Sam Clovis was always a pretty suspect pick by President Trump to become the chief science adviser at the Agriculture Department — mostly because he's not actually a scientist. His chief qualification for the job seems to be that he was national co-chairman of Trump's 2016 campaign. Democrats have also spotlighted his past comments skeptical of climate change and suggesting that laws protecting LGBT rights could lead to the legalization of pedophilia.
And now we can add another reason his nomination could be a key battle for Democrats — and a dicey proposition for Republicans.
The Washington Post's Rosalind S. Helderman and Tom Hamburger reported Monday night that Clovis was one of those anonymous campaign officials cited in former Trump aide George Papadopoulos's plea deal. Clovis was the one named as a “campaign supervisor,” and he both praised Papadopoulos's efforts to broker a meeting with the Russians as “great work” and later urged Papadopoulos to make the trip rather than Trump.
“Make the trip, if it is feasible,” Clovis told Papadopoulos.
Clovis's attorney, Victoria Toensing, told The Post that Clovis was only being nice and that he actually opposed the campaign meeting with Russians:
She said Clovis was “being polite” when he encouraged Papadopoulos to meet with Russian officials in August, adding that the campaign had a “strict rule that no person could travel abroad as a representative of the campaign.” Clovis could not stop an American citizen from traveling abroad “in his personal capacity,” she said.
. . .
Toensing described Clovis as a “polite gentleman from Iowa” who “would always have been courteous to a person offering to help the campaign.”
Er, okay. So basically, Clovis told someone to do something he opposed and was against campaign rules because he was only being a polite Midwesterner and he couldn't technically prevent him from doing it. (As a Minnesotan, I'll gladly try to use this excuse going forward.)
The strained explanation speaks to just how problematic this could be for Clovis. The campaign and the Trump transition team claimed over and over again that it had no contact with Russians during the campaign. Here we have a former Trump foreign policy aide actively setting up a potential meeting with the Russians, and Clovis giving him the thumbs-up. At one point, Papadopoulos specified that the meeting was requested by the Russian MFA (Ministry of Foreign Affairs), so there was no mistaking who was requesting the meeting.
If nothing else, Clovis is a microcosm of Trump's problems right now. Trump seems to surround himself with people who either aren't terribly qualified for their jobs or haven't been carefully vetted, and many of those decisions have come back to bite him.
The latter was certainly the case when it came to Paul Manafort, his former top campaign aide who was indicted on Monday, and Papadopoulos, whom the White House is now seeking to dismiss as basically a gadfly who campaign aides said nice things to and then disregarded. Trump's affinity for former national security adviser Michael Flynn certainly fits into this category. And the appointments of Ben Carson as housing and urban development secretary and other lower-level appointees have led to plenty of questions about qualifications.
We'll see how the Clovis confirmation process pans out, but his nomination certainly fits a pattern of Trump playing fast and loose — and potentially dealing with the consequences later.