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December 10, 2017
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JOHN BRUMMETT: Picking Cotton?

This article was published December 6, 2017 at 11:27 a.m.

President Trump called U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton on Wednesday evening. They talk a lot. Cotton explains stuff to Trump.

But I’m advised that, on this occasion, Trump asked Cotton if he’d be interested in becoming director of the CIA, probably sometime early next year.

I’m told that Cotton said they could talk about the CIA job should it come open—if, indeed, as expected, Rex Tillerson gets pushed out as secretary of State and Trump names CIA director Mike Pompeo to replace Tillerson.

I’m told Cotton likely will take the job if the scenario plays out. I’m told it’s likely to play out. Trump and Tillerson haven’t meshed. Rather than fire him, Trump prefers to send him tacky public messages to move on.

You will recall recent reports that Tillerson, trying to do diplomacy while his madly tweeting boss undercut him, called Trump a bleeping moron.

Foreign policy and intelligence experts are already telling the New York Times that Cotton is too bellicose and ideological for the CIA. But Trump is all about bellicosity and he likes Young Tom’s testosterone-driven, war-threatening, waterboard-defending ideology.

Why would Cotton, maybe the hottest young Republican prospect in Washington—one unabashedly in pursuit of the presidency—choose to leave the U.S. Senate to become director of the CIA under a loony president?

I’m told Cotton likes the intelligence field and believes he would be allowed to run the agency without presidential interest or interference. Trump doesn’t tweet spy secrets much.

George H.W. Bush did a stint as CIA director and became president. But what Cotton really would like in the interim is to be Defense secretary, which might come open later because Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis is entirely too reasonable to last long. Dick Cheney did a stint as Defense secretary and became vice president.

The Times reported that the administration’s only concern is whether Cotton is more valuable to the White House in the Senate or heading the CIA. It seems pretty much a wash. Cotton could remain a private adviser to the president while heading the CIA. Arkansas would assuredly send up another robotic Trumpian vote to the Senate.

That’s unless Mike Beebe were to wage the candidacy for Democrats. He told me Thursday afternoon that he was getting “so damn many phone calls” about running that it was hard to get a golf hole played. He said the odds were strongly against his running.

Beebe has a popular brand and would be much more instantly competitive than any other Democrat. But he’d have to run hard, reduce golfing precipitously and risk what one political consultant called the “Bret Favre syndrome.”

That’s the condition by which an all-pro comes out of retirement and redefines himself, trading for a legacy the greatness of his prime for the sadness of his inability to fade gracefully.

Replacing Cotton would come first through Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s interim appointee and then after a special election next November to complete Cotton’s term, which would then expire and be subject to another election in November 2020.

(A Republican insider predicted that the first person to announce for the Republican nomination in the special election would be the youthful and extreme Koch brothers’ minion, state Sen. Bart Hester of Cave Springs. He advised that Hester, a fresh face with right-wing bona fides and Koch money, should not be taken lightly.)

No one seems to have a good idea whom Hutchinson would appoint to the interim Senate seat, probably from January, which the White House targets, to November.

The most solid speculation is that, being a consummate pragmatist, Asa would appoint a true conservative and simple place-holder, someone like Ed Bethune. Less-likely speculation is that the governor, if beginning to worry about detraction on his right, might appoint Hester, who could take the seat on an interim basis to set himself up for running in 2022 for the other Senate seat if John Boozman retires.

That’s assuming the state will continue to abide by the constitutionally dubious state law that the interim appointee may not run to succeed himself.

As for the general election next November, meaningful speculation is all on the Republican side.

Steve Womack, the 3rd District congressman, would seem the most logical candidate, but he’s on a leadership track in the House.

French Hill, the 2nd District congressman, would be a surer lock statewide than for re-election in Central Arkansas. A former bank chairman seems more senatorial than suitable for the more pedestrian House.

Should Hill run for the Senate, you’d have a wide opening in the 2nd District for Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, who could easily run in the 2nd or 1st District, owing to where she mostly stays (Little Rock), where she’s from (Batesville) and her marriage to a Crittenden County farmer.

Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin aims mainly for the post-Hutchinson governorship, but he is too ambitious to pass lightly on a Senate vacancy and he’d hate not being mentioned.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, was inducted into the Arkansas Writers’ Hall of Fame in 2014. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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