Sam Clovis, the now-withdrawn Trump appointee for under-secretary of Agriculture for Research, Education, and Economics who has become embroiled in the Mueller investigation of Russian interference with the 2016 presidential campaign, has had a wild up-and-down ride in his brief political career. It didn’t really begin until the retired Air Force colonel was in his 60s. While teaching economics at a small college in western Iowa, in 2010, he took up conservative talk radio as a sideline. In 2012, he played a significant role in Rick Santorum’s surprisingly successful Iowa caucus campaign. Clovis then launched a long-shot U.S. Senate campaign in 2014, ultimately finishing second in the GOP primary to Joni Ernst but impressing Iowa conservatives with his brains and ideological rigor. As a reward he was made GOP nominee for state treasurer, though nobody much thought he had a chance against entrenched Democratic incumbent Mike Fitzgerald (he didn’t).
So it wasn’t surprising that Clovis’s support was at a premium in the 2016 presidential contest, and after initially signing on as Rick Perry’s Iowa campaign chairman, he traded up for a national co-chairman position with fast-rising Donald Trump in August of 2015.
Trump did not win in Iowa, and that may or may not have had something to do with Clovis’s vague status in his campaign as it rolled toward the Republican nomination and eventually the presidency. He wasn’t really “co-chairman” in any meaningful way, and his involvement in policy matters appeared to be sporadic. He did turn up a lot on CNN, and seems to have had the chore of signing up volunteer policy advisers (to his ultimate undoing) who didn’t really have much impact on the candidate’s policies (not unusual in presidential campaigns).
After Trump won, Clovis did not get a fancy White House job. Instead, when the new administration sent “landing teams” to agencies to keep an eye on the career civil servants, Clovis was sent to the USDA, apparently because he was from a farm state and once represented Trump in a debate with a Clinton agriculture adviser. He had no particular farm-policy background or expertise in agricultural economics, but then lack of an appropriate background wasn’t unusual on Team Trump. Eventually, in July, he was nominated for the USDA gig that seemed most proximate to his background, even though that role has traditionally been filled by a scientist. His lack of preparation along with various abrasive right-wing things he had said as an abrasive right-wing talk-show host a few years back drew a lot of opposition to his confirmation.
But as the months went by and Clovis prepared for his confirmation hearings, his odds of survival went up steadily, mostly because the agribusiness lobby found him to be congenial, and possibly a pipeline to the big guy (Clovis was given credit for giving Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue the ammunition he used to talk Trump out of an immediate withdrawal from NAFTA).
So more than likely Clovis was headed toward confirmation. Then, sealed court papers came out revealing the efforts of an obscure Trump policy adviser named George Papadopoulos to set up meetings between the Trump campaign and shadowy Russians who allegedly had dirt on Hillary Clinton. He wanted authorization to travel to Russia in pursuit of this goal, and Clovis reportedly told him to “make the trip, if it’s feasible.”
This was the second time Clovis’s name had come up in connection with the Russia-Trump saga. In the same March 2016 Washington Post interview where Trump named Papadopoulos as part of his “foreign policy team,” he also mentioned Carter Page, whose ties to Russia created a flurry of interest before the elections. Clovis was allegedly responsible for bring Page into Trump’s orbit.
If you had to guess, you’d probably figure that in the pursuit of his not-very-real gig with the Trump campaign, Clovis picked some not-very-real policy advisers who proceeded to trade on their not-very-real influence while playing some very real, dangerous games with the Russians. Clovis is now complaining that he’s the victim of a political hit. But more likely, whether or not there’s any fire beneath the suspicions about his relations with Papadopoulos or Page, there’s too much smoke to get him through an already-fragile confirmation for a very real gig at USDA.