CNN "The Situation Room" - Transcript: Interview with Sen. Tom Cotton


Date: May 16, 2019
Issues: Foreign Affairs


BLITZER: Sunlen Serfaty up on Capitol Hill, thank you.

Joining us now, Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas. He's a member of both the Intelligence and the Armed Services Committees. He's also the author of a brand-new book, an important book, entitled, "Sacred Duty. A Soldier's Tour at Arlington National Cemetery." There you see the book cover right there. We'll talk about the book, Senator, in a few moments. Let's get to the news.

The Gang of Eight, as they're called, the top leaders of the U.S. House and the Senate, the Intelligence Committee, they've just been briefed on the situation involving Iran. You are on the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Armed Services Committee.

Have you been briefed on what's going on?

SEN. TOM COTTON (R), ARKANSAS: Wolf, the Intelligence Committee has been getting regular daily updates for at least a week now about the multiple and credible sources of increased threats in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf from Iran.

That's why the Department of Defense has recommended and the president has agreed to deploy an additional aircraft carrier strike group, those B-52 bombers, Patriot missile defense systems, to the Middle East to make sure that the ayatollahs in Tehran recognize that if they were to take military action against U.S. personnel or allies in the region, there would be grave consequences to pay.

BLITZER: Because if the threat is as serious as you suggest, as the administration is suggesting, why is the administration waiting until next Tuesday to brief the full U.S. Senate?

COTTON: Well, every senator, at least as of today, has access to all of the information that the Intelligence Committee has seen. So even if there's not going to be a briefing until next week, any senator can read that intelligence and see the multiple, credible, serious threats that we're facing from Iran that's just picked up the pace over the last couple of weeks.

That's why the president has taken these prudent steps to deter any Iranian action against the United States or our allies.

BLITZER: You heard Barbara Starr's report from the Pentagon.

How serious is this threat now that the U.S. intelligence is seeing these images of these Iranian freighters that have been reconfigured, supposedly with missiles?

COTTON: Wolf, I won't talk about any one of these particular threats. I'll just say there's multiple threats. And the reporting has increased. What Iran has been doing for a long time is out there in the public domain, though. They've been supplying missiles and armed unmanned aerial vehicles to the rebels in Yemen.

They work through paramilitary forces in Iraq, sometimes in close proximity to our forces in Iraq. And in the Persian Gulf, in the Strait of Hormuz, they've long used a variety of ships and small boats to threaten the United States Navy and our allies and commercial shipping as well.

BLITZER: I know it is sensitive information you're getting. Certain things you can't discuss. But I don't hear you denying these reports about these freighters.

COTTON: Wolf, I'm not going to confirm nor deny any particular threats. I'll just say that there are multiple serious and credible threats. Just earlier this week, there were at least three tankers that were significantly damaged in a port in the United Arab Emirates, two Saudi, one Norwegian freighter. Those didn't happen by accident.

BLITZER: Who did it? [17:15:00]

COTTON: Wolf, I'm not going to confirm or deny who did that but I don't think it was the Swedes in a competition with the Norwegians. Let me just put it that way.

BLITZER: So was it the Iranians or their proxies?

COTTON: Wolf, I'm not going to speak any further about classified information but that kind of attack is an example of why we need an enhanced presence in the Middle East, to deter anyone who might want to take a shot at our personnel or our allies.

BLITZER: "The New York Times" is reporting that President Trump has told his acting defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan, that he does not want to go to war with Iran and he said he'd like to sit down with the Iranians.

Would you advise the president to do exactly that, sit down and talk to the Iranian leadership?

COTTON: I'm sure the president doesn't want to go to war. No one wants to go to war. We want to prevent a war from happening.

In the meantime, I don't think any kind of conversation with the ayatollahs would be productive. They've really been waging a low- grade war against us for 40 years. So until they significantly change their behavior, I don't think we should sit down with them. I don't think it would be a productive use of time.

BLITZER: We know that the national security adviser John Bolton has consistently advocated actually for removing the Iranian regime, going to war. At least he used to do that before he became the national security adviser.

What about the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo?

Are Bolton and Pompeo, from your knowledge, Senator, on the same page?

COTTON: I've long known Secretary Pompeo and Ambassador Bolton. Long agreed with them on a lot of issues but ultimately advisers advise and the president decides.

I know there's a lot of reporting about palace intrigue and disagreements in the administration. But as the president himself said, that's routine when you face grave decisions like whether to commit military forces into action. It's not surprising to know there are some disagreements behind the scenes.

But advisers advise. Only the president decides. That's true of this president and it's true of the 44 that came before him.

BLITZER: Well, I guess someone who has served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and you have, in the U.S. military, are you happy with the advice the president is getting?

COTTON: Everything I've seen suggests to me that he's getting a full range of options and they're considering all the various consequences for a course of action. Again, the best course of action is to deter Iran from taking any kind of military action against our personnel or our allies. That's exactly what the Department of Defense has been trying to do over the last 10 to 12 days.

BLITZER: You think the Iranians are looking at the president and saying, this is a president who said he wants to get U.S. troops out of Syria?

He basically wants to get U.S. troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan as well?

You think they are seeing that and they sense that there may be an opportunity for them now?

COTTON: No, no, I think they see a president and a military who is posturing to retaliate if Iran takes any kind of provocative military action against us. They also see an administration that is exerting maximum pressure on the Iranians, whether it's eliminating all oil exports from Iran or designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard corps as a foreign terrorist organization.

BLITZER: You've written a fascinating and very important new book. It's called "Sacred Duty: A Soldier's Tour to Arlington National Cemetery." Explain why this is a subject so close to your heart.

COTTON: Thanks, Wolf, for your interest in "Sacred Duty." It tells the story of the Old Guard of Arlington, America's oldest infantry regiment. It goes back to 1784, three years before the Constitution. For the last 71 years, it's had the honor of performing funerals for our fallen heroes in Arlington National Cemetery and guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Between my tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, I served with the Old Guard. And I performed many missions at Arlington. I also performed the dignified transfer of remains at Dover Air Force Base, where we welcome our fallen heroes back into the United States.

I wanted to share the story of these remarkable young men and women and their drive to achieve perfection in every single thing they do, to honor our fallen heroes and to give their families that one last perfect image of honor from the nation to those families.

BLITZER: As someone who has visited Arlington National Cemetery on many occasions, Senator Cotton, thanks for writing this important book and thanks so much for your service.

COTTON: Thank you, Wolf.