Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas told The Associated Press the U.S. should expand its military presence on and around the Korean Peninsula to pressure China into being a serious partner in the campaign to defuse North Korea's nuclear program. He said the Defense Department should move the families of American military personnel out of South Korea as North Korea pushes the U.S. closer to a military conflict.
Cotton, a member of the Armed Services and Intelligence committees, also said U.S. allies in Europe have their "head in the sand" on the Iran nuclear deal. They need to realize that Trump will pull the U.S. out of the landmark accord unless they agree to his demand for changes aimed at making the pact more stringent, he said.
Cotton said Chinese diplomats are lying when they tell their Western counterparts that Beijing shares their goal of convincing North Korea to abandon its advancing nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs. Pyongyang last week test fired a long-range ballistic missile that experts said could hit Washington.
A nuclear-capable North Korea draws attention away from Beijing's misbehavior that includes "economic warfare" against the U.S., island building in the disputed South China Sea, and its "atrocious treatment of Christians," Cotton said in an AP Newsmaker interview.
"As long as North Korea is a nuclear country, the time and energy and effort of U.S. policymakers must be focused on North Korea, not on China," he said. "That's why they've been playing both sides of the street, saying one thing to Western officials in public but doing nothing to stop North Korea from getting nuclear weapons or now to get them to denuclearize."
Cotton's stance on China is more strident than the approach the president has taken with Beijing.
Although Cotton is a junior senator - he was elected just three years ago - his words carry weight. He's close to Trump and senior White House officials said Cotton is considered to be a leading candidate to run the CIA should Trump decide to shake up his national security team.
Cotton said in one conversation with the president, he recommended that he nominate current White House chief of staff John Kelly to be secretary of state. Trump eventually tapped Rex Tillerson for the job and named Kelly secretary of homeland security.
But on other issues covered in the interview, Cotton emphasized that no evidence has so far been found that Trump colluded with Russia to influence the outcome of the 2016 election.
He shrugged off as "idle speculation" talk of him eventually replacing CIA Director Mike Pompeo if Pompeo were to move to another administration post.
On North Korea, Trump has tried to cajole and flatter Chinese President Xi Jinping, seeking to make him an ally in the effort to pressure North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program. During the presidential campaign, Trump accused China of "raping" the United States on trade. But during a visit to Beijing last month, he abandoned the confrontational posture, saying he didn't blame China for taking advantage of the U.S.
Cotton appears to be much more in line with Steve Bannon, the former Trump adviser who has called for the United States to be "maniacally focused" on an economic war against China to narrow the trade deficit and pull manufacturing jobs back to the United States.
The interview also delved into the sexual harassment politics roiling the United States, from Hollywood and corporate executive offices to campaigns and Capitol Hill, as Sen. Al Franken said he will resign his seat following a wave of sexual misconduct allegations and the loss of support from his Democratic colleagues.
In Alabama, GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore hopes to win Tuesday's special election even as allegations of sexual misconduct are swirling around him. Multiple women have accused him of sexual misconduct decades ago, when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s.
Cotton declined to say whether he thinks equal standards apply in all cases against Franken, Moore and Trump, who has been accused by more than a dozen women of sexual misconduct and was recorded by "Access Hollywood" bragging about touching women without their consent. All three men have denied details of the accusations, if not the claims outright.
On Moore and others, Cotton said, voters "are going to make that decision, just like the people of this country made their decision last year on Donald Trump."
He added that women should be able to complain of sexual assault and the accused should be able to defend themselves.
"We shouldn't have trial by newspaper," he said.
On Russia, Cotton said it's a fact Russia tried to interfere in the 2016 election because "that's what Russia does." But he emphasized that none of the congressional or Justice Department investigations have revealed evidence that Trump or his associates colluded in that meddling.
Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington contributed to this report.
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