DES MOINES — An Iowan found himself in the middle of a political storm last week in the nation’s capital.
Just as Senate Republicans were preparing to hold a hearing on Sam Clovis’ nomination for a federal Department of Agriculture job, his name surfaced in the Russia investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller.
That investigation revealed that Clovis, a former conservative radio host, economics professor and U.S. Senate candidate from northwest Iowa, had communicated with George Papadopoulos, a former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser who has admitted to lying to the FBI about his attempts to connect the campaign with Russian officials in 2016. As part of the investigation, Clovis testified before a grand jury.
On Nov. 2, shortly after the news of his involvement broke, Clovis withdrew his name from consideration from the chief scientist post.
“The political climate inside Washington has made it impossible for me to receive balanced and fair consideration for this position. The relentless assaults on you and your team seem to be a blood sport that only increases in intensity each day,” Clovis wrote in a letter to Trump. “As I am focused on your success and the success of this Administration, I do not want to be a distraction or negative influence, particularly with so much important work left to do for the American people.”
The path that led Clovis to the middle of a political maelstrom started in conservative western Iowa.
Born and raised in Kansas, Clovis came to Iowa in 2000 after serving 25 years in the U.S. Air Force, including as a fighter pilot, and working in the private sector.
In 2005 he became chairman of the business administration and economics department at Morningside College in Sioux City. Four years later he started a radio show, “Impact with Sam Clovis,” on KSCJ-AM radio in Sioux City. During this time he lived in Hinton, Iowa, a town of fewer than 1,000 people in Plymouth County, roughly 15 minutes northeast of Sioux City.
Clovis’ meteoric rise in politics perhaps in some ways started with his radio show, but officially began four years ago with the start of his campaign for the U.S. Senate.
He joined four other Republicans in running for one of Iowa’s U.S. Senate seats. Clovis’ campaign was unsuccessful; state legislator Joni Ernst won the GOP primary and later the 2014 general election.
Clovis also was nominated to run as the party’s candidate for state treasurer, but lost that general election race.
In 2015, Clovis became involved in the presidential campaign. He first aligned himself with former Texas governor Rick Perry, but later switched his support to Donald Trump. The Trump campaign made Clovis a senior adviser.
When Trump was elected, he hired Clovis as a senior adviser in the U.S. agriculture department, and over the summer nominated him to become the department’s chief scientist, who oversees the department’s $3 billion of research and investment grants. The position requires U.S. Senate confirmation.
Then the political fireworks started.
Clovis’ nomination drew scrutiny, in particular from Democrats, some agricultural groups, and scientists from 50 states who questioned his credentials. Clovis has an advanced degree in economics, but does not have agricultural science education or experience.
In a letter protesting his nomination, scientists said Congress had codified the job in the 2008 Farm Bill as one whose nominee was to be chosen from "among distinguished scientists with specialized training or significant experience in agricultural research, education and economics."
"In every aspect, Clovis falls far short of the standards demanded by the position. While he holds a doctorate of public administration, his professional background is completely devoid of relevant scientific experience that would otherwise equip him to fulfill his duties," they wrote.
Among those signing the letter were 43 scientists from Iowa, including Cornelia Butler Flora, agriculture and life sciences professor at Iowa State University and Frederick Kirschenmann, distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State.
"Sam Clovis's decision to withdraw his nomination as chief scientist is a victory for science and our farmers who rely on agricultural research," Sen. Debbie Stabenow, of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, said in a statement. "From Day 1 it was clear to me that Sam Clovis was the wrong choice for our farmers and ranchers. His lack of qualifications and long history of politically divisive statements were disqualifying, and the recent news surrounding his time as co-chair of the Trump campaign has raised even more questions."
The feeling is different among Clovis's Iowa supporters, who said they are disappointed he felt compelled to withdraw his nomination and that he would have served well in the post.
“It’s unfortunate, but I understand his decision,” said Steven Holt, a state legislator from Denison who supported Clovis’ 2014 campaign for the U.S. Senate. “I’m sure he thought it would be a great distraction, so he withdrew his name.”
“I think it’s unfortunate because I think he’s brilliant and I think he would have done a great job in whatever post the president put him in,” Holt said. “I found him to be a man of great integrity.”
R. Doc Zortman, of Sioux City, got to know Clovis in 2009 at tea party events and supported Clovis’ campaign for the U.S. Senate. Zortman said he, too, was disappointed that Clovis felt obligated to withdraw his name from consideration for the chief scientist post, but added that he was not surprised because he thinks Clovis was acting in a way that would not cause consternation to the Trump administration.
“Sam’s a team player,” Zortman said. “Instead of going through all that and dragging the team down, he’s a team player. Instead, he’ll stay in a position that doesn’t require a hearing.”
Clovis’ supporters in Iowa also pushed back at suggestions he was not fit for the chief scientist post. Holt said the job duties do not necessarily require an agricultural scientist, and Zortman defended Clovis’ previously stated skepticism of the human impact on climate change.
Clovis also received the support of Iowa’s pair of Republican U.S. Senators. Ernst said she was encouraged by his nomination but respected his decision to withdraw, and Chuck Grassley called Clovis’ withdrawal “a lost opportunity for a strong leader to serve America’s farmers.”
“During his nine months at USDA, he’s already made a big difference for agriculture,” Grassley said in a statement. “Sam served his country in the military and was well-suited for the position. He’s in touch with the grassroots of rural America, and however he serves next, there’s no doubt he’ll make a big contribution.”
Clovis said so long as the administration approves, he will continue to serve in his role as an adviser in the agriculture department.
Zortman said while he is disappointed Clovis felt obligated to remove his name from consideration for the chief scientist job, he thinks Clovis will be a positive influence in his current position.
“My belief is, and me being a Christian, I have the faith that everything happens for a reason,” Zortman said. “Wherever Sam ends up, God wants him there.”