On Tuesday, Donald Trump announced a round of firings and promotions among his administration’s top officials. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who had spent months being dogged by rumors of his ever-imminent demise, finally got the axe. CIA Director Mike Pompeo was plucked by Trump’s to shuffle into Tillerson’s seat. And Gina Haspel, a longtime CIA officer who supervised a black site where two men were tortured, is now Trump’s pick to lead the CIA.
However, just one day after Trump announced Haspel’s promotion, her nomination is already facing rough waters. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), a senior Republican and Vietnam-era prisoner of war who was tortured by his Vietnamese captors, expressed concerns about Haspel just a few hours after Trump announced her nomination.
The torture of detainees in U.S. custody during the last decade was one of the darkest chapters in American history. The Senate must do its job in scrutinizing the record & involvement of Gina Haspel in this disgraceful program. https://t.co/p2eZfMDF5N
— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) March 13, 2018
Then, at a Wednesday press conference, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) said outright that he will oppose Haspel’s nomination. “To really appoint the head cheerleader for waterboarding to be head of the CIA?” Paul told reporters. “I mean, how could you trust somebody who did that to be in charge of the CIA? To read of her glee during the waterboarding is just absolutely appalling.”
If McCain and Paul were to join all 49 members of the Democratic caucus in opposing Haspel, her nomination would fail. That said, it is far from clear that every Senate Democrat will vote to oppose Haspel. Or even that it would be in their interests to do so.
Back in October, Axios reported on “internal administration conversations” which, at the time, involved the possibility that Trump might replace Tillerson with Pompeo — and that Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) was in line to replace Pompeo at the CIA. And Cotton isn’t simply one of the most conservative members of the Senate, he also has a bit of a sadistic streak.
Cassandra Butts, a former White House official and a law school classmate of President Obama, got to see this side of Cotton up close. In 2014, Obama nominated her to be ambassador to the Bahamas. She was never confirmed, however, thanks to Cotton’s efforts to block her nomination.
Butts died from leukemia in 2016 — both President Obama and Justice Sonia Sotomayor spoke at her funeral. Shortly before her death at age 50, however, she told the New York Times’ Frank Bruni why she was never confirmed. Butts told the Times columnist that “she once went to see [Cotton] about” why he’d placed a hold on her nomination, Bruni wrote, and Cotton “explained that he knew that she was a close friend of Obama’s.”
Blocking Butts’ nomination, Cotton told the diplomatic nominee, “was a way to inflict special pain on the president.”
And Cotton’s sadistic streak is not limited to personal slights against the friends of his political adversaries. Among other things, Cotton is one of the lead sponsors of the RAISE Act, an immigration bill supported by the White House, which is larded down with white nationalist policy priorities. When Trump appeared ready to sign onto a bipartisan deal permitting undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children to remain in the country, hardliners within the White House recruited Cotton to scuttle the deal.
The challenge facing Senate Democrats, in other words, is whether to block Trump’s nomination of Haspel — a woman who appears to have overseen horrific violations of human rights in the misguided belief that it would serve her country — knowing that the prospect of giving a sadist like Tom Cotton command of the world’s most sophisticated intelligence agency might be even worse.