Sam Clovis, President Donald Trump’s pick to be USDA’s chief scientist, has been many things in life: He’s an F-16 fighter pilot turned defense contractor turned academic; he was a conservative radio host in Sioux City, Iowa, and a failed U.S. Senate candidate in the Hawkeye State who managed to become co-chair of the presidential campaign of a New Yorker who won — against all odds.
These days in Washington, Clovis’ critics are obsessing over what he is not: He’s not an agricultural scientist, nor is he an agricultural economist, nor does he appear to be qualified for a position that, by law, must be drawn from “among distinguished scientists with specialized training or significant experience in agricultural research, education and economics.”
Senate Democrats, activists deeply concerned about climate change and left-leaning science groups predictably seized on Clovis’ weak credentials to attack his selection as yet another sign the Trump administration rejects science-based policymaking and endangers the integrity of federal research.
But none of that has deterred the heavyweights in the agriculture industry, who believe, in effect, that Clovis’ political savvy is more important than his resume.
In the nomination fight in which he now finds himself, Clovis, whose early and loyal backing of Trump helped the president win in Iowa, has politics on his side. Not only does Trump owe him a job, but most major farm groups are now rallying behind his nomination — sent to the Hill earlier this month — despite his lack of hard-science experience.
Last week, a coalition of nearly two dozen industry groups, including the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Corn Growers Association, sent a letter to Senate Agriculture Committee leaders, urging support for Clovis — a political calculation that has many policy experts in Washington rolling their eyes, considering farm groups constantly fuss about the importance of sound science.
“Some have suggested that Dr. Clovis is not qualified for this position due to his lack of hands-on science and research experience,” the groups wrote. “We do not share this point of view. The U.S. Department of Agriculture already employs some of the finest and most dedicated scientists in the world. They do not need a peer. They need someone to champion their work before the administration, the Congress, and all consumers around the world.”
What Clovis lacks in science chops, he makes up for in knowing — really understanding — Trump. Back in April, when Trump was on the verge of withdrawing the U.S. from NAFTA, it was widely reported that Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue helped walk the president away from the ledge by showing up at an Oval Office meeting with a map of the U.S. that pointed out areas that would be most harmed by an abrupt withdrawal — many of them counties and states that voted for Trump, and many of them rural.
It was actually Clovis who prepped Perdue for the meeting and Clovis who suggested the secretary take along the map to drive home his point in a visual, high-impact way, multiple sources with knowledge of the exchange said. Clovis did not respond to multiple inquiries from POLITICO.
“It shows that I do have a very big farmer base, which is good,” Trump later recalled about the meeting and the map, after deciding to drop a planned executive order that would have pulled the U.S. from the free trade deal with Mexico and Canada, which has been a boon for agriculture. “They like Trump, but I like them, and I’m going to help them.”
If Clovis has special insight into what makes Trump tick, it’s because he joined Trump’s campaign early on and earned standing in a political universe where family has first-order status and positions of true influence are grounded in loyalty, above all else.
Clovis first bet on Rick Perry in Iowa, but bailed when the former Texas governor sputtered. The Iowan joined the Trump campaign as co-chair and policy adviser in August 2015, two short months after Trump announced his run — back when many in Washington dismissed his candidacy as a joke.
Clovis grew to be an influential part of Trump’s lean campaign team, serving as a constant surrogate on cable news and corralling an unwieldy group of unconventional policy advisers.
“He’s been with Donald Trump from the very beginning,” said Gary Baise, a leading agriculture lawyer in Washington, who Clovis enlisted to help organize farm leaders during the campaign. “He has a masterful understanding of how to appeal to Donald Trump for the benefit of agriculture.”
From Sioux City to Trumpland
Clovis, if he had his druthers, really wanted something at DoD — perhaps a more logical choice given his long career in the U.S. Air Force. But USDA undersecretary for research, education and economics — a little-known but crucial post that oversees a budget that approaches $3 billion — is not a shabby consolation prize.
The Iowa Republican, who led the Trump transition’s beachhead team for USDA and currently serves as the department’s liaison to the White House, portrays himself as an economist — but his Ph.D. is in public administration. At Morningside College, a small liberal arts school in Sioux City, Clovis taught classes on business, management and public policy, according to internet archives, and didn’t appear to publish any major peer-reviewed work.
He’s on the record questioning the scientific consensus on climate change, a stance that helped fuel the criticism from Democrats and science advocates that emerged after ProPublica reported in May that Clovis was likely to be Trump’s choice for USDA’s chief scientist.
“If President Trump wants to keep Americans safe and healthy, ensure prosperity for farmers and rural communities, and follow the law, this nomination is the wrong choice,” said Ricardo Salvador, director of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, which has led opposition to Clovis’ nomination. He disputed the idea that a politically wired advocate for agricultural science would have greater impact than someone with deep research experience.
