COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa (AP) — Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton was meeting Friday with Republican activists in the early presidential testing ground of Iowa, walking a delicate path by raising his national political profile at a time of turmoil for Donald Trump's White House.
The 40-year-old freshman Republican senator was attending the Pottawattamie County Republican Party's annual fundraiser in Council Bluffs in conservative western Iowa. It's a role thick with presidential implications despite Trump's solid standing among Iowa Republicans less than four months into his term.
However, Cotton offered a simple "no" when asked if he was laying the groundwork for a 2020 presidential campaign, or hedging his bets should the Republican Trump not seek re-election.
"I'm up for re-election in Arkansas" in 2020, Cotton told The Associated Press before the fundraising dinner at an event center.
Trump's hosts were standing by the president and calling Cotton's appearance an opportunity for Republican activists to meet a potential future leader.
"We are wanting him to get noticed here in Iowa. We're looking at down the road," Pottawattamie County GOP Chairman Jeff Jorgensen said. "We're on board with Trump at this time."
Trump, who departed Friday for the first overseas trip of his presidency, would seem to have few worries within the party base in Iowa, at the moment.
The GOP base overwhelmingly supports him, said Iowa Republican strategist Doug Gross, a former nominee for governor. That's despite low national approval and the shroud of congressional committees — and now an independent counsel — investigating whether Trump's campaign colluded with Russia to sway the 2016 presidential election.
Only if Trump is impeached or the economy turns sour will Trump not be re-nominated, said Gross, who has been a Trump critic. Still, Cotton has begun making friends in Iowa, a move that could pay future dividends — or backfire.
"I think a guy like Tom Cotton could actually hurt himself by coming out too early like this," Gross said.
Cotton, who had said an independent counsel was unnecessary, declined Friday to endorse Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's appointment of former FBI Director Bob Mueller to investigate any collusion between Trump's presidential campaign and the Russian government's interference in the campaign.
"I can't evaluate whether it's a good decision or not, the right decision or not. I don't have all the facts, all the reasoning the deputy attorney general had," he said, although praising Mueller as widely respected. "The deputy attorney general made the decision based on certain facts and analysis that he has access to that we don't have access to in the Congress."
Former FBI Director James Comey is expected to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee, on which Cotton sits. Cotton said he hoped to learn what exchanges Comey had with Trump before the president abruptly fired him last week.
"I hope that he will produce memos he is alleged to have written about those exchanges," Cotton told the AP.
Despite his unambiguous "no," Cotton has made inroads with Iowa Republicans. Early this month, he spoke to the Des Moines Chamber of Commerce's conference in Washington.
"He's clearly someone who has a rising national profile," said Joe Murphy of the Greater Des Moines Partnership, one of about 200 who saw Cotton's speech. "He's extremely well versed in many different issues."
Besides being a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Trump's campaign and Russia, Cotton is part of the Senate Republican working group charged with writing health care legislation, now that the GOP-controlled House has passed legislation undoing broad portions of the 2010 Affordable Care Act.
Cotton met with the Iowa Republican delegation at the Republican National Committee's convention in Cleveland last year. And last fall, he campaigned with Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst in western Iowa for a state Senate candidate who defeated the longtime majority leader, helping hand the chamber to the Republicans for the first time in 12 years.