a highly respected director. Porter Goss, a former Republican congressman from Florida, was a disaster, whose tenure lasted about a year. It’s not merely that Cotton is a politician that raises concerns; it is that he has repeatedly demonstrated hyperpartisanship (in grilling former FBI director Jim Comey, for example) and recklessness (in pushing a plan to decertify the Iran deal and arguing that a military option is viable).
John McLaughlin, former acting CIA director, told me, “It’s always hard to judge CIA Directors in advance. With Cotton, he’s very smart and directly experienced in war — that’s to the good. But for politicians who take the job, the challenge is to observe the bright line that separates policy from intelligence — to shift from making policy to informing it.” He continued, “This means leaving ideology behind and marshaling the most objective set of facts possible, even if they clash with personal belief. That’s the essence of the job, and not everyone can do it. And if you can’t, you fail.” While both Bush 41 and Leon Panetta made the transition from politician to CIA director, McLaughlin noted that both of those men were “vastly more experienced than Cotton” when they took the job.
Another former acting CIA director, Mike Morell, is enthusiastic about Cotton as a possible CIA pick but warned that “he would have to leave politics behind.” How would he do that? Morell advised, “You must not bring a lot of staff with you, especially people from your congressional office.” That would signal faith in the professionals at the CIA as well as a break with his political past. Morell added that the second way to deal with fears of politicization is that “you take it on directly.” He would need to have an “honest conversation” with both lawmakers and CIA staff, recognizing his political past but vowing to leave that concern behind.
We would suggest another step, if Cotton is to be the pick. He should forswear future political ambitions, telling the country, the party and the CIA professionals that he is permanently leaving electoral politics. If he cannot or will not do that, then he shouldn’t get the job. Yes, George H.W. Bush continued on to become the vice president and then president, but Cotton is no Bush. (Panetta plainly had left electoral politics by the time he went to the Defense Department and then to the CIA.) Cotton must show that he no longer cares about endearing himself to the GOP base or, frankly, about telling Trump what he wants to hear. Cotton should acknowledge that some of his partisan stunts (e.g. writing an open letter to the mullahs) were misguided. He must vow to earn the trust of Republicans and Democrats alike.
Even if he does all that, the country would still be better served by an apolitical, respected CIA director. The CIA is going to be under intense pressure in the years to come, both because of the plethora of international threats and the inclination of this president to make ludicrously inaccurate, damaging assertions. If the CIA director is not up to the task and/or enables Trump’s delusional behavior, he will do permanent damage to the CIA and the country. Ideally, a seasoned professional should take the spot, leaving (to the chagrin of some of his Senate colleagues) Cotton to act as Trump’s chief apple-polisher on the Hill.