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Reaction mixed to Sam Clovis' withdrawal from USDA post

Donald Trump, then a potential presidential candidate, speaks May 16, 2015, at Morningside College in Sioux City. Seated next to him is Sam Clovis, then a Morningside professor. Clovis went on to become an adviser and national co-chair of the Trump campaign. His name surfaced this month in connection with the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the 2016 election. (Jim Lee, Sioux City Journal)

DES MOINES — An Iowan found himself in the middle of a political storm this month in the nation’s capital.

Just as Senate Republicans were preparing to hold a hearing on Sam Clovis’ nomination for a top U.S. Department of Agriculture job, his name surfaced in connection with the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

That investigation revealed a supervisor with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign — later identified as Clovis, a former conservative radio host, economics professor and U.S. Senate candidate from Iowa — had communicated with George Papadopoulos, then a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser who has admitted to lying to the FBI about his attempts to connect the campaign with Russian officials in 2016.

As part of the investigation, Clovis testified before a grand jury, according to NBC News.

Clovis quickly withdrew his name from consideration for the USDA chief scientist job.

“The political climate inside Washington has made it impossible for me to receive balanced and fair consideration for this position. The relentless assaults on you and your team seem to be a blood sport that only increases in intensity each day,” Clovis wrote to President Trump. “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.”

The path that led Clovis to the political maelstrom started in conservative western Iowa.

Born and raised in Kansas, Clovis came to Iowa in 2000 after serving 25 years in the U.S. Air Force, including as a fighter pilot, and working in the private sector.

In 2005, he became chairman of the business administration and economics department at Morningside College in Sioux City. Four years later, he started a radio show, “Impact with Sam Clovis,” on KSCJ-AM in Sioux City. At the time he lived in Hinton, a town of fewer than 1,000 people in Plymouth County, about 15 minutes northeast of Sioux City.

Clovis’ rise in politics perhaps in some ways started with his radio show, but officially began four years ago with the start of his campaign for the U.S. Senate.

He joined four other Republicans running for one of Iowa’s Senate seats. Clovis’ campaign was unsuccessful. Joni Ernst won the GOP primary and later the 2014 general election.

Clovis also was nominated to run as the party’s candidate for state treasurer, but lost that general election race.

In 2015, he became involved in presidential politics. He first aligned himself with former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, but later switched support to Trump. The Trump campaign made Clovis a senior adviser.

After Trump was elected, he hired Clovis as a senior adviser in the Agriculture Department. Over the summer, he nominated Clovis to become the department’s chief scientist, who oversees the department’s $3 billion of research and investment grants. The position requires Senate confirmation.

Then the political fireworks started.

Clovis’ nomination drew scrutiny, in particular from Democrats, some ag groups and scientists from all 50 states who questioned his credentials. Clovis has an advanced degree in economics, but does not have agricultural science education or experience.

In a protest letter, scientists said Congress codified in the 2008 Farm Bill that the nominee should be picked from “scientists with specialized training or significant experience” in ag research, education and economics.

“In every aspect, Clovis falls far short of the standards demanded by the position. While he holds a doctorate of public administration, his professional background is completely devoid of relevant scientific experience that would otherwise equip him to fulfill his duties,” they wrote.

Among those signing the letter were 43 scientists from Iowa, including Cornelia Butler Flora, agriculture and life sciences professor at Iowa State University, and Frederick Kirschenmann, distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at ISU.

“Sam Clovis’s decision to withdraw his nomination as chief scientist is a victory for science and our farmers who rely on agricultural research,” U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, said in a statement. “From Day 1 it was clear to me that Sam Clovis was the wrong choice for our farmers and ranchers. His lack of qualifications and long history of politically divisive statements were disqualifying, and the recent news surrounding his time as co-chair of the Trump campaign has raised even more questions.”

But the feeling is different among Clovis’s Iowa supporters, who said they are disappointed he withdrew his nomination and would have served well in the post.

“It’s unfortunate, but I understand his decision,” said Steven Holt, a state legislator from Denison who supported Clovis’ 2014 Senate campaign. “I’m sure he thought it would be a great distraction, so he withdrew his name.”

“I think it’s unfortunate because I think he’s brilliant and I think he would have done a great job in whatever post the president put him in,” Holt said. “I found him to be a man of great integrity.”

R. Doc Zortman, of Sioux City, got to know Clovis in 2009 at tea party events and also supported Clovis’ Senate campaign. Zortman said he, too, was disappointed that Clovis withdrew, but said was not surprised.

“Sam’s a team player,” Zortman said. “Instead of going through all that and dragging the team down, he’s a team player. Instead, he’ll stay in a position that doesn’t require a hearing.”

Clovis’ supporters in Iowa pushed back at suggestions he was not fit for the chief scientist post. Holt said the job duties do not necessarily require an agricultural scientist, and Zortman defended Clovis’ previously skepticism of the human impact on climate change.

Clovis also received the support of Iowa’s Republican senators.

Ernst said she was encouraged by his nomination but respected his decision to withdraw. Chuck Grassley called Clovis’ withdrawal “a lost opportunity for a strong leader to serve America’s farmers.”

“During his nine months at USDA, he’s already made a big difference for agriculture,” Grassley said in a statement. “Sam served his country in the military and was well-suited for the position. He’s in touch with the grass roots of rural America, and however he serves next, there’s no doubt he’ll make a big contribution.”

Clovis wrote in his letter to Trump that as long as the administration approves, he will continue in his role as an Agriculture Department adviser.

Zortman said he thinks Clovis still will be a positive influence in his current position.

“My belief is, and me being a Christian, I have the faith that everything happens for a reason,” Zortman said. “Wherever Sam ends up, God wants him there.”