As I sat in the hearing room watching Gina Haspel’s confirmation hearing to be director of central intelligence, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief . . . that Tom Cotton wasn’t nominated to run the CIA.
Cotton, a 40-year-old Republican senator from Arkansas and a Trump loyalist, had been the front-runner for the position. But President Trump instead tapped a career CIA operative, and Cotton was on the dais when Haspel testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday.
Haspel has her flaws. Her lawyerly statements about torture and her role in destroying tapes of black-site interrogators using it did not inspire confidence that she would stand up to Trump if he pressed her to, say, poison Angela Merkel’s Pilsener.
But Haspel’s flaws are nothing compared with those of Cotton, who has surpassed Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) as the most disliked member of the Senate. He used his five minutes of questioning time to “clear up” and to “take exception to” the “entirely false” things his colleagues said, peppering his remarks with gratuitous partisan swipes.
And then, he kept going.
When Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.), the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, was questioning Haspel about moral standards, Cotton heckled his senior colleague from the other side of the dais.
A few minutes after that, when intelligence committee Vice Chairman Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) was giving closing remarks about former CIA director John Brennan’s views on torture, Cotton interrupted again.
Warner winced and looked over at Cotton. “Excuse me,” he said.
Cotton kept on heckling. “That would be the same Mr. Brennan who supports her nomination!”
Chairman Richard Burr (N.C.) hammered the gavel to silence his fellow Republican.
“The senator will suspend,” he ordered.
Cotton ignored Burr. “We need the full record on the record!” he continued.
“No,” Burr repeated. “The senator will suspend.”
Cotton still refused. “John Brennan supports her nomination!” he said, before quieting.
Such an outburst, and rebuke, is unusual — but Cotton is no ordinary guy. Colleagues and staff on the Hill report that he can be as nasty privately as he is publicly, as uncivil to Republicans as he is to Democrats. He imputes ill motives to those who disagree with him. He served in the military but now treats politics as war.
He is, in short, an embodiment of what ails Washington: no compromise, and no disagreement without disagreeability.
It was Cotton who went to the White House to dissuade Trump from backing a bipartisan immigration compromise. When Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) observed that Cotton had become “sort of the Steve King of the Senate,” Cotton retorted that Graham “didn’t even make it off the kiddie table in the debates.”
It was Cotton, too, who suggested that Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Graham were lying about Trump referring to “shithole” African countries — even though Trump and the White House hadn’t denied he used such language.
It was Cotton who in 2015 wrote a letter to “the Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran” discouraging them from negotiating with the Obama administration.
It was Cotton who in 2016 denounced the “cancerous leadership” and “bitter, vulgar, incoherent ramblings” of then-Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).
And, most revealingly, it was Cotton who blocked confirmation of Cassandra Butts to be ambassador to the Bahamas. Butts died awaiting confirmation, but before that she told Frank Bruni of the New York Times that Cotton told her that because she was a friend of President Barack Obama’s, “blocking her was a way to inflict special pain on the president.” Bruni reported in 2016 that Cotton’s spokeswoman did not dispute Butts’s account.
The Haspel nomination is a case in which reasonable people can disagree. Demonstrators portrayed her as “Bloody Gina” the “torturer.” She, by contrast, went full Carrie Mathison in her opening statement, describing brush passes, dead drops, dusty alleys and dismantled cells.
In between those caricatures are fair and principled concerns: that she’s allowing declassification only of favorable information about her; that she’s reluctant to say it was wrong to do “enhanced interrogation”; that she’s naive to think Trump would never ask her to do something inappropriate.
But Cotton could see only malignant motives. “If Hillary Clinton had won and nominated you to be CIA director, how many votes do you think you would have gotten?” he asked Haspel, in a statement full of partisan invective that preceded his heckling.
I asked Cotton’s office if he had regrets about the hearing. Cotton replied to me in a statement: “I regret Senator Warner implied that Gina Haspel and other CIA officers belonged in jail. I regret Senator Reed compared patriotic CIA officers to terrorists. I regret Senate Democrats are shocked when they are called to account. . . . I regret Senate Democrats are so blinded by their hatred of Donald Trump.”
And I regret that this rage-filled man can’t understand that his opponents are not his enemies.