“These are not mutually exclusive possibilities,” he said, “and the nation’s food system and ag research investments should not be held hostage to such a false choice.”
Senate Agriculture ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said earlier this month, after the White House announced Clovis would be nominated, that she has “strong concerns that Sam Clovis is not qualified” for the position.
On the other side of the aisle, Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts didn’t talk about Clovis’ resume during an unrelated hearing last week, but voiced a clear objection to one of his past statements after Stabenow brought the matter up, without mentioning Clovis by name. Clovis declared in 2013 that a key farm program — subsidized crop insurance — is unconstitutional.
“If there is some nominee who is coming before the committee who says crop insurance is unconstitutional, they might as well not show up,” Roberts said. His committee has yet to schedule a confirmation hearing for Clovis. An aide working on USDA nominations later countered that criticism, telling POLITICO that Clovis last year said crop insurance needed to be protected because food production is critical to national security.
Yet for all the controversy, science groups and the land-grant universities that work with the division Clovis would lead have been noticeably quiet, choosing instead to avoid a political fight with a nominee who’s close to the president, likely to be confirmed and expected to ultimately have much power over the level of federal funding their institutions are to be given.
Other groups, like the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which represents historically black colleges and universities, jumped on the chance to back Clovis after the White House’s announcement. “Shortly after the election results were announced, Dr. Clovis began meeting with TMCF to develop an action plan to deepen the USDA’s relationship with our ag schools in order to help them build capacity, infrastructure and career paths for their graduates,” said Johnny Taylor Jr., CEO of TMCF. “We are hopeful our positive working relationship with the USDA will continue with Secretary Purdue and, if confirmed, Dr. Sam Clovis.”
As Clovis’ credentials have publicly drawn fire, he’s been quietly winning over rank-and-file at USDA, which was not seized by the chaos that engulfed other agencies, like EPA, during the first few months of the Trump administration. Clovis has proven himself to be a steady hand, impressed career staff and become well-liked, even by some of his critics, who privately acknowledge that tanking his nomination could yield a pick they would view as much worse.
Clovis is also known to have a direct line to the president, a level of access far above that which is usually enjoyed by USDA’s head of research — something that is not lost on agricultural groups.
USDA officials, multiple sources said, have simply gotten over the fact that Clovis isn’t a scientist. “Their first instinct, given his background, was to not like this guy,” said Chuck Conner, president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, who organized the industry coalition’s letter. “But he’s won them over in a big way.”
Baise, a close ally of Clovis, emphasized the idea that the former professor possesses a rare blend of experience in academia and politics. “We don’t have a lot of folks with Ph.Ds who have run for public office,” Baise said.
In 2014, Clovis took a leave of absence from his Morningside College post to run for Senate, entering the GOP primary to fill the Iowa seat vacated by the retirement of former Sen. Tom Harkin. Clovis had a conservative talk radio show based out of Sioux City, but he was virtually unknown in Iowa politics. He surprised everyone by coming in second to Joni Ernst, who went on to win the seat. Clovis even bested energy businessman Mark Jacobs, who had sunk more than $3 million of his own money into his primary campaign. Clovis then ran unsuccessfully for state treasurer, one of his last iterations before he joined Trump’s orbit.
Though Clovis’ rise in politics has been meteoric, Morningside College wasn’t interested in talking up its connection to the Trump administration official when POLITICO inquired about Clovis’ academic record. A spokesman for the college refused to answer questions about which classes Clovis taught there and what his research interests were. The spokesman also would not grant faculty members permission to talk about Clovis’ time at the school. He left the college in 2015.
Climate science and a ‘cool hand’
Clovis’ nomination has sparked a barrage of snarky headlines and tweets — perhaps more than any other subcabinet pick. “Trump Nominates Sam Clovis, a Dude Who is Not a Scientist, to Be Department of Agriculture’s Top Scientist,” blared Gizmodo. “Incompetence Looms: Trump To Appoint Non-Scientist As USDA’s Chief Scientist,” said the headline of an op-ed in Forbes.
And fake news, that newly elevated element of American politics that will forever be linked to the 2016 campaign, has also attached itself to Clovis at times. A few days after the ProPublica report, a site called USPOLN.com ran a story claiming that Clovis had mocked scientists as “dumb regular people that think dinosaurs existed.” The post got so much traction on social media that Snopes and PolitiFact both flagged it as a hoax.
Clovis’ name has also repeatedly surfaced in relation to his involvement in another enduring aspect of the 2016 campaign — the Russia question. It was reportedly Clovis who vetted Carter Page, an international businessman, to be a national security adviser to the Trump campaign. As of the summer of 2016, well after Page had joined the campaign, the FBI was said to be surveilling him, suspecting Page may have been acting as an agent of the Kremlin, The Washington Post reported; he was later dropped from the campaign.
