WASHINGTON, Aug. 23, 2017 – Two Democratic senators have called on President Donald Trump to withdraw the nomination of Sam Clovis to be a USDA undersecretary, saying he has expressed “extremist views” and is “wildly unqualified for the position.”
In a statement, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and Hawaii's Brian Schatz said Trump should withdraw Clovis’ nomination to be USDA’s undersecretary for research, education, and economics. If he doesn’t, they pledged to “vehemently oppose his nomination and urge our colleagues from both parties to come together and summarily reject him as well.”
The two senators tied their request to the recent racially charged violence in Charlottesville, Va., saying the nation is crying out “for healing, unity, and clarity on the path forward from our elected leaders.” By nominating and supporting ”someone with views as backwards as Mr. Clovis’,” they say, it is “not only a signal to the darkest and most evil forces in this country to carry on, but a clear as day message to the world that this administration continues to tolerate hate.”
They go on to list remarks from Clovis, a former professor, conservative talk show host and Trump campaign surrogate, going as far back as 2012, when he said Eric Holder, then the Attorney General, was a “racist bigot.” In another 2012 blog post, Clovis, who is currently the USDA liaison with the White House, also suggested that President Barack Obama was “being given a pass because he is black.”
The senators also point to more recent comments by Clovis expressing skepticism about climate change and referring to Tom Perez, chair of the Democratic National Committee, as a “racist Latino.” Clovis also declared homosexuality as “a choice in behavior as opposed to a primary characteristic” and said providing civil rights protections for it could lead to protections for pedophiles.
“Follow the logic with that, if you engage in a particular behavior, what also then becomes protected?” he posited in a video obtained by CNN. “If we protect LGBT behavior, what other behaviors are we going to protect? Are we going to protect pedophilia? Are we going to protect polyamorous marriage relationships? Are we going to protect people who have fetishes? I mean, what’s the logical extension of this? It can’t be that we’re going to protect LGBT and then we pull out the ladder.”
Several of Clovis’ comments came to light through CNN investigations. Asked for comment on Clovis’ remarks about homosexuality, a USDA spokeswoman told CNN that the “Supreme Court settled the issue in 2015.” A spokeswoman for USDA nominees told Agri-Pulse Clovis' nomination "is going to go forward."
"He still has the support of the secretary and the president," the spokeswoman said.
Opposition to Clovis’ nomination is nothing new, but this is the most forceful action against him to this point. Shortly after his name was announced as Trump’s pick for the job, Debbie Stabenow, the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, said Clovis “seems to lack the necessary agricultural science and research qualifications that are required by the Farm Bill.”
In a statement offered Wednesday to Agri-Pulse, Stabenow said that if Trump "does not withdraw this nomination, I will work ... to bring light this nominee's troubling record and ask tough questions about his suitability for this important job."
Agri-Pulse reached out to Stabenow’s Democratic colleagues on the committee, and several noted serious concern about Clovis’ nomination.
A spokesman for Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, a former ag committee chair, said the senator is making a “rare exception” to his “long practice” of withholding judgment until considering hearings and public testimony. Clovis’ “views and comments on a wide range of topics are so outrageous” that Leahy “has decided to oppose this nomination, and he believes the President should withdraw it.”
Critics have raised questions about his experience and whether or not his lack of a scientific background makes him a good fit for the position of USDA’s chief scientist.
Catherine Woteki held the position Clovis has been nominated for during the Obama administration, and she says she “cannot support his nomination.”
“Dr. Clovis' academic credentials are exceedingly thin and he has no science background,” she told Agri-Pulse. “If confirmed, he would be in charge of the integrity of all the science that the Department uses in its program and policy decisions yet he has almost no relevant background and experience in research and administration of scientific programs.”
But Clovis’ nomination is not without support. Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley has come to his defense and offered his support, as did 23 farm groups in a letter to Senate Ag Committee leadership.
“The U.S. Department of Agriculture already employs some of the finest and most dedicated scientists in the world,” the groups noted. “They do not need a peer. They need someone to champion their work before the Administration, the Congress, and all consumers around the world."
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue also dismissed concerns about his scientific credentials, saying the position doesn’t call for doing the research itself, but rather “manages our grant proposals and our relationships with our land grant universities as well as our agricultural research services.”
“Sam Clovis is a very smart individual, he’s very committed to the success of agriculture,” Perdue told reporters earlier this month. “He’s knowledgeable in many areas, and I fully support his nomination.”
Sources told Agri-Pulse that they expected several Senators to express their concerns and note his previous comments as part of their objections. But a D.C. ag lobbyist expects Clovis will be confirmed – "primarily because everyone knows he has the ear of the White House.”
Gary Baise, a principal at OFW Law in Washington, said he didn’t expect any of the criticism to result in a Trump pulling Clovis’ nomination.
“The more the Democrats attack him, the better off he’s going to be,” he told Agri-Pulse. Baise, who played a major role in selecting the Trump campaign’s ag advisory team, said the calls for withdrawal were “indirectly an attack on Trump” from a pair of senators that don’t have an understanding of the work that Clovis, if confirmed, would do.
“What the hell do they (Schumer and Schatz) know about agriculture? What do they know about Sam Clovis?” Baise said. He also said Clovis would be well-suited for the position because he would be better able to advocate for more research dollars directly to the White House.
“When was the last time we had anybody in that position at USDA that the president had even heard of?” Baise asked.
The Senate Agriculture Committee has not yet set a date for a confirmation hearing of Clovis or other pending USDA nominations.
(Story updated at 4:29 p.m. to include comment from USDA spokeswoman.)
(Story updated at 4:59 p.m. to include additional comment from Sen. Stabenow.)
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