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Another Trump aide seems to be caught up in the Russia probe

Sam Clovis just withdrew his nomination to an Agriculture Department post.

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Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Sam Clovis, a former Trump campaign aide whose name has recently come up in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, withdrew his nomination for a post in the Agriculture Department on Thursday.

His withdrawal is a casualty of this week’s major developments in the Mueller probe — most notably, the revelation that George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign whom Clovis supervised as national co-chair, had recently pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI about his contacts with Russians.

A court document revealing Papadopoulos’s guilty plea, unsealed Monday, referred several times to his interactions with his “campaign supervisor” — whom news outlets quickly confirmed to be Clovis. According to the document, Clovis told Papadopoulos that improving relations with Russia would be a principal foreign policy focus of the campaign, and encouraged Papadopoulos’s efforts to travel to Russia and meet with Russian government officials.

Furthermore, Clovis himself was questioned under oath by Mueller’s team last week, NBC News reported. This set the stage for Clovis to face some uncomfortable Russia-related questions during sworn testimony at his Senate confirmation hearing, which had been scheduled for next week.

Importantly, Clovis was also viewed as wildly unqualified for the Agriculture Department post for reasons having nothing to do with the Mueller investigation or Russia. That is: He was nominated to be the department’s chief scientist, but he is not a scientist. Indeed, he seemed to have no relevant qualifications for the post at all. His nomination was frankly laughable and a demonstration of utter cronyism by the Trump administration.

Clovis’s withdrawal from consideration means he won’t have to keep spending time defending his résumé — which will free him up to spend more time with his legal defense.

And overall, it goes to show that as Mueller’s investigation heats up, more and more Trump campaign associates are coming under serious scrutiny.

Who is Sam Clovis?

A former Air Force pilot, conservative talk radio host, professor, and evangelical activist, Clovis became increasingly involved in Iowa Republican politics in recent years. He ran against Joni Ernst in a GOP primary for one of Iowa’s US Senate seats in 2014, but Ernst beat him by nearly 40 points. Then he became the GOP nominee for state treasurer and also lost.

The following year, Clovis distinguished himself by joining the Trump campaign early — he came on board as national campaign co-chair all the way back in August 2015, jumping over from Rick Perry’s failing bid.

Clovis became a leading policy adviser to Trump, and in March 2016 he was charged with recruiting a set of foreign policy advisers to the campaign. He eventually came up with five people, and Trump himself proudly read out this list of his five advisers in a meeting with the Washington Post editorial board that month.

Two of those five advisers Clovis brought in — George Papadopoulos and Carter Page — raised eyebrows because they were total unknowns in American political and foreign policy circles. Both of them have since come under major scrutiny in the Russia investigation.

Page was the more prominent of the two during the Trump campaign, making headlines for effusively praising Vladimir Putin and traveling to Moscow in July 2016. (The FBI grilled him for about 10 hours this March, according to the Washington Post.)

But it turns out Papadopoulos was also quite busy with Russians behind the scenes. According to the plea document, he was tipped off in April 2016 that the Russians had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails.” And he spent months trying to set up contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. When the FBI interviewed him about all this earlier this year, he lied, and was arrested for that back in July. In early October, he agreed to a plea deal.

Clovis is referenced several times in Papadopoulos’s plea document

Clovis comes up in Papadopoulos’s plea document several times. First off, when Clovis first brought him on as a campaign adviser, he directed him that one of the campaign’s top priorities would be improving ties to Russia, the document claims. (All references to the “Campaign Supervisor” are to Clovis.)

Based on a conversation that took place on or about March 6, 2016, with a supervisory campaign official (the “Campaign Supervisor”), defendant Papadopoulos understood that a principal foreign policy focus of the campaign was an improved US relationship with Russia.

Soon afterward, Papadopoulos met with professor Joseph Mifsud, who he understood to have ties to the Russian regime. Mifsud introduced him to a Russian person who he said was a relative of Vladimir Putin. After that meeting, Papadopoulos emailed Clovis and others on the Trump campaign telling them all about it (he said he’d met “Putin’s niece”), and described his efforts to set up a meeting with Russian leaders. Here’s how Clovis responded:

The Campaign Supervisor responded that he would “work it through the campaign,” but that no commitments should be made at that point. The Campaign Supervisor added: “Great work.”

Later on, in August 2016, according to the plea document, Clovis told Papadopoulos that he should travel to Russia to meet with government officials there, if possible. (He didn’t end up doing so, though.)

On or about August 15, 2016, the Campaign Supervisor told defendant Papadopoulos that “I would encourage you” and another foreign policy advisor to the Campaign to “make the trip[], if it is feasible.”

Why Clovis might be under scrutiny from Mueller’s team

As Mueller tries to get to the bottom of just what sorts of contacts the Trump campaign had with Russian officials during the campaign, the oddness of Papadopoulos and Page’s behavior stands out. And they were both supervised by the same person: Clovis.

So naturally, Mueller would have questions for Clovis. For instance, he probably wanted to know why, exactly, Clovis directed Papadopoulos early on to focus on improving ties with Russia, and why he seemed to encourage efforts to contact the Russian government.

Another important topic that the plea document is conspicuously silent on is just who else in the Trump campaign, if anyone, Papadopoulos told about this Russian “email” dirt on Clinton. It certainly would seem logical if he told his campaign supervisor — Clovis — about it. (Though for now, there is no evidence of this.)

Finally, the timing of Clovis’s questioning by Mueller’s team is also of interest. It happened after Papadopoulos’s own early October guilty plea, but before news of that guilty plea — and the revelation that Papadopoulos had become a cooperating witness — was revealed publicly.

That is: When Clovis was questioned, he probably didn’t know that his former subordinate had flipped, and was giving information to Mueller.

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