WASHINGTON - Freshman Sen. Tom Cotton has risen to the ranks of potential 2024 Republican presidential contenders by making all the right enemies. By lining up behind President Donald Trump's law-and-order recipe for controlling civic unrest, he's making even more.
"One thing above all else will restore order to our streets: an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers," the 43-year-old Arkansan wrote this week in a New York Times opinion column.
That infuriated Democrats and liberals, whom his column thumped by calling protests rocking cities "carnivals for the thrill-seeking rich as well as other criminal elements."
For good measure, Cotton lambasted the Times — a favorite conservative target — after it released a subsequent statement saying Cotton's essay did not meet its standards. Times employees had rebelled, expressing shame and anger about the piece.
"If the @nytimes allows woke 'journalists' to bully it into submission, why should any reader trust that the reporting by the @nytimes is fair and objective?" Cotton tweeted Friday.
Seldom acknowledging reporters' questions as he strides through Capitol hallways, Cotton is known for bellicose stances on issues that thrill Trump's conservative supporters. He's been a hard-liner on immigration, Iran and most recently China, including accusing that country of developing the coronavirus in a secret lab. He's edged away from that charge but asserts he was among the first to warn of "the looming pandemic."
Cotton's office declined to make him available for this article. But a person close to him, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the lawmaker's thinking, said Cotton would consider serving in the Cabinet for a second Trump term if he's reelected in November and running for president himself in 2024.
An Army combat veteran and Harvard Law School graduate, Cotton's ambition is no surprise in Washington or Arkansas. Notice has been taken of his unusually high profile for a first-term senator and his frequent appearances on the network of choice for Trump and his followers.
"Cotton is out there every night, and he's winning the Fox GOP primary for 2024," said Scott Reed, senior political strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
"Everything he's doing looks like what a very ambitious person who wants to run for president at the next available time does," said GOP consultant Liz Mair, who says she's "not a fan."
With some protests over police killings of black men veering into violence in New York and elsewhere, Cotton took to Fox on Thursday to reprise his frequent role as one of Trump's chief defenders.
He disputed Defense Secretary Mark Esper's comment that this week's urban turbulence didn't justify deploying troops in cities, saying that was Trump's call. And to former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis' stunning assertion that Trump was dividing the country and violating the Constitution, Cotton said, "He's wrong on this one."
None of that went over well with Democrats.
"I'm appalled that anyone, let alone a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, would advocate for the use of military force to silence dissent," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a fellow member of that panel.
Representing a state that has turned increasingly Republican, Cotton faces reelection in November with no Democratic opponent. He plans to use some time helping GOP Senate candidates including Bill Haggerty in Tennessee and Joni Ernst in Iowa, which holds each presidential cycle's first caucuses.
In an ad that aired earlier this year in Ohio — a swing state in presidential contests — Cotton tied together two foes: China and Trump's all-but-certain Democratic presidential opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden.
"China is the greatest threat to America's security and our values," the announcer says, accusing China of running concentration camps and stealing millions of American jobs. "Career politician Joe Biden is weak on China."
As the spot ends, it shows a split screen of Cotton wearing his combat fatigues and Trump in a Make America Great Again hat. "Senator Cotton is standing with President Trump to take on China and keep America great," the announcer says.
"Sen. Cotton has taken the Trump approach of playing to the fears and darkest, most negative things that appeal to Trump supporters," said Michael John Gray, chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party. "His ambition's been bigger than Arkansas from the moment he sought a seat in the House."
Cotton served six years in the Army in the early 2000s, leading a combat platoon in Iraq and being deployed to Afghanistan. He also spent time in the Old Guard, whose ramrod-straight members keep ceremonial watch over the Tomb of Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery just outside Washington.
Cotton grew up on his family's Arkansas farm and attended Harvard University and its law school.
As a student in 1996, he wrote an article in the school's paper, The Harvard Crimson, lauding the political skills of a fellow Arkansan: then-President Bill Clinton, whom he called "the most sincere campaigner of our time." He also praised the intelligence of Hillary Clinton, later to become Trump's vanquished Democratic presidential rival, saying Bill Clinton "would have never made it past county commissioner" without her.
But what Cotton hailed as Bill Clinton's "easy-going, affable" style has not seemed to rub off on Cotton's manner in Washington.
"He's definitely accumulated the right national security and foreign policy experience to put him on track to run in 2024," said Ron Bonjean, a GOP political consultant and former top congressional aide. He added: "He's not a backslapper. He's a really serious guy."
Cotton served one House term before being elected to the Senate in 2014. Within weeks of taking office, he incensed Democrats.
He drafted an open letter to Iranian leaders, signed by 46 GOP colleagues, warning that a nuclear deal that President Barack Obama was seeking would not be binding and could be dismantled by the next president.
Trump pulled the U.S. out of that agreement in 2018.