Did Trump Greenlight Neoconservative Takeover of State Dept. and CIA?

by Eli Clifton

Donald Trump is likely to replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo and choose Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) to take over the intelligence agency, according to “senior administration officials” who spoke to The New York Times. That move would mark an elevation of two neoconservative Iran hawks to the most influential positions in national intelligence gathering and diplomacy. It is also a striking departure from Trump’s campaign rhetoric denouncing previous administrations who saw the U.S. as “policeman of the world” and the George W. Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq as based on a “lie.”

Pompeo, who was one of the House’s most consistent anti-Iran voices, was already “argu[ing] against the [Iran] deal” when he took over at the CIA, according to a report in July. The fact that Pompeo was engaging in the administration’s internal debate raises serious questions about the potential politicization of intelligence-gathering and analysis under the Trump administration, echoing the process that led to the false intelligence assessments widely disseminated in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq.

Pompeo’s appointment as chief spokesperson for U.S. foreign policy makes a virtual certainty that Trump will withdraw the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal and put the U.S. at odds with its closest European allies.

And Trump’s apparent willingness to accept intelligence briefings alongside political arguments from Pompeo, and potentially from Cotton, shows a new and more welcoming attitude toward neoconservatives and the network of institutions and funders who played central roles in pushing the Iraq war and advocating for confrontation with Iran over the past decade.

Cotton is a protégé of neoconservative pundit and Iraq war proponent Bill Kristol. Kristol cultivated Cotton when Cotton was still in the Army, stationed near Washington. “Kristol saw a kindred spirt in Cotton’s aggressive national-security hawkishness and the men developed what Kristol describes as a ‘bond beyond pure policy,’” according to a 2014 profile of Cotton in The Atlantic.

That bond extended to Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel making $1 million in ad buys supporting Cotton’s 2014 Senate campaign.

But Cotton’s ties to influential Iran hawks aren’t limited to Bill Kristol. As a Senate candidate, he enjoyed fundraising assistance from the hawkish Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC). National Review wrote about one of Cotton’s fundraisers in July 2013:

The conservative hedge-fund billionaire Paul Singer and former Romney foreign policy adviser Dan Senor last month hosted a fundraiser for him in New York City that hauled in over $100,000 from high-dollar Republican donors including Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam. There, according to one attendee, Senor joked about Cotton’s looming senatorial bid, “just to acknowledge the elephant in the room.” “The subtext was, ‘Okay, we all know why we’re here, but let’s not put Tom in a tough spot — and no one did,” says the source.

Paul Singer’s hedge fund, Elliot Management, went on to become the second biggest source of direct contributions to Cotton’s Senate campaign and Singer, who alongside Sheldon Adelson contributed millions of dollars to groups opposing the Iran nuclear deal, emerged as one of the Republican Party’s biggest “never Trump” voices. Singer even went so far as hiring a research firm that later went on to produce for Democrats the “Steele Dossier,” detailing salacious details of Trump’s real-estate deals and encounters with Russian prostitutes.

Singer, for reasons that are still unclear, ultimately contributed $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee and attended a White House meeting of key donors in June. Cotton, for his part, quickly cozied up to Trump and was even hoping to get himself in consideration to be Trump’s running mate in March 2016.

His influence with this administration was felt when his “fix it or nix it” proposal, a term first coined by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for decertifying Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal was widely seen as serving as the plan embraced by Trump in October when he refused to certify Iran’s compliance. That decision was made despite public statements from Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford in support of the agreement and defending the agreement as serving U.S. national security interests.

In 2015, Cotton also organized a highly controversial letter, signed by 46 other GOP senators, to Iran’s leaders threatening to kill the nuclear deal under a new presidency. The letter was seen as an effort to undermine U.S. diplomats who were working to reach a diplomatic agreement to constrain Iran’s nuclear program in coordination with close European allies.

Cotton, who may soon be in charge of giving Trump his daily intelligence briefing, would enjoy a privileged position from which to shape the flow of information reaching the president. And Cotton has made no secret of his desire to adopt a more confrontational approach to Iran, which could prove disastrous.

In 2015, he said:

The United States must cease all appeasement, conciliation, and concessions towards Iran, starting with the sham nuclear negotiations. Certain voices call for congressional restraint, urging Congress not to act now lest Iran walk away from the negotiating table, undermining the fabled yet always absent moderates in Iran. But, the end of these negotiations isn’t an unintended consequence of congressional action, it is very much an intended consequence. A feature, not a bug, so to speak.”

And later that same year, Cotton explained his terms for any agreement with Iran, qualities that more closely resemble a surrender document than anything that could reasonably be expected to come from negotiations. Cotton said:

Any agreement that advances our interests must by necessity compromise Iran’s—doubly so since they are a third-rate power, far from an equal to the United States. The ayatollahs shouldn’t be happy with any deal; they should’ve felt compelled to accept a deal of our choosing lest they face economic devastation and military destruction of their nuclear infrastructure. That Iran welcomes this agreement is both troubling and telling.

Cotton’s preferred alternative is to make “regime change” the official U.S. policy towards Iran, a move that could throw the nuclear deal and Iran’s rationale for abiding by the constraints imposed on its nuclear program into serious jeopardy.

Trump campaigned against a neoconservative foreign policy. But with his appointments of Pompeo, Nikki Haley, and now Cotton, he appears to be moving increasingly into their camp.

Photo: Tom Cotton (Michael Vadon via Flickr)

Eli Clifton

Eli Clifton reports on money in politics and US foreign policy. He is a co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Eli previously reported for the American Independent News Network, ThinkProgress, and Inter Press Service.



  1. George W. Bush demonstrated his own epic stupidity, in his reckless invasion of Iraq in 2003. Is Trump hoping to emulate this epic stupidity, in his policy toward Iran?

  2. The mullahs in Iran are vicious but they are Russian agents. Russia decides who stays and who goes in Iran. Negotiations need to be made with the Russians and threat of military strike on Sepah and its facilities(including nuclear sites operated by them). This is the only way the mullahs will back down. They have historically showed no backbone since all their leaders are corrupt and criminal. Otherwise they will achieve nuclear capability and will become another North Korea. The choice is clear.

  3. JAV KAR
    “The mullahs in Iran are vicious but they are Russian agents. Russia decides who stays and who goes in Iran.”

    Jav did you figure this by yourself or you got your secret, inside information, from sources that for “security reasons did not want to be disclosed” do you have any idea what you are talking about, check it out Iran is the only independent state in MENA unlike Israel, KSA and other US client states it decides and implement her own FP for Iran and only Iran.

  4. Great job, Eli Clifton, of calling a spade a spade. We need more of that!
    As the commenters here and elsewhere demonstrate, yes, there are plenty of people out there who wish for regime change in Iran, and they have their firmly believed reasons. Those of us who oppose U.S. action aimed at regime change in Iran, up to and including, a horrendous ground war, need to beat our drums louder and louder, to demonstrate that the opposition to another U.S. war in the Middle East is the resoundingly dominant view in the United States.

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