Appearing with Clinton School for Public Service Dean Skip Rutherford, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton spoke today at a Clinton School event focused on Cotton’s assessment of Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office. While there were some moments of applause and isolated jeering, the latter quickly silenced by Rutherford, the event was much less raucous than the town hall meetings Cotton has been attending of late, though Rutherford pulled no punches in questioning Trump’s temperament, judgment and agenda.
The event had been moved from the Clinton School to Robinson Auditorium at Broadway and Markham to accommodate a larger-than-average crowd.
Cotton said he speaks on a weekly basis with Trump, either by phone or in person, and later complained that the only time he was in the White House during the Obama years was during the “red line fiasco” over involvement in Syria. He said he happens to think that Trump is “right a lot more than Barack Obama” when it comes to foreign policy — a line that got a negative reaction from the audience — but said that if he believes Trump’s decision is wrong, he will oppose him.
Of Trump’s failed attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare, Cotton called the attempt “a false start,” saying that the Congress was “more focused on getting it fast than getting it right.” Cotton later said it was good the legislation failed because there’s a real chance to make mistakes if legislation is rushed through. Rutherford got widespread applause from the audience when he asked Cotton if Trump is open to fixing the Affordable Care Act instead of repealing it and replacing it with something new, with Rutherford ending his question by asking if the repeal mantra is “a political statement or a health care statement.” Cotton said that there are a lot of people could be moved from the expanded Medicaid rolls to private insurers if the regulations could be fixed. He said he believes the chances we’ll see another attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare in the coming year are well above 50 percent.
On budgetary matters, Cotton said he doesn’t believe we’ll have a “cliffhanger” on April 28, when the continuing resolution Congress approved to keep the government funded will expire. He said Trump’s full budget — which includes massive cuts to the arts and the social safety net — won’t be enacted “line by line” because Congress has the spending power. Rutherford then turned to Trump’s tax returns, noting that though Trump has said they can’t be released because he is under audit, even the most complicated audits take less than a year. Given the alleged connections to Russia and questions about Trump’s international business connections, Rutherford said, “Wouldn’t it be better for him to get that stuff out there?” That line drew a big round of applause.
Cotton said the decision to release his returns is ultimately up to Trump, adding that whether Trump releases his returns or not isn’t going to bring a single job to Arkansas. Cotton said he had no reason to dispute the idea that Russians were involved in election hacking, as it has hacked elections all over the world. As he has in town halls several times now, Cotton deflected from the issue of releasing Trump’s taxes by saying that all federal officeholders, including Trump, have to file detailed financial disclosure forms that are already available to the public.
Rutherford asked if Cotton will ask for Trump’s returns as part of the investigation into Russian hacking by the Senate Intelligence Committee. While Cotton said that he would hope to make some of the information gathered by the committee public, other information gathered will be classified. Interviews and information gathering is ongoing, Cotton said. Rutherford asked if the House Intelligence Committee is “compromised,” given that it’s chaired by Trump ally Rep. Devin Nunes of California. Cotton said he isn’t in the House, but trusts many of the members of that committee.
Asked about Trump’s decision to bomb Syria, even though Trump had criticized Obama for considering airstrikes on the country as both a citizen and a candidate, Cotton said that Trump was right to strike the airfield after Syrian president Bashar Al Assad used chemical weapons on civilians. Cotton said the strike was the same kind of “mess with the bull, get the horns” approach Ronald Reagan had used against Libya for supporting terrorism.
While asking Cotton about his thoughts on Vice President Mike Pence’s trip to the South Korea this week, Rutherford got another laugh from the crowd when he brought up the fact that the Trump administration said a Navy carrier group was steaming toward the Korea peninsula when in fact it was going the other way. Cotton called that a mistake between the Pentagon and the West Wing. Cotton said the policy for years has been to “kick the can down the road” with regard to North Korea, but said that with the growing potential that North Korea might marry a nuclear warhead to an intercontinental ballistic missile that could threaten the continental U.S., the U.S. has “run out of road to kick the can down.”
Asked about Trump’s accomplishments, Cotton called the seating of SCOTUS Justice Neil Gorsuch “a 30-year victory for President Trump.” Rutherford noted that Trump hasn’t delivered on many of the promises he made during the campaign. Cotton said that there will be “an important down payment” in the next few weeks on funding the military, which he called “hollowed out.” He said he’s confident that in time, Congress will pass some of the laws Trump campaigned on.
Pivoting to Trump’s push for stricter immigration, Rutherford noted the failed first travel ban. Cotton said that Trump and immigration officials are enforcing the law, and that law enforcement officials shouldn’t be criticized for doing so. He said that the ban “is not a Muslim ban” because it only applies to certain countries, not the many other majority-Muslim countries around the world. Cotton said he believes the judges who halted the first and second bans exceeded their authority in doing so.
In the midst of questioning, Rutherford said he wanted to take a minute to lobby Cotton on the issue of immigration on behalf of international students in the country seeking higher education. Rutherford said those students, including students at the Clinton School, would eventually make their home countries or America a better place, but added that right now “they’re scared to death.”
“Don’t penalize the college students,” Rutherford added. “They’re not terrorists.”
Cotton said he supports legislation to fix what he called a broken immigration system, and which would prioritize those who are educated and skilled.
Speaking of Trump’s tweets, Rutherford noted that Cotton has used Twitter more in the past month than Donald Trump. Cotton said that he has no problem with Trump using Twitter to communicate to the American people, and likened Trump’s use of social media to FDR’s “Fireside Chats” radio broadcasts — a comparison that earned him chuckles and audible groans from the audience. Cotton said that the criticism of Trump’s use of Twitter had more to do with the content of his Tweets than his use of the technology. Rutherford then asked about Trump’s staff, including Steven Bannon, former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and the decision to keep secret the White House visitor logs. Cotton said that while the Washington media loves “power behind the throne” stories, the real power to make decisions rests with the president. Cotton said things in the White House a “working pretty good” and getting better.
Asked to give Trump a letter grade for his performance, Cotton said he couldn’t give an overall grade, but would give him an A-plus on the nomination and confirmation of Gorsuch and the decision to strike Syria. He said he would give Trump a B on the cabinet nomination process, noting that many lesser departmental appointments remain unfilled. He said he would give Trump an “incomplete” on the repeal and replacement of the ACA.