Editor's Note: This article was originally posted at 9:30 a.m. CDT on Tuesday, Oct. 31. It was updated with additional comments from the White House at 3:45 p.m. CDT on Tuesday, Oct. 31
OMAHA (DTN) -- Sam Clovis, the controversial nominee for USDA's undersecretary for research, education and economics, was linked Monday as a top campaign supervisor to President Donald Trump's campaign last year who encouraged another campaign staffer to take a trip to Moscow to meet with Russian officials.
Clovis' role in the Russian investigation is now high-profile enough that reporters asked about Clovis' nomination during the Tuesday press briefing at the White House. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Clovis would remain a White House nominee.
"I'm not aware that any change would be necessary at this point," she said.
U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, told reporters Tuesday that it's unclear whether the latest revelations about Clovis would derail his nomination. Grassley also revealed that Clovis has been meeting with the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which is conducting its own investigation into Russian interference with last year's election.
"At this point, I would just have to say we have got to let nature take its course," Grassley said in response to a question from DTN. "He is cooperating with the Committee on Senate Intelligence, and I think that cooperation is very important. You won't really know until you get to the end of it, and of course, to answer your question, it's one of the reasons we have hearings."
The Washington Post and Yahoo News reported Monday that former campaign manager Paul Manafort, who was indicted on 12 counts Monday, and Clovis, a national co-chairman of Trump's campaign, were high-level campaign officials who encouraged former Trump foreign-policy campaign staffer George Papadopoulos to meet with Russian officials.
"Make the trip, if it is feasible," Clovis wrote to Papadopoulos, who pleaded guilty Monday to lying to the FBI.
Clovis' campaign ties to the criminal Russian probe come as the Senate Agriculture Committee was expected to officially announce Tuesday that a hearing on Clovis' USDA nomination will be held Nov. 9, but as of late afternoon, no announcement had been made. Grassley on Tuesday said it's too early to determine whether the controversy around Clovis would sink his confirmation.
"As of now, I think it's too early to draw that conclusion," Grassley said. "If you look at his qualifications for the job, there's no question about this person's ability to lead a big organization because he has done it so many times throughout his life."
The Washington Post and Yahoo News reported Clovis was a "campaign supervisor" who suggested in an email Papadopoulos go to Russia in August 2016, in a meeting that did not occur. According to the Washington Post, Clovis was initially wary earlier in the campaign about whether Papadopoulos should meet with Russian leadership to discuss possible U.S-Russia relations under a President Trump. The Post quoted Clovis' attorney Victoria Toensing stating that he "vigorously opposed any Russian trip for Donald Trump and/or the campaign." Clovis also said "NATO allies should be consulted before any plans were made." (https://goo.gl/…)
DTN has requested comment and reaction from USDA Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to the latest information on Clovis. At the time this article was posted, USDA had not responded to that request.
Despite a lack of agricultural scientific background, President Trump nominated Clovis for the position, even though language in the 2008 farm bill requires the undersecretary for REE to have a terminal degree in science.
Clovis, 68, from northwest Iowa, is a retired Air Force officer and economics professor who lost a GOP primary in 2014 for the U.S. Senate in Iowa. He also was a conservative radio talk-show host and embraced Trump early in his campaign for president, rising to be a national campaign co-chair and an organizer of Trump's agricultural advisory committee. The president officially nominated Clovis to be USDA's "top scientist" in July. Clovis helped lead the presidential transition team for USDA and has been working as a White House liaison to USDA since January.
Over the summer, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., questioned whether he could confirm a nominee who had declared crop insurance was "unconstitutional." Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., ranking member of the committee, has opposed Clovis' nomination since early in the process.
The science community has rallied to oppose Clovis' nomination. More than 3,100 scientists from all 50 states and the District of Columbia are sending a letter and 150 pages of academic names to leaders of the Senate Agriculture Committee opposing Clovis' nomination. He has made an array of statements skeptical of climate science and against crop insurance, farm subsidies and the farm bill.
The letter signed by 3,100 scientists and spearheaded by the Union of Concerned Scientists stated, "Clovis' nomination is an abandonment of our nation's commitment to scientifically-informed governance and stands in opposition to the best interest of America's farmers, ranchers, consumers, researchers and universities. We urge you to reject the nomination." (https://goo.gl/…)
The Center for Science in the Public Interest sent out a separate letter Tuesday signed by 67 scientists opposing Clovis' nomination.
In the past, undersecretaries for research, education and economics generally have been noncontroversial. They oversee agencies such as the Economic Research Service, the National Institute for Food and Agriculture, and agricultural statistics.
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.
"Grants, often immediately addictive like some street drug to government officials, force state and local governments to raise taxes to match or manage categorical grants offered by the pushers in D.C. By underfunding grant programs, the national government can claim credit for a program without having to take the heat for the taxes people have to pay to support the grant habit," Clovis said in 2011.
The undersecretary of research, education and economics oversees hundreds of grants worth billions of dollars. The National Institute for Food and Agriculture alone last year oversaw more than a $1.5 billion budget and grants to 112 universities.
While Clovis described grants as an addiction, the controversies around Clovis and his nomination come as private foundations and others are trying to convince Congress to increase funding for agricultural research in the farm bill. Sixty-seven institutes and foundations wrote leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees earlier in October calling on the U.S. to increase the budget for agricultural research and development or risk losses in agricultural productivity in the U.S.
"At stake is our national security, economy, health, and environment. The next Farm Bill represents a crucial opportunity to reverse these trends and reassert our nation's leadership in agricultural research and extension," the foundations wrote.
On Wednesday, Supporters of Agricultural Research (SoAR) Foundation will be in Washington to call for increased federal support of food and agricultural science as well. The group has prepared a report highlighting concerns about agricultural research in nutrition, zoonotic diseases and foodborne illnesses.
In a letter from farm groups supporting Clovis last July, 23 major farm and commodity groups dismissed arguments that Clovis isn't qualified for the position. The farm groups said Clovis would preserve and improve U.S. agriculture's focus on research and productivity. USDA scientists don't need a peer, but a champion, the farm groups stated. "They need someone to champion their work before the Administration, the Congress and consumers around the world," stated the letter from commodity and general farm organizations. (https://goo.gl/…)
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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