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Why Tom Cotton couldn’t criticize Trump for praising Putin

After Donald Trump praised Vladimir Putin, some pushback from Sen. Tom Cotton should’ve been easy. It wasn’t.


Sen. Tom Cotton has not earned a reputation as a shrinking violet. On the contrary, the Arkansas Republican often presents himself as a fearless conservative, eager to criticize those with whom he disagrees.

With this in mind, Cotton was presented an opportunity yesterday to not only condemn Vladimir Putin, but also to make clear he disagrees with Donald Trump’s recent praise of the Russian leader. For the prominent GOP hawk, this should’ve been easy.

It wasn’t.

ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos interviewed the senator yesterday, acknowledging that Cotton has been “stalwart” in his opposition to Putin, though the same can’t be said for Trump, who repeatedly praised the authoritarian leader last week, even as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine got underway. Asked if he’s prepared to condemn the former American president’s pro-Putin rhetoric, Cotton hedged, saying, “George, you heard what I had to say about Vladimir Putin.”

So, the host tried again, asking why the senator can’t bring himself to condemn Trump for his praise of Putin. Again, Cotton didn’t want to answer directly:

“George, if you want to know what Donald Trump thinks about Vladimir Putin or any other topic, I’d encourage you to invite him on your show. I don’t speak on behalf of other politicians. They can speak for themselves.”

The ABC anchor noted, accurately, that if Barack Obama or Joe Biden had offered similar praise for the Russian leader, Cotton would be “first in line to criticize” them.

But the senator wouldn’t budge. “Again, George, if you want to talk to the former president about his views or his message, you can have him on your show,” the Arkansan said.

There’s no great mystery here: Cotton disagrees with Trump. We know this because the two Republicans have pushed positions that are diametrically opposed, with the senator denouncing Putin and the former American president commending his Russian benefactor.

But Cotton, whose national ambitions are not well hidden, can’t quite bring himself to criticize Trump or say how wrong Trump is.

The GOP senator could’ve tried to at least push a mild rebuke. He could’ve said something like, “The former president and I have come to different conclusions about Putin,” or perhaps, “I wouldn’t have used those words to describe the Russian president.”

Except Cotton wasn’t even prepared to go this far — perhaps because he fears a Trump backlash, or perhaps because he doesn’t want to risk upsetting the former president’s most rabid followers.

Either way, the senator’s cowardice is tough to defend.

James Downie added in his latest column, “In recent months, there’s been speculation that Trump’s grip over the Republican Party is loosening. The past few days are a chilling reminder that, no matter how loathsome his utterances, all but a tiny fraction of the GOP lives in terror of crossing him.”