Russia probe could derail Trump nominee for top Agriculture post

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON DC — President Donald Trump’s nominee to be the Department of Agriculture’s chief scientist is imperiled over his connections to the ongoing Russia probe, sources tell CNN.

A White House source said the nomination of Sam Clovis is in danger and could be pulled soon. A source familiar with the White House’s thinking added that Clovis may have to withdraw, but it is not clear how that will happen, whether he will voluntarily pull out or be forced to do so.

Questions are swirling over Clovis’ relationship with George Papadopoulos — the Trump campaign foreign policy adviser who has admitted to making a false statement to the FBI regarding his interactions with foreign officials close to the Russian government — and a trip Papadopoulos took during the election where he met with a Russian figure.

The White House did not comment Wednesday night, and messages to Clovis’ attorney were not returned.

Asked Monday if Trump was “still comfortable” with Clovis serving in the administration, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders responded, “I’m not aware of any change that would be necessary.”

The Washington Post reported earlier this week that Clovis was one of the campaign officials referred to in court documents who Papadopoulos was emailing with. The FBI did not identify Clovis.

In the wake of the Post’s report, Clovis’ attorney said that inside the campaign, Clovis always “vigorously” opposed any Russian trip for Trump or staff. The attorney, Victoria Toensing, said in a statement that if a volunteer made a foreign policy suggestion, as a “polite gentleman from Iowa (he) would have expressed courtesy and appreciation.”

She also said that Clovis would have had no authority to prohibit personal travel.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the ranking Democrat on the Senate agriculture committee, said court records released this week raised more questions over Clovis’ nomination.

“From early on, I have strongly opposed the nomination of Sam Clovis to be the chief scientist at USDA,” she said in a statement. “The emerging information about his role in the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russia raises serious concerns. As we consider his nomination, I will be looking into these facts, along with his questionable qualifications and long history of divisive and outrageous statements.”

Clovis, a former conservative radio talk show host in Iowa who was a frequent guest on CNN during the election, became an early supporter of Trump’s two years ago. He quickly rose through the ranks of the campaign after Trump’s strong finish in the Iowa caucuses, taking a national role in the organization as officials scrambled to build a campaign team.

Clovis, a novice to national presidential campaigns, was supervising Papadopoulos and became a visible spokesman for Trump on CNN and other networks.

A Republican official close to Clovis said he remained loyal to Trump, adding that Clovis would almost certainly not fight the White House in backing away from his USDA nomination if asked.

“There’s no way he would fight this or cause trouble for the White House,” a Republican official and longtime associate of Clovis said.