(CNN)Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton appeared on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. The Republican had this exchange with host George Stephanopoulos on Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Russia:
Stephanopoulos: You’ve been stalwart in your opposition of Vladimir Putin. The same cannot be said for the leader of your party, Donald Trump. Last night, he finally condemned the invasion, but he also repeated his praise of Putin, calling him smart. Earlier in the week, he called him pretty smart. He called him savvy. He said NATO and the US are dumb. Are you prepared to condemn that kind of rhetoric from the leader of your party?
Cotton: George, you’ve heard what I had to say about Vladimir Putin. That he is a ruthless dictator who’s launched a naked, unprovoked war of aggression. Thankfully, the Ukrainian army has anti-tank missiles that President Obama would not supply, that we did supply last time Republicans were in charge in Washington. That’s why it’s so urgent that we continue to supply those weapons to Ukraine.
Stephanopoulos: Why can’t you condemn Donald Trump for those comments?
Cotton: 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. I speak on behalf of Arkansans, who I talked to this week and who are appalled at what they saw in Ukraine and they want me right now to fight in Washington to support those brave Ukrainians.
Stephanopoulos: You’re a senior member of the Republican Party. Donald Trump is the leader of the Republican Party. He said last night again — suggested that he would be running for president. When Fox News asked him if he had a message for Vladimir Putin, he said he has no message.
Why can’t you condemn that? I feel quite confident that if … a Barack Obama or Joe Biden said something like that, you’d be first in line to criticize him.
Cotton: Again, George, if you want to talk to the former President about his views or his message, you can have him on your show. My message to Vladimir Putin is quite clear. He needs to leave Ukraine unless he wants to face moms and teenagers with Molotov cocktails and grandmothers and grandfathers with AK-47s for years to come. I’m speaking on behalf of all Arkansans who want me to send that message to him.
What Cotton would like Stephanopoulos — and you — to believe is that because he is not, in fact, Donald Trump, he is unable to offer any opinion at all on the former President and his praise for Putin as “smart” for invading Ukraine.
By that standard, Cotton would never be able to comment on anything he hasn’t said or done himself because, well, he is only one person. He wouldn’t be able to criticize Democrats because he isn’t one of them. (Somehow, of course, it seems Cotton’s policy doesn’t apply to the other party.)
What’s really going on here is simple: Cotton, like virtually every other ambitious Republican, is afraid of Trump and the Trump base.
There’s a zero percent chance that Cotton, among the most hawkish of politicians when it comes to Russia and other foreign adversaries, agrees with Trump’s praise of Putin. None.
But he also knows that if he wants to run for president — either in 2024 or 2028 — he can’t risk upsetting the former President and his devoted supporters. So Cotton hedges — “I don’t speak on behalf of other politicians” — in hopes that he can thread the needle between not being seen as vocally opposed to Trump, while also clearly disagreeing with him.
(If you don’t think Cotton wants to run for president, ask yourself why a senator from Arkansas would keep making trips to states like Iowa and New Hampshire.)
This is, of course, the opposite of leadership. For an example of what that looks like, consider what Utah Sen. Mitt Romney said of those, like Trump, who praise Putin amid the Ukraine invasion.
“It’s unthinkable to me, it’s almost treasonous and it just makes me ill to see some of these people do that,” Romney said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday.
See, Sen. Cotton, that’s how you do it.