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Trump aide caught in Russia inquiry withdraws from consideration for USDA nomination

Trump aide caught in Russia inquiry withdraws from consideration for USDA nomination
Sam Clovis speaks during a news conference as then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump watches before a campaign rally in Dubuque, Iowa, on Aug. 25, 2016. (Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press)

Sam Clovis, a fiery Iowa talk radio host and former Trump campaign co-chairman who has been caught up in the special counsel’s Russia investigation, has withdrawn his name from consideration to be chief scientific advisor to the secretary of Agriculture.

The nomination was controversial because Clovis, 68, had no scientific or medical degrees or experience, and because court papers released Monday showed he had encouraged George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy advisor to the campaign, to arrange meetings between Trump’s aides and Russian officials.

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Clovis removed himself from consideration days after he was questioned by investigators for special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who is investigating the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia, and by the federal grand jury taking evidence in the case, NBC news reported.

Papadopoulous has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with several Russians during the campaign. Court filings say they offered him disparaging information about Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, including “thousands of emails,” as well as introductions to high-level officials in the Kremlin.

He kept people in the campaign, including Clovis, apprised of his efforts by email and apparently boasted of them on Facebook.

In a Nov. 1 letter to Trump, Clovis said the political climate in Washington “has made it impossible for me to receive balanced and fair consideration for this position,” and asked the president to withdraw his nomination as undersecretary of research, education and economics at the Agriculture Department.

“The relentless assaults on you and your team seem to be a blood sport that only increases in intensity each day,” he wrote. The White House confirmed receiving the letter.

Clovis’ confirmation was in doubt even before his role in the Russia probe emerged. CNN dug up posts from his blog, “Impact with Sam Clovis,” from 2011 and 2012 that referred to “race traitor” liberals who he said want to enslave the country. The Senate Agriculture Committee had tentatively scheduled a hearing next week on his nomination.

Clovis currently serves as a senior White House advisor for agriculture, a job that doesn’t require Senate confirmation, and he suggested that he would stay on. He wrote Trump that he would “continue to serve at the pleasure of you and the Secretary of Agriculture.”

Clovis helped bring Papadopoulos into the campaign last year and served as his supervisor, according to a former campaign official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the Russia case.

Court documents show Papadopoulos traded emails with his supervisor about his calls and meetings with several Russians, including an official who claimed to be from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and about a possible meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

According to the documents, Papadopoulos wrote his supervisor in June 2016 that he was in contact with a Russian diplomat who was “asking me if Mr. Trump is interested in visiting Russia at some point. Wanted to pass this info along to you for you to decide what’s best to do with it.”

In August, after the campaign decided Trump would not visit Russia, the supervisor urged Papadopoulos to organize an “off the record” meeting with Russian officials. “I would encourage you” to make a trip to Russia “if it is feasible,” he wrote. The trip never occurred.

Clovis served in the Air Force, was a business school professor, a candidate for U.S. Senate, a conservative radio host, and a professor of economics at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, before he joined the Trump campaign. But he had no degrees in agriculture, science or medicine.

The 2008 farm bill specifies that the Agriculture Department’s chief scientist should be chosen “from among distinguished scientists with specialized training or significant experience in agricultural research, education, and economics.” The position supervises nearly $3 billion in research and education grants, and helps set research priorities for the department.

Mueller has charged Paul Manafort Jr., Trump’s former campaign manager, and Rick Gates, a senior deputy, with fraud, conspiracy and money laundering in an alleged financial scheme separate from the presidential race. Manafort and Gates have pleaded not guilty.

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