Sam Clovis is good on TV, which is why President Donald Trump likes him. Whether it qualifies him for a high-level administration post, or gets him confirmed by the Senate, is another question entirely.
Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill are hoping it won’t be enough. And in the coming weeks they are gearing up for war against Clovis, the former Trump campaign aide whom the president nominated last month to serve as the Department of Agriculture’s top scientist.
The argument they will make is that Clovis is wholly unqualified, outwardly anti-science, and, well, a bigot. And in a post-Charlottesville political world, the belief among top Democrats in the Senate is that this will be too much for elected Republicans to swallow.
So far, there has been little give from GOP lawmakers and even less from the Trump White House. At a time when the president is engulfed by scandal and self-inflicted chaos—with barely any political capital left to expend—he remains committed to Clovis’ nomination.
The question often asked by those following the nomination closely is: “Why?”
In conversations with administration officials, Hill sources, Clovis allies, and former associates, one common response is that Trump appreciates Clovis’ steady, non-showy loyalty and values his capacity to handle a TV hit.
“We all know the role that TV played in Trump’s election,” said one former senior Trump campaign official. Clovis “did a good job of integrating Trump policy for TV interviews,” and Trump himself “thought Sam was always very prepared when he did policy interviews.”
Top campaign brass were generally happy with his performance, too. After Clovis’ television hits, staff would circulate video of the appearances to campaign surrogates “to make sure they followed his lead,” the official noted.
Gary Baise, an agriculture lawyer based in Washington, D.C., who worked with Clovis during the Trump campaign, recalled a phone call Clovis received after going on CNN to defend Trump during the campaign. “It’s Melania,” Baise said, recalling Clovis’ excited account. “She was impressed, he told me, with how he was defending candidate Trump at the time, and called to thank him… This was during the primary.”
Since the election, Clovis has continued to have a direct line to the president, according to White House sources. He has been regarded by the president as a policy guru, a rural-America whisperer, and a populism true-believer.
Few others share this view. Clovis worked as a defense contractor prior to moving to Iowa, where he joined a small college in Sioux City as professor of economics. He gained a foothold in the political scene by starting his own radio show. It was conservative fare. But sources who went on the program described it as not overly divisive.
“He was easy for everyone to get along with and he wasn’t anti-establishment,” said one Iowa Republican. “But he is pretty crazy.”
Crazy, indeed, became part of his brand. Clovis described climate science as “junk.” He accused progressives of being “race traitors” and “race traders”; he said homosexuality is a “choice”; argued that same-sex marriage might lead to pedophilia; called former Attorney General Eric Holder a “racist black”; and stoked the Barack Obama birther conspiracy theory.
Clovis agreed with a guest on his radio show in 2014 that Agenda 21, a United Nations conservation program and frequent target of right-wing conspiracy theorists, is “a big hustle” to redistribute wealth.
He also claimed to have seen a UFO or, rather, to have seen proof that a UFO existed. According to the Des Moines Register, Clovis said in a radio interview in early 2014 that a UFO traveled toward him at 5,000 miles per hour, came to a complete stop, and then turned around, flying away once more at 5,000 mph.
Simon Conway, the Afternoon Drive WHO radio host who conducted that interview with Clovis, told The Daily Beast on Thursday that the response—which he couldn’t fully recall and didn’t have the audio file for anymore—was to a tongue-in-cheek conversation initiated by Conway. “It was jokey…something to laugh at,” Conway said. “It was a very non-serious thing I was doing, it wasn’t him.”
Conway added that he was interested in Clovis’ service in the Air Force, the Pentagon, and the U.S. Space Command, thus prompting the UFO chat.
Not everyone assumed it was humor. Clovis became something akin to a cartoonish character in the state’s establishment Republican scene. But that didn’t dissuade him from striving upward. In 2014, he ran in the GOP primary to fill the Senate seat vacated by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA).
Democrats were so ecstatic by the possibility of Clovis emerging as the candidate that, behind the scenes, they began attempting to engineer it. And they almost did. Clovis finished a surprising second, behind eventual Sen. Joni Ernst.
When the 2016 election came around, GOP presidential candidates sought his support. Clovis first latched on to Rick Perry’s team, during which time he wrote—in leaked emails from summer 2015—that Trump left him “with questions about his moral center and his foundational beliefs.”
“[Trump’s] comments reveal no foundation in Christ, which is a big deal,” he continued.
Thirty-five days later, Clovis would ditch Perry to join Trump as a national co-chairman and policy adviser.
