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SecDef Candidate Slams Russia, Calls for Stronger NATO

Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., is applauded at his election watch party in North Little Rock, Ark., after defeating incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014. Danny Johnston/AP
Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., is applauded at his election watch party in North Little Rock, Ark., after defeating incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014. Danny Johnston/AP

Sen. Tom Cotton, being considered by President-elect Donald Trump as a possible choice for defense secretary, on Thursday called for continued U.S. support of NATO and labeled Russian President Vladimir Putin an "adversary" in remarks that may put him at odds with the incoming commander-in-chief.

Two days after Trump and Putin talked on the telephone about greater cooperation, Cotton, an Arkansas Republican and former 101st Airborne Division platoon leader in Iraq, said, "To improve our relations with Russia, what needs to happen foremost is Vladimir Putin needs to have a new set of boundaries," an apparent reference to Russian expansionism in Crimea and Ukraine.

"It would be good, of course, if we had a better relationship with our adversaries," Cotton said, but Putin will first "have to recognize that we are going to stand by our alliance structures." He called on Russia to exhibit a "sense of reality" about U.S. support for NATO and understand that the alliance was "not a threat to Russia."

In numerous congressional hearings, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford have also called Russia an "adversary" and the No. 1 threat to the U.S.

Cotton, who met with Trump on Tuesday in New York, was responding to questions including whether the Trump administration would lift sanctions on Russia at the fourth annual Defense One summit on national security issues in Washington, D.C.

Trump and Putin on Tuesday spoke by phone and the transition team later put out a statement.

"During the call, the two leaders discussed a range of issues including the threats and challenges facing the United States and Russia, strategic economic issues and the historical U.S.-Russia relationship that dates back over 200 years," it stated.

Trump told Putin "that he is very much looking forward to having a strong and enduring relationship with Russia and the people of Russia," it stated.

A separate statement from the Kremlin said Putin and Trump agreed on "uniting efforts in the fight with the common enemy number one -- international terrorism and extremism." Putin also agreed to build "dialogue with the new administration on the principles of equality, mutual respect and non-interference in the internal affairs of each other," the statement said.

Hours after Trump-Putin phone call, Russia resumed airstrikes in Syria. Human right groups charged that hospitals in Aleppo were hit but the Russian Defense Ministry denied that Russian warplanes were active in Aleppo.

Cotton spoke as the Trump transition team, now headed by Vice President-elect Mike Pence, prepared to fan out across federal agencies to enable the new president to "hit the ground running" upon his Jan. 20 inauguration.

As of Wednesday, the Defense and State Departments said there had been no contacts with the Trump transition team, but officials were on standby to speed the process. Once the Trump team makes contact, "We'll try to help them to get all the information and the perspective that will help them to hit the ground running. That's our objective," said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.

Other potential Trump choices for defense secretary included retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, a registered Democrat and former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, but Flynn has now emerged as the frontrunner to become the next White House National Security Advisor, which would not require Senate confirmation.

The retired general would have needed a waiver from Congress on the rule barring retired military officers for five years from nominations for posts requiring Senate approval.

Flynn, a vice chairman of the Trump transition, was a key surrogate on defense issues during the campaign and spoke at the Republican National Convention, leading chants of "lock her up" in reference to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

The onetime top intelligence aide to Gen. Stanley McChrystal in Iraq was eased out of the DIA after reportedly disputing the Obama administration on the progress of the campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.

At an awards dinner on Long Island on Wednesday night, Flynn hit on campaign themes about avoiding "political correctness" and dismissed complaints that Trump has few settled policy positions.

"In fact, we need to have the world to be a little bit uncertain right now about what will America do under this new president," he said, Newsday reported.

Flynn also that the U.S. will be tested by Russia, China, North Korea and ISIS because they "feel that America is weak" after eight years of the Obama administration.

Others considered as possibilities for secretary of defense include Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican who was one of Trump’s earliest supporters; Stephen Hadley, the former National Security Advisor to President George W. Bush; and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican who was defeated for re-election and has been a staunch advocate of the A-10 Thunderbolt attack aircraft.

Others believed to be on the short list for defense secretary were former Sen. Jim Talent, a Missouri Republican and former economic adviser to the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney in 2012; and Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican and Marine Reserve officer who served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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