A former Trump campaign official has withdrawn from consideration for a job at the U.S. Department of Agriculture after being pulled into the imbroglio over Russia's interference efforts against the U.S. in the 2016 presidential race.
Sam Clovis said on Thursday that he would not go forward in trying to become the USDA's undersecretary for research, education and economics.
That news followed a quick series of connected developments in the Russia investigation being conducted by the Department of Justice special counsel: first, a guilty plea — announced Monday —by a former campaign adviser who worked for Clovis, and then, reports that Clovis has been interviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller's team in the Russia case and also testified before a Washington, D.C., grand jury.
George Papadopoulos, the foreign policy adviser who has pleaded guilty, was approached by Russian agents early in his tenure and offered "dirt" on Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and meetings with Russian officials. Papadopoulos aired those offers within the campaign and, according to court documents, received encouragement about building those relationships.
Questions have been raised about whether Clovis encouraged Papadopoulos to keep meeting with or talking with Russians or whether Clovis did anything else to build ties between the campaign and foreigners trying to influence the U.S. election.
Clovis has denied any wrongdoing; his lawyer released a statement this week that said he "vigorously opposed any Russian trip for Donald Trump or staff. However, if a volunteer made suggestions on any foreign policy matter, Dr. Clovis, a polite gentleman from Iowa, would have expressed courtesy and appreciation."
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the administration has "respect for Mr. Clovis' decision to withdraw his nomination."
There were indications that Clovis might have been in for a rough ride apart from the Russia matter. The post for which he was nominated is the Agriculture Department's chief scientist, but Clovis has no scientific background.
Clovis acknowledged that he didn't have standard scientific qualifications, The Washington Post reported Thursday, but he made a case to members of Congress that he had a practical knowledge of agriculture that would serve him in the job.
Democrats on the Senate agriculture committee, who would have been part of a confirmation hearing for Clovis scheduled for next week, said they would have pressed him both on his qualifications and his connections to the Russia imbroglio.
"His nomination was withdrawn because we learned on Monday that last year Mr. Clovis, while serving as the co-chairman for the national Trump campaign, gave the green light to George Papadopolous' attempts to collude with Russian operatives and obtain stolen emails from the Clinton campaign," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said on Thursday. "Mr. Clovis' nomination was only withdrawn because that would certainly have been a topic during his upcoming testimony, under oath, before the Senate Agriculture Committee."