President Trump’s pick to be the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) chief scientist is on track to face one of the rougher confirmation battles of the administration.
Democrats are girding for an all-out battle against Sam Clovis’s nomination to be USDA’s under secretary for research, education and economics, a position that would see him overseeing billions of dollars in research spending and serving as a cross-departmental science czar.
Clovis, a close Trump ally from Iowa who served as a key campaign adviser on rural and agricultural issues, has set off Democrats’ alarms for a number of reasons.
Clovis has been criticized for lacking scientific credentials, and he disagrees with the scientific consensus on climate change. Further complicating Clovis’s confirmation process, CNN uncovered a number of objectionable statements he has made on topics like race and politics.
Clovis, an Air Force veteran, former economics professor and former radio host, once wrote that former President Obama was being “given a pass because he is Black,” called former Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderState courts become battlegrounds in redistricting fights New Hampshire Republicans advance map with substantially redrawn districts Michigan redistricting spat exposes competing interests in Democratic coalition MORE a “racist black,” declared that homosexuality is a choice, and called progressives both “race traitors” and “race traders,” CNN reported.
Clovis is now squarely in the sights of Senate Democrats, who are likely to give him the biggest fight seen so far in the Trump administration for a non-Cabinet position.
“This will be one of the highest-profile nominations fights going forward and Democrats will do everything we can to defeat his nomination,” said a Democratic aide. “It's a high priority.”
Earlier this year, Democrats put similar efforts into fighting many of Trump’s Cabinet picks, like Environmental Protection Agency Chief Scott Pruitt and Education Secretary Betsy DeVosBetsy DeVosJury finds Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes guilty on four counts Mnuchin, Pompeo mulled plan to remove Trump after Jan. 6: book Republicans look to education as winning issue after Virginia successes MORE. DeVos’s confirmation required a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Pence, but all of the nominees who got votes were confirmed.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerKelly takes under-the-radar approach in Arizona Senate race Hundreds attend mass funeral for victims of Bronx apartment building fire Romney: I never got a call from White House to discuss voting rights MORE (D-N.Y.) signaled how he’s planning to treat Clovis in an August statement with Sen. Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel SchatzThe Hill's 12:30 Report: More of Biden's agenda teeters on collapse The Hill's Morning Report: Biden takes it on the chin Senate to take up voting rights bill Tuesday, missing Schumer deadline MORE (D-Hawaii), who’s become Clovis’s chief opponent.
“President Trump should withdraw the Clovis nomination immediately — not only because he is a proud ‘skeptic’ of climate change and wildly unqualified for the position of USDA chief scientist — but also as a gesture to the American people that this administration is serious about rooting out the most hateful voices in our society,” the two Democrats said in their statement, a rare rebuke from leadership non-Cabinet-level pick.
Numerous progressive groups are also standing up against Clovis, with 54 groups in farming, food, conservation and other areas writing to senators last month asking them to oppose him.
Mike Lavender, senior Washington representative at the Union of Concerned Scientists for food and agriculture, said the Clovis pick is “one of the most controversial nominations on the Hill right now.”
“Sam Clovis is completely unqualified to invest $3 billion worth of taxpayer money into our food and farm system. He has no experience, no training, in agriculture, education or economics,” Lavender said.
“He’s refuted the consensus around climate science and he’s promoted conspiracy theories.”
Clovis's opponents argue that the 2008 law that designated the "chief scientist" position requires the candidate to be a scientist, so Clovis is statutorily disqualified.
So far, Trump has shown no willingness to withdraw Clovis’s nomination. A USDA spokeswoman said Clovis still has the “unconditional” support of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.
Clovis also has the support of numerous major agriculture groups, including the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
Those groups and 20 others wrote to senators to say that Clovis is well qualified for the role.
USDA “already employs some of the finest and most dedicated scientists in the world. They do not need a peer,” those agriculture and commodity groups wrote.
“They need someone to champion their work before the administration, the Congress, and all consumers around the world.”
To block Clovis, at least three Republican senators would have to join all of the Democrats in opposing him.
No Republican has come out against Clovis, while a handful have committed to supporting him, including Agriculture Committee members Steve DainesSteven (Steve) David DainesHillicon Valley: Amazon's Alabama union fight — take two Senate Judiciary Committee to debate key antitrust bill Overnight Defense & National Security — No punishments in botched Kabul drone strike MORE (Mont.) and Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleySenate antitrust bill has serious ramifications for consumers and small businesses Hillicon Valley: Amazon's Alabama union fight — take two Senate Judiciary Committee to debate key antitrust bill MORE (Iowa).
“I have confidence that with his military and educational background and knowledge of agriculture policy, Dr. Clovis will serve the country and USDA well as undersecretary for research, education and economics,” Grassley said in a statement.
The Agriculture Committee hasn’t scheduled a hearing yet for Clovis’s nomination because it hasn’t received all of his paperwork, a spokeswoman said.
Democrats aren't waiting for the Senate process to start before launching their attack on his nomination.
“If President Trump refuses to withdraw Mr. Clovis, we will vehemently oppose his nomination and urge our colleagues from both parties to come together and summarily reject him as well," Schumer and Schatz said in their statement.