Earlier this week, I was surprised when key U.S. Senate Republicans indicated the confirmation process for Sam Clovis would move ahead as scheduled. I knew they didn't care Clovis lacks the qualifications spelled out in federal law for the chief scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But why would a key figure in an expanding criminal probe of possible collusion between Donald Trump's campaign want to take questions under oath at an open hearing?
As it turned out, he didn't.
Officially, Clovis withdrew from consideration for the USDA undersecretary post in order to avoid being a "distraction."
"The political climate inside Washington has made it impossible for me to receive balanced and fair consideration for this position," Clovis wrote in a letter addressed to Trump that was dated Wednesday [November 1]. "The relentless assaults on you and your team seem to be a blood sport that only increases in intensity each day. As I am focused on your success and the success of this administration, I do not want to be a distraction or negative influence, particularly with so much important work left to do for the American people."
In the same letter, Clovis promised, “I will remain a devoted and loyal supporter and will continue to serve at the pleasure of you and the Secretary of Agriculture.” For now, the loyalty tuns both ways: Clovis will stay on as "senior White House advisor" at the USDA. That less prestigious position doesn't require Senate confirmation.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters on November 2, "We respect Mr. Clovis' decision to withdraw his nomination." Similarly, Senator Joni Ernst said in a statement, "I respect that Sam Clovis decided to do what he deemed best."
Senator Chuck Grassley had told reporters on November 1 that the totality of e-mail correspondence between Clovis and George Papadopoulos indicates Clovis was not encouraging overseas travel for meetings with high-level Russian officials. (Clovis was the campaign's "supervisor" of Papadopoulos, the foreign policy adviser who has pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators about his Russian contacts.)
Grassley sounded disappointed by yesterday's news.
“Sam’s withdrawal is a lost opportunity for a strong leader to serve America’s farmers,” Grassley said in a statement to the Des Moines Register. “Sam served his country in the military and was well-suited for the position. He’s in touch with the grassroots of rural America, and however he serves next, there’s no doubt he’ll make a big contribution.”
Well-suited? By his own admission, Clovis has done no graduate-level work in science, never published a peer-reviewed article in a scientific publication, has no involvement in "agricultural scientific, agricultural education, or agricultural economic organizations,” and no "awards, designations, or academic recognition [...] specifically related to agricultural science." As evidence of his "significant agricultural experience and knowledge," Clovis has cited his college teaching career and being a two-time candidate for statewide office in Iowa.
Grassley voted for the Farm Bill that requires the president to appoint an undersecretary for research, extension, and economics "from among distinguished scientists with specialized training or significant experience in agricultural research, education, and economics." Too bad he won't use his oversight power to demand a qualified nominee.
As Trump's "eyes and ears" at the USDA, Clovis keeps a powerful, well-paying job and won't have to worry about possible legal or political fallout from taking more questions under oath. Sounds like a sweet deal to me.