Sam Clovis: Trump’s ‘Insta-Bible’
On the outside, the two men could not be more different: Trump, a cosmopolitan New York billionaire known for superficiality and high-society indulgences, and Clovis, a frumpy Midwestern type who, as one associate puts it, “is sweaty and wears suspenders and has that mustache.”
But the two also share flirtations with Obama-era birtherism, anti-establishment posturing, and a certain affinity for populist rage.
The way Clovis tells it—according to those who know him personally—he first met Trump in a restaurant in Iowa, shortly after Trump announced his candidacy in New York City in June 2015. Trump spotted Clovis at a table and walked over to him and said, “You’re Sam Clovis… I know you’re working for Perry, but if you ever change your mind, come and see me.”
Trump, according to Clovis’ account, claimed to have read his work. And just a few weeks later, Clovis called up Trump to ask him if the offer was still on the table. After Clovis came aboard, one of his responsibilities was serving as a sort of “insta-Bible” for the Republican presidential frontrunner, as another former Trump campaign official put it.
Baise, who still speaks with and sees Clovis fairly regularly, confirmed this characterization.
“Remember that blow-up when Trump said ‘Two Corinthians’? One thing Sam told me he did was, when the president wanted to quote something from the Bible, the boss or some staffer would say, ‘Sam, where is that quote from the Bible?’” Baise recalled. “[Clovis] was the guy they would go to when Trump wanted to quote something from the Bible!”
The relationship wasn’t always productive or seamless.
There are some senior staffers in the White House who still blame Clovis for bringing businessman Carter Page on as a Trump foreign policy adviser during the GOP primary. Trump ended up name-checking Page during a March 2016 interview with The Washington Post—simply because “Sam put Carter’s name on a piece of paper that was put in front of” Trump, according to one Trump campaign veteran.
Page says he never actually briefed candidate Trump. But these White House sources still view Clovis’ “sloppy” vetting as the main reason the president is forever on-record as promoting someone who has become a central figure in investigations into links between the Russian government and Trump associates.
That wasn’t enough, however, to land Clovis too far outside the inner circle. He was among the first Trump officials dispatched to the USDA after the election and was subsequently given a temporary job as senior White House adviser to the department.
Then Trump went further, nominating Clovis to be chief scientist for the Department of Agriculture. And no one is sure why.
For starters, it’s not even clear whether Clovis can technically hold the gig. The law creating the position, first enacted as part of federal agriculture legislation in 2008, reserves it solely for individuals with backgrounds in science and agriculture.
“The [chief scientist] shall be appointed by the President... from among distinguished scientists with specialized training or significant experience in agricultural research, education, and economics,” the law specifies. Others who have held the post appear to meet those criteria. Clovis—who has degrees in business, national security, and public administration, and no professional experience in any scientific field—may not.
The White House did not respond to questions about that law and whether it might impede Clovis’ nomination or set up potential legal hurdles to his confirmation.
Beyond that technicality, Clovis is almost certain to spark a contentious confirmation fight at the precise moment when the president desperately needs to avoid such battles on the Hill.
Senate Democrats are planning to turn the nomination into a referendum on the alt-right conspiratorial brand of politics that has flourished in the age of Trump. And they believe that in the wake of white nationalist violence in Charlottesville, they can make Clovis toxic.
“He’s a perfect way to test whether people are willing to put their votes where their tweets are,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), who is spearheading the anti-Clovis campaign, said in an interview with The Daily Beast. “He is not qualified and he’s a birther. So if you’re a serious Republican who has reservations about the approach to race that this president has taken and if you don’t support birtherism, which is a proxy for racism, then you have an opportunity to do something about it, to walk the talk.”
Already, Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) has signaled he may oppose Clovis’ nomination over his belief that crop insurance is unconstitutional, though the senator’s office did not return attempts to get clarification. And Senate Democratic sources say they will target Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) as well, since the Arizona Republican has just published a book in which he encourages his party to stand up to birtherism. Flake’s office, likewise, did not return a request for comment.
Should the White House lose those two votes, it could not afford to lose another (presuming all Democrats vote against the Clovis nomination). Clovis’ friends and allies, nevertheless, don’t expect Trump—or Clovis—to blink.
“I hope Charles Schumer and the senator from Hawaii... come to the Sam Clovis hearing,” Baise said. “He will chew them up and spit them out!… He’s obviously a target, but here’s one guy, just like Trump, he will take no prisoners. And when he is in the arena... I just hope Schumer and his friend from Hawaii just show. That would be worth paying to see.”
Baise assured The Daily Beast that Clovis is a man who has “iron testicles.”