But other than the fact Clovis is not a scientist, nothing about his background and work on the campaign and transition has gotten as much attention as his skepticism about climate change, in part because the division he would oversee conducts all manner of climate science research — from studying how to reduce the carbon footprint of food production to coming up with ways for farmers to adapt to more severe weather patterns.
When he was running for Senate in 2014, Clovis did an interview with Iowa Public Radio, during which the hosts pointed out that 97 percent of climate scientists agree that rising temperatures are “very likely due to human activities.”
“Do you believe the science?” the hosts asked.
“I am extremely skeptical,” he said without skipping a beat. “I have looked at the science and I have enough of a science background to know when I’m being boofed. And a lot of the science is junk science.
“It’s not proven,” he continued. “I don’t think there’s any substantive information available to me that doesn’t raise as many questions as it does answers. So I’m a skeptic.”
But those who have worked with Clovis are not unnerved by the breathless criticism in the left-leaning media. They describe him as whip-smart, open-minded, jolly and self-deprecating. He also works long hours and avoids events in Washington that require schmoozing.
“People think he’s going to be an a–hole, and then he’s not,” said one lobbyist who’s worked with him.
Another Clovis supporter said the Iowan is “a guy with real balls,” noting that one has to be “half-nuts” to fly an F-16 fighter jet, as Clovis did throughout his decadeslong career in the Air Force. He retired in 1996 as a colonel.
In Trumpland, Clovis has developed a reputation for being even-keeled amid an administration known for infighting and volatility. “He was always cool-headed,” recalled Sid Miller, the controversial Texas agriculture commissioner who worked with Clovis on the campaign’s agricultural advisory committee. “A lot of us would get rattled when Donald Trump would have a bad day. Not Sam. He’s a cool hand.”
He saw victory outside city limits
Clovis wasn’t the kind of campaign operative who assumed victory and ignored political realities. He just happened to understand the political moment in the heartland, which ended up being key to Trump’s victory. At an event in Washington just short of three weeks before Election Day, Clovis wasn’t banking on his candidate winning.
“I have no idea how this is going to turn out,” Clovis told POLITICO at the time.
Clovis had just spent the better part of two hours being peppered with questions about farm policy at the National Press Club in Washington. It was his first appearance before the D.C. hive, and the audience was skeptical, to say the least.
No one in the room, which was packed with food, ag and environmental lobbyists, had any idea who Clovis was. Some had seen him on CNN as a surrogate for Trump. Some had heard he’d ran unsuccessfully for Senate in Iowa. But they all couldn’t figure out how a little-known professor and conservative talk radio host had become the Trump campaign’s lead on agricultural policy.
Clovis, however, had clearly done his homework. He sat back in his chair, eyeglasses perched above his eyebrows, and jumped with ease from farm subsidies and food stamps to the complexities of the peanut program and conservation. He outlined policy stances that were surprisingly moderate. He hammered away on the need for better water quality, said he’d like to wean farmers off price supports, and expressed support for a legal immigrant workforce to meet agriculture’s needs.
During the meeting, Clovis also offered brief thoughts on agricultural research, an issue on which he has almost no record. “I also think the research needs to be transparent,” he said after endorsing voluntary GMO labeling, because “consumers have a right to know.” He added: “If we have these demands, and we have to fund research in these areas, we should have some accountability on that funding; and the other aspect is it is transparent, to know what we’re looking at and what we’re investigating.”
Clovis offered that one of his personal “pet rocks” is water policy. “I honestly believe if we ever have another civil war in this country, it’ll be over water,” he said.
After the meeting, even Democrats admitted Clovis’ breadth of knowledge had surprised them.
Trump, for his part, knew he needed to gin up support among rural voters to offset the bludgeoning he’d take in the cities, and he’d tasked Clovis with using farm policy to galvanize the heartland.
“With city limits in the rear-view mirror, it’s Trump,” Clovis told POLITICO after the Washington meeting, when asked about the widening gap in rural support between Hillary Clinton and Trump. It was something many in the mainstream media and political establishment had missed or disregarded, but Clovis repeatedly pointed to the fact that Trump signs seemed to appear just outside of city limits by a staggering margin compared with Clinton signs.
“Not just yard signs; barn signs. Barns!” he laughed. “People have painted their barns. The sides of their houses. It’s nuts,” he continued. “There’s a lot of angst out there. There really is.”
Clovis then explained that the campaign’s strategy was to try to make up for getting “trounced” in cities by cultivating hefty returns in rural counties.
And in that, Clovis and Trump certainly had politics on their side.