A nomination for undersecretary of Agriculture for research, education and economics doesn’t typically draw much controversy.
But Sam Clovis, a former fighter pilot and conservative talk-radio host who is President Donald Trump’s choice for the job, isn’t a typical nominee.
He brings no scientific background to the job, which by law is meant to be filled “from among distinguished scientists with specialized training or significant experience in agricultural research, education and economics.”
Then there are his blog posts and radio show transcripts. He’s called climate research “junk science.” As a radio host, he once said then-President Barack Obama, the first black U.S. chief executive, wanted to “enslave” his opponents. On his personal blog, Clovis wrote that conservative candidates are “afraid of taking on race baiting” from liberals and progressives, who he said “are the real racists.”
Clovis, an early backer of Trump, has an extensive written and verbal record that has given his Democratic opponents ammunition to try to thwart his nomination and given Republicans pause. It’s delayed action by the Senate Agriculture Committee, which on Thursday held hearings for two department undersecretaries who were nominated by Trump weeks after Clovis.
“Since day one, I’ve been concerned that Sam Clovis is not qualified to lead the important science and research arm of the USDA," the committee’s ranking Democrat, Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, said in an emailed statement. “As I’ve learned more about his background and divisive views, it’s clear that I cannot support his nomination.”
Another committee Democrat, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, said in a statement that Clovis is “one of the most egregiously unqualified nominees to be put forward” by Trump.
Republicans have mostly stayed silent. Of the 11 Republicans on the Agriculture Committee, all contacted by Bloomberg, only two, Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Steve Daines of Montana, confirmed they’d vote for Clovis.
The committee’s chairman, Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, expressed concern about Clovis’s skepticism toward crop insurance, a form of farm subsidy, before his past remarks and writings came to light. On Thursday, he gave no timeline for Clovis’s hearing.
“We do have some paperwork out there,” he said. All nominees will “stand on their merits, and they’ll stand on how they answer questions,” he said.
The White House and Clovis’s office both declined to comment for this story.
Clovis has one major asset: He got behind Trump early in the presidential race in the politically important state of Iowa and he has stronger ties to the president than most sub-Cabinet appointees, in any agency. That’s made him popular with agriculture lobbyists even as he’s become a lightning rod for Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, who are calling on Trump to withdraw the nomination.
White House appointees are traditionally given wide latitude during their confirmations, and sub-Cabinet positions generally pass through Senate approval with a low profile. Clovis has had neither, largely due to his record of controversial statements and doubts that his job history fits the position he’d fill -- USDA undersecretary for research, education and economics.
Clovis, 67, has a doctorate in public administration and worked as an economics professor at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, but he has no background in the hard sciences. He spent 25 years in the Air Force, ending his career as a colonel serving as the inspector general of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and the United States Space Command.
He’s a longtime conservative Iowa political activist, unsuccessfully running against Senator Joni Ernst in its 2014 Republican primary, besides hosting his popular conservative talk-radio show.
His early bet on Trump vaulted him into the future president’s inner circle, serving as a national campaign co-chair and a frequent surrogate on cable TV. Clovis helped lead Trump’s transition at the USDA and, in reality, has never left it. With the title of senior White House adviser, he’s a regular in the hallways at Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s department.
But past statements are coming back to haunt him. During the 2014 campaign, Clovis told Iowa Public Radio that climate science is unproven “junk science.” Widely reported when he was nominated in July, the comments galvanized environmentalists against him.
Since then, other comments have come to light, more focused on race and the Obama administration, including a blog post in which he called Obama a “dangerous person” who wanted to rule as a dictator and “wants to enslave all who are not a part of his regime.”
Combing the Record
Going through voluminous radio transcripts and other documents is slowing the confirmation process, according to committee staff.
Farm groups have largely been supportive of Clovis, saying they’re pleased with the work he’s already done in the administration. They prize Clovis’s, and thus agriculture’s, access to Trump, where he’s advocated for free-trade policies that boost farm incomes in a White House bent toward protectionism.
The USDA already has world-class scientists, groups including the American Farm Bureau Federation, the largest U.S. farmer group, wrote senators in July.
“Agriculture needs more advocates in Washington, and Dr. Clovis has shown himself to be an excellent one,” Will Rodger, a spokesman for Farm Bureau, said in an email.
“We do understand that his position has traditionally gone to a scientist,” Rodger said. “Even so, we think someone who can move seamlessly between Administration, Congress and the public at large to promote the work of the department’s technical experts would be a valuable addition to USDA.”