ABC News

(WASHINGTON) — Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton on Sunday pushed for an even stronger police response to pro-Palestinian protests on college campuses across the country as both arrests and controversy grow around the demonstrations against Israel’s military campaign in its war with Hamas in Gaza.

Speaking to ABC News “This Week” co-anchor Jonathan Karl, Cotton said school leaders, whom he sought to paint as biased by politics, should have sent in law enforcement “the very first day they set up their tents.”

“Where were the liberal administrators and liberal politicians sending in the police on the very first day? We should not have tolerated this for a moment,” he said.

In recent weeks, student encampments protesting the war in Gaza and the civilian death toll there have sprung up on campuses from coast to coast.

That has sparked a wave of media attention and varying reactions from school and state officials, some of whom have sought to negotiate with the demonstrators while noting a balance between the right to protest and the needs of other students and limiting violence and hate speech.

In some instances, police have been brought in to clear out the demonstrators, including at Columbia University, where arrests were made after students and other protesters occupied the school’s Hamilton Hall.

However, encampments are still intact at several other universities.

Cotton, who stirred backlash in 2020 by calling for the military to curb “looting” and “rioting” during widespread civil unrest, took a dim view of the campus movement on “This Week” — deriding the demonstrators, whom he labeled “fanatics,” and dubbing each encampment a “little Gaza.”

Pressed about that pejorative by Karl, Cotton said, “Well, they call themselves the Gaza solidarity encampments — they’re little, they’re little Gaza.”

“It seems like you’re mocking the situation in Gaza,” Karl pushed back.

Cotton clarified that he wasn’t referring to the dire conditions for civilians in Gaza or the deaths there, all of which he blamed on Hamas, which sparked the current war with Israel after an Oct. 7 terror attack. Cotton said his label referred to the decisions of protesters, many of whom are students.

“They deserved our contempt. They also deserved our mockery,” he said.

Though Cotton conceded that protesting by itself is, with some exceptions, a protected form of activity, he insisted that what was being seen on campuses had gone too far.

He denounced reports of violence and “vile, antisemitic hate” and singled out, for example, how a George Washington statue was covered in pro-Palestinian garb at one school.

“You can protest all you want. If you want to make a fool of yourself and support a terrorist group, you can do that,” he said, adding, “But you are not allowed to violate campus rules and policies and break the law.”

Many of the groups behind the pro-Palestinian demonstrations have rebuked antisemitism and sought to distance themselves from any such conduct, saying it’s not representative of their goals or values in calling attention to the civilian toll in Gaza.

In his “This Week” interview, Cotton, a supporter of a muscular U.S. presence abroad, also defended House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., for the recent passage of a foreign aid package that includes funds to Israel, Taiwan and Ukraine — legislation that is expected to spark a vote on a resolution from firebrand Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., pushing for Johnson’s ouster.

“About two-thirds of House Republicans said that they wanted to support Ukraine in one way or another even if they didn’t support that specific piece of legislation. It was a much smaller majority that voted to cut off aid entirely. So, Speaker Johnson has about two-thirds of his entire conference behind them on that specific issue, and almost all of them behind him on the question of Israel or Taiwan,” Cotton said after Karl pointed out that most House Republicans voted against the bill.

Cotton swatted away the idea of a more isolationist GOP, arguing that opposition to foreign aid is more centered around debates over logistics than principles.

“I think what you see among a lot of Republicans, they have legitimate and reasonable concerns about our defense industrial base’s ability to support our own military, much less other countries’ wars. I share those concerns. I think the way to do that is to invest more in the defense industrial base, but that’s largely a practical difference about circumstances here in our defense industrial base,” he said.

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When Karl raised various issues related to Donald Trump, the Republican standard-bearer, Cotton sought to play down certain differences with the former president including Trump’s continued refusal to acknowledge the 2020 election wasn’t marred by widespread fraud.

Cotton, who doesn’t share Trump’s rhetoric, instead pivoted to saying he agreed with Trump that certain parts of the 2020 race were “deeply unfair.”

Asked if he would consider being Trump’s running mate, Cotton waved away the discussion as a speculative “parlor game” and didn’t answer directly.

“What Donald Trump is focused on is winning this election. What I’m focused on is helping him win and making sure Republicans win the Congress. When he’s ready to make his decision about vice president, he will,” Cotton said.

Karl asked if he agreed with Trump that the people being prosecuted for their alleged acts in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol Hill riot were really “hostages.”

Cotton contended that some participants who did not engage in violence had been unjustly placed in lengthy pretrial detentions but “people who were involved in that riot, who assaulted police officers or who defaced and damaged public property should face the legal consequence.”

“That’s different,” he said.

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