The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientist nominee, Sam Clovis, withdrew his name from consideration Wednesday amid revelations that he was among top officials on the Trump campaign who was aware of efforts by foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos to broker a relationship between the campaign and Russian officials.
Court documents unsealed Monday revealed that Papadopoulos pleaded guilty in early October to making false statement to FBI investigators about his contacts with foreigners claiming to have high-level Russian connections. In August 2016, Clovis encouraged Papadopoulos to organize an “off the record” meeting with Russian officials, according to court documents. “I would encourage you” and another foreign policy adviser to the campaign to “make the trip, if it is feasible,” Clovis wrote. The meeting did not ultimately take place.
In a letter to the president Wednesday, Clovis explained that he did not think he could get a fair consideration from the Senate, which was slated to hold a hearing on his appointment on Nov. 9.
“The political climate inside Washington has made it impossible for me to receive balanced and fair consideration for this position,” wrote Clovis, who currently serves as USDA’s senior White House adviser. “The relentless assaults on you and your team seem to be a blood sport that only increases with intensity each day.”
Clovis’s attorney, Victoria Toensing, told The Washington Post on Monday that her client “always vigorously opposed any Russian trip for Donald Trump and/or the campaign.” She described his responses to Papadopoulos as a courtesy by “a polite gentleman from Iowa.”
On Thursday White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed that Trump had accepted Clovis’s request, saying, “We respect Mr. Clovis’s decision to withdraw his nomination.”
However, Clovis indicated in his letter that he will stay on at the Agriculture Department in a senior role, writing, “I will remain a devoted and loyal supporter and will continue to serve at the pleasure of you and the Secretary of Agriculture.” A USDA official confirmed that Clovis would remain at the department in his current job, but did not offer any further details.
CNN first reported Clovis’s decision Thursday morning.
The professor and conservative radio talk show host from Iowa, who served as national co-chair of Trump’s campaign, had come under intense fire since Papadopoulos’s guilty plea was filed this week. But he had been a contentious pick since Trump first nominated him this spring, given the fact that he has no experience in the hard sciences and had made controversial comments in the past about climate change and gay rights.
The position for which Clovis was nominated has traditionally been held by individuals with advanced degrees in science or medicine. The 2008 farm bill specifies that appointees to the position should be chosen “from among distinguished scientists with specialized training or significant experience in agricultural research, education, and economics,” given that the official is “responsible for the coordination of the research, education, and extension activities of the Department.”
Clovis confirmed in an Oct. 17 letter obtained by The Washington Post that he has no academic credentials in either science or agriculture.
Clovis, who possesses a bachelor’s degree in political science, an MBA degree and a doctorate in public administration, repeatedly acknowledged his lack of background in the hard sciences when responding to Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.).
“Please list all graduate level courses you have taken in natural science,” the second of 10 questions requested.
“None,” Clovis replied.
“Please list all membership and leadership roles you have held within any agricultural scientific, agricultural education, or agricultural economic organizations,” the third question read.
“None,” Clovis replied.
Asked about his agriculture research experience, Clovis replied, “I bring 17 years of agriculture experience integrated into both undergraduate- and graduate-level courses throughout my teaching career as reflected in my curriculum vitae as well as the Committee’s questionnaire.” And he said that he had twice run for statewide office in Iowa and that “one cannot be a credible candidate in that state without significant agricultural experience and knowledge.”
Several Senate Democrats had criticized Clovis for the fact that he had questioned the consensus scientific view that human-generated greenhouse gas emissions have driven recent climate change and had suggested that protecting gay rights could lead to pedophilia. During a 2014 radio interview with Iowa Public Radio, Clovis said the connection between human activity and global warming is “not proven; I don’t think there’s any substantive information available to me that doesn’t raise as many questions as it does answers. So I’m a skeptic.”
Stabenow called his decision to withdraw “a victory for science and our farmers who rely on agricultural research,” while Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), another member of the Agriculture Committee, said in a statement, “Sam Clovis was almost a comically bad nominee, even for this administration.“
“He is inarguably unqualified, and he is wrong on almost every major issue relevant to the chief scientist post to which he was nominated. His nomination is all too typical of the anti-science agenda and the know-nothingism pushed by President Trump and his administration,” Leahy said. “But President Trump already knew that when he nominated Mr. Clovis, and that is not why his nomination was abruptly pulled today. Not because of his association with birtherism or as a climate change denier, or his other repugnant assertions.”
Lisa Archer, food and technology director for the advocacy group Friends of the Earth, said in a statement that Clovis “should resign his current position at the USDA and should not be allowed to serve anywhere else in the Trump administration. Trump is still trying to fill his government with anti-science extremists aiming to promote only corporate agriculture.”