Tom Cotton's "Army Ranger" dissembling goes back at least eight years

In a 2014 ad, Cotton said he "made tough decisions as an Army Ranger in Iraq." But he never served with the Rangers

Published January 26, 2021 6:00AM (EST)

Sen. Tom Cotton (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
Sen. Tom Cotton (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., has over the years routinely puffed up his political bona fides by embellishing his military service record, claiming in multiple interviews and campaign ads not only to have been a U.S. Army Ranger, but to have served in action as a Ranger — and, at one point, to have earned the Bronze Star "as a Ranger."

Salon reported on Friday that during Cotton's first congressional campaign, the Harvard Law grad claimed to have served as a Ranger and acquired "experience" as a Ranger in combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. A number of people came to the senator's defense, observing that as a graduate of the U.S. Army Ranger School, Cotton — who once said that "bombing makes us safer" — is within his rights to lay colloquial claim to the title. Salon's original article has been upheld as correct by the fact-check site Snopes, but even those who believe it's acceptable for Cotton to call himself a Ranger, as opposed to the more accurate "Ranger-qualified," would likely agree that he can't claim battlefield experience as a Ranger, nor that he served as one. Yet the Arkansas senator appears to have done both, on more than one occasion.

Cotton still has not provided comment to Salon, but he addressed the issue directly in an interview with Fox News' Bret Baier on Monday.

"Were you straightforward with voters about your military service?" Baier asked.

"Yeah thanks, Brett. I graduated from Ranger School and wore the Ranger tab in combat with the 101st Airborne in Iraq. This is not about my military record; this is about my politics," Cotton replied. "Ranger Regiment legends like Gen. Scotty Miller or Gen. Craig Nixon have used the term to describe both alumni of the Ranger Regiment and graduates of the Ranger School, as did the secretary of the Army. As did most of my buddies in the Army. As did most of the liberal media, until a conservative veteran was using the term that way. But if some people disagree, that's fine; I respect their views. What's most important, I respect the service of all Rangers and indeed all soldiers who serve our country."

That resembles a coherent answer. But Cotton has in fact suggested that he served with those Rangers. A 2014 campaign ad from his first Senate run, for instance, features Cotton telling the viewing audience that he "made tough decisions as an Army Ranger in Iraq." Perhaps most egregiously, a 2012 congressional campaign ad approved and paid for by Cotton even claims that "as a Ranger, Tom Cotton earned the Bronze Star."

It is unclear why Cotton, who is thought to be laying the brickwork for a 2024 presidential bid, has so routinely linked his military service to his Ranger School graduation, but his name and the title have over time become linked in media appearances.

To be clear, passing Ranger School, a grueling 62-day course open to any member of the military, is considered a top honor for any soldier, but it is not the same thing as passing the Army's Ranger Assessment and Selection Program (RASP), which produces the elite troops who deploy as Rangers, wearing distinctive tan berets and special ops scrolls. The question of whether any Ranger School graduate is a Ranger by definition is a matter of semantic debate in the military, and far from settled, as pointed out in a article about the reaction to Salon's reporting: "While the distinction is rarely brought up outside of military circles, it has been fiercely debated among veterans and encapsulates the nuances of military titles." A Pentagon official not authorized to speak on the record told Salon in a call over the weekend that, according to the Army, Cotton is technically "Ranger-qualified," and not "a Ranger." (The Army and its Special Operations unit have not answered Salon's multiple requests for comment.)

Two Republican Ranger School grads sparred over the issue in last year's New Hampshire's GOP Senate primary. Colorado lawyer Bryant "Corky" Messner claimed he "served as a Ranger," but his opponent, retired Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc, disagreed.

"Unless you served in a Ranger battalion, I think you're overstretching your claim," Bolduc told Messner last spring, reported Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler. "I'm Ranger-qualified, and I always stipulate that. I never served in a Ranger battalion." Kessler, after several conversations with Army officials, rated it a two-Pinocchio lie on Messner's part.

But with Cotton, a war hawk who has been deemed a "maniac" even by the conservative Washington Examiner, the issue goes deeper: Cotton hasn't simply said that he was a Ranger, but has strongly suggested or implied that he had deployed, even fought, as a Ranger.

After Salon's original article was published, conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt came to Cotton's defense on Twitter, calling the piece a "scurrilous attack."

"I've interviewed @SenTomCotton almost weekly for 8 years," Hewitt wrote. "He's rightly proud of his service w/ 101st in Baghdad and w/ The Old Guard and of his Ranger Tab for Ranger School but never confused units or his service. Never claimed to have served in a Ranger unit. Scurrilous attack."

In fact, in one of those interviews, conducted in 2013, Cotton leads Hewitt to believe that he had actually fought while deployed as a Ranger.

After Cotton explains that he had enlisted as an infantry officer and "became an Army Ranger," Hewitt inquires about his combat experience as a Ranger, asking: "And so as a Ranger and in Iraq, and in Afghanistan, were you ever attacked by suicide bombers?"

Cotton answers directly, without distinction: "My patrols personally were not, Hugh, thankfully for my men and for me."

The show's title refers to Cotton as "Former Army Ranger."

During a live interview in 2019 for CSPAN's BookTV series, the Arkansas senator told Hewitt a story about a soldier who had the integrity to report himself for a violation, even though he could have gotten away with it. He then does not correct Hewitt when the latter refers to Cotton's Ranger claim.

"Now you, Senator, are a Ranger, and 'Rangers lead the way' is the motto," Hewitt says, asking about the transition to a non-combat role after he "came out of the surge leading a platoon in Baghdad."

Cotton quips: "Well, you know, people weren't trying to kill me anymore. That was the biggest difference."

Complaints about Cotton's use of the term, in fact, have circulated locally as early as his first congressional campaign in 2012.

In response to Salon's report on Friday, Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., who served in the Ranger battalion, tweeted, "Hey @SenTomCotton, unless you wore one of these berets you shouldn't be calling yourself a Ranger. Truth matters."

Cotton has not offered a response to Salon, but after the publication of Salon's original article, the senator's communications team sent the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative site, its email exchange with Salon for an article about Salon's purported collaboration with an outside researcher.

The Free Beacon, it turns out, has deep ties to Cotton, dating to his relationship with leading conservative (and now Never Trumper) Bill Kristol, who helped elevate Cotton to the Senate. Cotton hired Kristol's son, Joseph, as his legislative director, and Kristol's son-in-law is the Free Beacon's founding editor. One of Cotton's foreign policy advisers and legislative directors, Aaron MacLean, was formerly managing editor at the Free Beacon.

From The Nation:

The Washington Free Beacon — whose founding editor is Matthew Continetti, Kristol's son-in-law — highlights Cotton's exploits so regularly that any given page of its Tom Cotton archives (say, this year's July-September page) will feature an array of headlines that speak to the vast range of the senator's expertise.

The Beacon's writer on the piece about Salon was formerly a paid Republican operative, and was named a Beacon "man of the year" for his work helping defeat Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri in 2018. Another man of the year for 2018? Tom Cotton, for advocating against prison reform. 

By Roger Sollenberger

Roger Sollenberger was a staff writer at Salon (2020-21). Follow him on Twitter @SollenbergerRC.

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