George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty this month to lying to the FBI about trying to dig up dirt on Hillary Clinton from the Russians. And over at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Sam Clovis last week withdrew his nomination as chief scientist, after newly released records indicated Clovis, a senior White House adviser to the Agriculture Department and President Donald Trump’s Iowa campaign co-chairman last year, gave the OK for Papadopoulos to go to Russia.
Clovis pulled his nomination without apology, saying he didn’t want to become a distraction and probably wouldn’t get a fair hearing anyway.
In court papers unsealed last Monday, an e-mail that Clovis’ attorney said was written by his client told Trump foreign-policy adviser Papadopoulos, “Make the trip, if it is feasible.” That was in response to Papadopoulos’ June 19 email declaring himself “willing to make the trip off the record if it’s in the interest of Mr. Trump and the campaign to meet specific people.”
Clovis’ attorney, Victoria Toensing, has told the Washington Post that Clovis was just being polite by encouraging Papadopoulos to meet with Russian officials, but that Clovis has vigorously opposed any trip to Russia by Trump or the campaign. Encouraging someone to go would sure be a strange way of showing opposition to it.
Iowa’s U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, who serves on both the Senate Agriculture and Judiciary committees, lamented Clovis’ withdrawal from nomination for the USDA post, calling it a lost opportunity “for a strong leader to serve Iowa’s farmers.” In fact, Clovis has zero scientific credentials for it. The former professor and right-wing radio host in Iowa has a doctorate in public administration. But the investigative news site, ProPublica, could find no evidence he ever even took a graduate-level course in science. He believes human contributions to climate change are a hoax.
The chief scientist, an advisory post to the government on scientific issues, has long been held by a leader in biochemistry, medicine, food nutrition, and ecosystem ecology. Clovis has said the USDA under Trump would focus mostly on slashing regulations.
Sure, candidates of both parties have long rewarded campaign stalwarts with administration positions, and hired staffers who share their philosophy. But they should at least have relevant qualifications. Until he joined Trump’s campaign in the summer of 2015, Clovis had little use for Trump. He was chairing Rick Perry’s Iowa campaign, and just a month before jumping ship, had publicly questioned Trump’s morality, Christianity and conservatism. Clovis had also claimed to be “offended by a man who sought and gained four student deferments to avoid the draft and who has never served this nation a day … in any fashion or way.”
But once on Trump’s payroll, Clovis was singing his praises, saying he had one of the greatest intellects of anyone he had met. Clovis even drew scorn from fellow conservative Republican Brad Zaun of Iowa, who said he risked losing credibility.
To some of us in Iowa, Clovis already had little credibility when he was denying climate change or claiming the nation’s public schools were indoctrinating children with concepts like environmentalism and racism. Even his former employer of 10 years, Iowa’s Morningside College, has called Clovis’ support for Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims “outrageous and disappointing.”
But some party people stand by their own, regardless. Grassley, Iowa’s senior U.S. senator, and Judiciary chairman, told reporters he had seen the emails and Clovis didn’t appear to encourage travel to meet with Russian officials. Even Clovis’ lawyer has acknowledged his role in that. But Grassley’s spokesman, Michael Zona, said the senator had reviewed a number of additional e-mails from the Trump campaign that are classified but give a different context to Clovis telling Papadopoulos to make the trip. The senator told reporters “Moscow” was not specifically mentioned and that Papadopoulos was traveling to several countries.
Trump has told reporters he knew nothing about any campaign advisers having contact with Russia. But The New York Times, based on court records, has now reported Trump was at a March 31, 2016, meeting with Papadopoulos when the latter said he could help arrange a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Jeff Sessions, now the U.S. attorney general, was also there and wanted nothing to do with it, according to The Times.
So who was this Papadopoulos and what qualified him to give advice on foreign policy? The now 30-year-old whom Trump called “an excellent guy” in March 2016 is now brushed off by the president as “a proven liar whom few people knew.” At DePaul University, from which Papadopoulos graduated in 2009, a Russian politics professor who taught him has called it “absolutely shocking” that he held that role. “We knew his expertise was virtually nonexistent. It was thin and embellished,” Richard Farkas told The Daily Beast.
It would be funny, if it weren’t so tragic, to have unqualified people having such a big say in national policies. But that’s not the worst part of this story. The worst part is the mounting evidence that those unqualified people advising the would-be president saw fit to elicit a foreign power’s help in undermining the opposing candidate — and that the now-president did not object.