Trump USDA pick, linked to Russia probe, withdraws from consideration – Politico


Donald Trump and Sam Clovis are pictured here. | Getty Images

“The political climate inside Washington has made it impossible for me to receive balanced and fair consideration for this position,” Sam Clovis (left) wrote. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

Clovis had been under criticism for his lack of science credentials and links to the Russia questions swirling around the Trump campaign.

Former Trump campaign aide Sam Clovis, who has been swept up in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, has withdrawn from consideration to be the Department of Agriculture’s chief scientist, according to a letter Clovis sent on Wednesday to President Donald Trump.

Clovis had been under criticism for months for his lack of science credentials and, in recent days, for his role supervising George Papadopoulos, a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser who struck a plea deal on charges he lied to FBI investigators about his communications with Russia-linked contacts.

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“The political climate inside Washington has made it impossible for me to receive balanced and fair consideration for this position,” Clovis wrote to Trump. “The relentless assaults on you and your team seem to be a blood sport that only increases in intensity each day.”

Clovis, an Iowan who served as a co-chair and policy adviser to Trump’s campaign, notified Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue of his decision a few days ago, according to a source familiar with the exchange. “He didn’t want to add to Sonny’s problems,” the source said.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued a brief statement saying: “We respect Mr. Clovis’ decision to withdraw his nomination.”

A senior administration official said Clovis’ nomination to be the USDA’s undersecretary for research, education and economics was already in hot water due to scrutiny of his agriculture and science credentials. The official said the latest revelations about Papadopoulos “made it pretty clear he wasn’t going to get through the process.”

While being linked to the investigations surrounding the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russian interests was the one headline that Clovis couldn’t withstand, the controversy over Clovis’ qualifications had dogged him even before the White House sent his nomination up to the Senate this summer.

“It was only a matter of time,” Tom Vilsack, who was Agriculture secretary under former President Barack Obama, told POLITICO.

Clovis brought Papadopoulos into the campaign in March 2016, when he was asked to put together a foreign-policy advisory committee. Clovis knew that Papadopoulos was talking to Russian officials and, in at least one exchange, encouraged Papadopoulos to pursue a meeting with Kremlin-linked contacts, according to court documents unsealed on Monday as part of Mueller’s probe and information provided to POLITICO by administration and campaign officials.

A lawyer representing Clovis, Victoria Toensing, said in an emailed statement earlier this week that Clovis did not believe an improved relationship with Russia should be a foreign policy focus of the Trump campaign. “Dr. Clovis always vigorously opposed any Russian trip for Donald Trump or staff,” Toensing said, adding that if a volunteer made any suggestions on a foreign policy issue, Clovis would have “expressed courtesy and appreciation.”

Clovis was nominated in July for the high-ranking post, which would have put him in charge of USDA’s vast research capabilities, in addition to responsibilities related to being the department’s top scientist.

Gary Baise, an agriculture industry lawyer and ally of Clovis who served on the Trump campaign’s agricultural advisory committee, lamented the decision — and blasted Clovis’ detractors.

“It’s a sad day for agriculture,” Baise said. “He’s the one guy with the clout at the White House to increase research dollars.”

Increasing the federal government’s funding commitment to agricultural research efforts is a major debate in farm policy circles, since China has been outgunning the U.S. in this area in recent years.

“This is what the idiots do not understand: This guy really could have made a difference,” Baise added. “Have fun, you’ve ruined a good part of the agricultural research opportunity.”

Clovis had faced criticism from Democrats and environmental advocates for his skepticism of climate change science and because he lacked the credentials required for a nominee to be USDA’s chief scientist.

The undersecretary post by law is supposed to be filled by someone drawn from “among distinguished scientists with specialized training or significant experience in agricultural research, education and economics.” Clovis taught business administration and policy classes at Morningside College in Iowa before becoming Trump’s campaign co-chair.

“From Day One, it was clear to me that Sam Clovis was the wrong choice for our farmers and ranchers,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, which had been vetting Clovis’ nomination, said in a statement. “His lack of qualifications and long history of politically divisive statements were disqualifying, and the recent news surrounding his time as co-chair of the Trump campaign has raised even more questions.”

Stabenow told POLITICO in a brief interview Thursday that Clovis may have been able to get “barely” enough votes to clear the committee, but he had no chance on the Senate floor. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer had been at the vanguard of Democratic opposition to Clovis.

Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts said he thinks Clovis “made a wise decision” to withdraw his name. Roberts said he did not ask Clovis to withdraw.

Prior to Clovis being linked to the Russia probes, the controversy surrounding his qualifications for the post was increased by a series of reports in CNN that detailed inflammatory comments he made previously about race, women, the LGBT community and Democrats. Many of the comments were made during his time as a talk radio host in Iowa. According to the CNN reports, Clovis had argued that homosexuality is a choice and suggested that allowing same-sex marriage could lead to the legalization of pedophilia.

Clovis also made numerous racially charged allegations, including calling progressives “race traders” and “race ‘traitors,’” who want to keep black people “enslaved to the government.” He called former Attorney General Eric Holder a “racist black,” called Obama a narcissistic liar who has “been given a pass” because he is black, and disparaged women who identify as Democrats.

Clovis led the Trump transition team’s beachhead team for USDA and has been serving as the department’s liaison to the White House. In his letter to Trump, Clovis expressed a desire to continue serving at USDA.

“I am particularly proud that you are my president and know that the American people have someone in the White House who truly cares for this country and its citizens,” he wrote. “I will remain a devoted and loyal supporter and will continue to serve at the pleasure of you and the Secretary of Agriculture.”

Clovis would remain in his role as USDA’s liaison to the White House, a department official said.

Catherine Boudreau contributed to this report.

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