CLEVELAND — At 39, Tom Cotton of Arkansas is the youngest member of the U.S. Senate. The Harvard-educated veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has rapidly become a leading Republican voice on foreign policy and potential future presidential candidate.
Unlike some other rising stars in the party, Cotton decided to attend Donald Trump's nominating convention and accept a speaking role on its opening night.
His home state's deep-red status — Mitt Romney carried Arkansas by more than 20 points in 2012 — made that a low-risk proposition. And it gave Cotton, in addition to a large television audience for his speech, a chance to mingle with delegates from Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, the three most important early states in presidential politics.
He chatted about Trump and his own future inside the Quicken Loans Arena with me. What follows is a condensed, edited transcript of our conversation.
HARWOOD: One of the questions that has been raised about Donald Trump is, "Is he more friendly with Russia than it is in America's best interests to be?"
COTTON: Vladimir Putin was a KGB spy and he never got over that. He does not have America's best interests at heart and he does not have any American interests at heart. I suspect, after this week, when Donald Trump is the nominee and he begins to receive classified briefings, similar briefings to what I receive as a member of the Intelligence Committee, he may have a different perspective on Vladimir Putin and what Russia is doing to America's interests and allies in Europe and the Middle East and Asia.
HARWOOD: His criticism of John McCain. You asked him to retract and apologize. He said that President George W. Bush lied to get us into war in Iraq and didn't protect us because 9/11 actually happened?
COTTON: Well, I disagree with those statements and I said them at the time. But I think that Donald Trump and a Republican Congress will have an agenda that's better for the American people. And, you know, Hillary Clinton has a lot of things to answer for as well, to include direct lies to the American people and the FBI director has now corroborated that.
HARWOOD: but you're willing to live with those things that are distasteful to you because of Hillary Clinton?
COTTON: Well, I mean, the Clintons have set some of their own standards for low conduct in office.
HARWOOD: Right, but what do you think of his standards?
COTTON: Well, again, I've said that I disagree with those statements you cited, at the time, and I still disagree with them. I don't think they're helpful to the campaign. You know, the Republican Party is bigger than any one man. It's bigger than Donald Trump. It's bigger than me. I think that Donald Trump, like all Republicans, should be focused on the issues that matter to the American people.
HARWOOD: What does the Republican Party do about the perception that it is the party of less educated people, and Democrats are the party of more educated people? Because, as education levels rise, that is not a promising formula.
COTTON: Well, I would dispute that. I mean, we just passed legislation in the Senate that protects our food producers, our farmers, and our ranchers from very left-wing, labeling laws in Vermont, because the left is anti-science when it comes to the benefits of GMO food.
HARWOOD: Is there anything specific that you would like to see your party do to broaden its appeal to Latinos, African-Americans, young people, women?
COTTON: I think the Republican Party principles appeal to all Americans of all stripes. All races all regions, again, are dominated by working Americans — people who drive our trucks, people who get our oil and gas and coal out of the ground, and teach our kids and nurse us back to health. And when we appeal to the broad, working class of America, we're going to appeal more to every ethnic group; black, white, Hispanic, Asian, and so forth. That's what we have to be focused on; the very real, practical, everyday anxieties of every American.
HARWOOD: You want to run for president some day? Do you think about it?
COTTON: During the 9/11 attacks, I was a student in law school. And that obviously shifted my course in life. I ended up joining the Army. And one lesson I took away from that is it's good to have a plan in life. But write your plan in pencil because you never know what the world's going to put in your path.
HARWOOD: All right, I didn't hear no.