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White House Stands by Clovis for USDA Chief Scientist
President Trump supports the nomination of Sam Clovis to serve as USDA chief scientist, said White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, despite court documents showing that his former campaign cochair encouraged foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos to meet Russian officials surreptitiously. The court documents put Clovis, the most controversial USDA nominee in 15 years, back into the public spotlight and may delay action on the nomination.
Clovis has been cooperating with the Senate Intelligence Committee investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, “and I think that cooperation is very important,” said Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) during a teleconference. Grassley cited the cooperation in response to a question about whether the nomination was politically too hot to handle. “You won’t really know until we get to the end of it and, of course, to answer your question, that’s why we have hearings.”
NBC News said Clovis testified before a federal grand jury last week as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.
Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS), chairman of the Agriculture Committee, did not respond directly when questioned whether the committee would hold a November 9 confirmation hearing on Clovis, as expected. “We’ll have a confirmation hearing, and that’s about all I can tell you,” Roberts told reporters. He declined to discuss whether Clovis should withdraw. An aide said the committee was “working on scheduling details and will announce a date for a nomination hearing soon.”
The Union of Concerned Scientists said “emerging evidence of Clovis’ potential involvement with the Trump campaign’s Russian connections should be the final nail in the coffin for his confirmation.” The UCS also released a letter signed by 3,100 scientists saying that Clovis, a former college professor with a doctorate in public administration, “is unfit” for the USDA post, which is reserved by statute for “distinguished scientists with specialized training or significant experience in agricultural research, education, and economics.” The letter said Clovis was a climate-change denier and author of “ill-conceived and offensive racial comments.”
Asked if Trump is “still comfortable with him (Clovis) serving in the administration, Sanders replied, “I’m not aware that any change would be necessary at this time.”
The White House press secretary later said Clovis did not encourage Papadopoulos to meet with Russian officials, although court documents quoted a Clovis email to Papadopoulos in mid-August 2016 saying, “I would encourage you” and another of the campaign’s foreign policy advisers to ‘”make the trip, if it is feasible.” The trip never took place. Papadopoulos had told campaign superiors for months that the Russian government had “dirt” on Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton including “thousands of emails.”
Victoria Toensing, a high-profile Washington lawyer working for Clovis, said the Iowan was “being polite” when he replied to Papadopoulos’s offer to meet Russian Foreign Ministry officials “off the record if it’s in the interest of Mr. Trump and the campaign to meet specific people.” In a statement to the Washington Post, Toensing said Clovis could not prevent someone from going overseas “in his personal capacity” but the Trump campaign had a “strict rule that no person could travel aboard as a representative of the campaign.” Toensing said Clovis “would always have been courteous to a person offering to help the campaign.”
“Clovis fits a mold under the Trump administration of nominating people who strongly criticized or worked against the role they are filling in government. As a radio personality and U.S. Senate candidate in Iowa, Clovis strongly criticized federal grant programs and said he would cut them,” said the DTN/The Progressive Farmer. In 2011, Clovis said federal grant money was “immediately addictive like some street drug” to state and local officials.
Farm groups have supported the Clovis nomination, saying he would be an effective advocate for ag research. Some backers point to his White House connections as an omen that Clovis could be a conduit for larger funding. An opponent said the nomination was “political payback” to Clovis for helping Trump win rural votes. “We have the seeds of a bad precedent for the future,” he said, because a nonscientist would direct billions of dollars in federally funded research if Clovis is confirmed.
“The emerging information about his role in the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russia raises serious concerns,” said Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow, the senior Democrat on the Agriculture Committee and an early opponent of the nomination. “As we consider his nomination, I will be looking into these facts, along with his questionable qualifications and long history of divisive and outrageous statements.”