by Eli Clifton
The dominant media narrative is that an insurmountable chasm exists between Donald Trump and the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party. Derek Davison and Jim Lobe mapped out the contours of that divide, pointing to Trump’s isolationist foreign policy leanings and his position as “neutral” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the basis for neocons’ discontent. One prominent neoconservative, Robert Kagan, has jumped ship completely, saying he will likely vote for Hillary Clinton. Others—including former Bush administration official Eliot Cohen, Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Max Boot, former Ted Cruz adviser Elliott Abrams, and columnist Charles Krauthammer—have also indicated that they would be unable to vote for Trump.
But that divide might not be as deep as all this suggests.
One only needs to look as far as Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR). Cotton, according to a US News and World Report article published today, “won’t rule out accepting a vice presidential offer from Trump and has poured cold water on running on a third-party ticket, as floated by the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol.”
That’s surprising for a couple reasons.
Cotton and Kristol
First, Cotton is Kristol’s protégé, striking up a correspondence with Kristol while based in Afghanistan, which eventually led to frequent drinks and dinner at the Mayflower Hotel when Cotton returned and was based at Fort Myer in Virginia.
“Kristol saw a kindred spirit in Cotton’s aggressive national-security hawkishness, and the men developed what Kristol describes as ‘a bond beyond pure policy” according to a 2014 Atlantic profile of Cotton.
Indeed, Cotton and Kristol were often in sync, especially when they both were working to derail the Iran nuclear deal. Cotton went further than most of his colleagues, breaching protocol by addressing a letter to the leaders of Iran. The letter warned that any agreement reached with the White House might not be honored by the next president, effectively linking Iran hawks in Washington with hardliners in Iran to undermine both countries’ moderates. Cotton celebrated the controversial letter as an example of “standing up to dictators.”
Kristol clearly has high aspirations for Cotton, and the freshman senator from Arkansas has emerged on Kristol’s short list for an independent ticket to counter Trump in the general election. And Kristol continues to suggest he is working to orchestrate a third-party candidacy to capture the establishment Republican and neoconservative vote. But Cotton, for now, seems to have abandoned this plan entirely.
Biting the Hand that Funds
The second reason that Tom Cotton’s flip to Trump comes as a surprise is money. Cotton’s political career has been largely financed by groups and individuals who have been outspoken about their opposition to Trump’s candidacy.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the largest donor, contributing $757,007 to Cotton’s Senate bid, is Club for Growth, a fiscally conservative group that took the lead in running anti-Trump television ads in Florida, Illinois, and Missouri. In March, the group warned Republican congressional candidates that they would risk losing the Club for Growth’s support if they endorse Trump.
Cotton’s second largest donor, employees of billionaire Paul Singer’s hedge fund, Elliott Management, contributed $165,400. Singer also contributed $250,000 to Arkansas Horizon, an independent expenditure group that supported Cotton. Singer shares Cotton and Kristol’s hawkishness on Iran—funding groups like the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Republican Jewish Coalition—and has been a leading force in the “never Trump” movement.
On Monday, speaking at a dinner hosted by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank where he serves as chairman, Singer suggested that he will support neither Trump nor Hillary Clinton. Instead, he would “stand up for what we believe, which is not embodied by either choice on the menu in November,” according to a source in the room and reported by The National Review.
Cotton could indeed be turning his back on his political funders and mentor. Or perhaps his possible defection to the Trump camp of the GOP is a hint that the “never Trump” forces in the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party are on the cusp of accepting Trump’s de facto takeover of the Republican Party and preparing to support Trump’s candidacy in the 2016 presidential race. That second option might look particularly attractive to Kristol, Singer, and other neoconservatives if they believe that they can influence Trump’s foreign policy, perhaps by installing one of their own as Trump’s running mate.
“Cottons’ chief of staff has been hounding journalists to include him on their prospective lists of possible Trump VPs,” a Hill staffer told LobeLog.