Trump USDA pick, linked to Russia probe, withdraws from consideration
Former Trump campaign aide Sam Clovis, who has been swept up in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, has withdrawn from consideration to be the Department of Agriculture’s chief scientist, according to a letter Clovis sent on Wednesday to President Donald Trump.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.
Clovis led the Trump transition’s beachhead team for USDA and has been serving as the department’s liaison to the White House. A USDA official confirmed Clovis will remain in the liaison role — an arrangement that at least one Democratic senator questioned.
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.”