Sam Clovis is out of the running for the US Department of Agriculture’s top scientist position he was deeply unqualified for, but he remains tied to special counsel Robert Mueller’s grand jury investigation into the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russia in the 2016 elections.
The attorney representing Clovis, Victoria Toensing, confirmed earlier this week that Clovis was the unnamed “campaign supervisor” in an unsealed plea agreement for George Papadopoulos, the 30-year-old former Trump foreign policy adviser who has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his efforts to arrange meetings between the Trump campaign and Russia. According to the plea agreement, Clovis encouraged Papadopoulos and another foreign policy adviser to make a trip to meet with Russian officials — a claim Toensing denied despite the apparent existence of an email saying as much.
Toensing is an attorney partnered with her husband, Joseph diGenova, at the Washington DC law firm diGenova & Toensing. She is also, in the words of independent journalist and legal analyst Marcy Wheeler, “a right wing nutjob lawyer whose chief skill is lying to the press to spin partisan scandals.”
For decades, Toensing has served as a partisan DC attorney. In the early ‘80s, she was a legal counsel to Barry Goldwater, who chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee (and whose 1964 presidential campaign was supported by then-high schooler Hillary Clinton before she became a Democrat). There, she helped with the passage of bills including one to prevent the disclosure of classified information under the Freedom of Information Act. She later joined the Reagan administration as a deputy assistant attorney general, heading the Justice Department’s newly established terrorism unit and prosecuting banking industry fraud and bribery cases.
After leaving the Reagan administration, Toensing entered private practice and also became a regular TV news guest, in both roles hyping partisan scandals and representing clients associated with them, often with connections to the Clintons.
In the ‘90s, Toensing emerged as a “blanketer of the airwaves,” in the words of journalist and legal expert Emily Bazelton, hyping the Monica Lewinsky affair that ultimately led to Bill Clinton’s impeachment. In the mid-2000s, she was a paid TV commentator on the Valerie Plame scandal, in which Plame’s cover as a CIA agent was blown by Bush administration officials. Taking aim at another special counsel’s investigation, Toensing criticized Patrick J. Fitzgerald for going after Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff Scooter Libby for allegedly covering up the release of Plame’s identity in retaliation against her husband Joseph Wilson, a staunch critic of the Bush administration’s lies that led to the Iraq war. Toensing did this despite having helped to pass legislation when she served as special counsel for Goldwater to protect intelligence agents’ identities.
Since 2013, Toensing has represented Gregory Hicks, who claimed that he was demoted from his State Department position for questioning the Obama administration’s response to the Benghazi militant attacks in Libya. Republicans seized on Benghazi, spinning it into a partisan attack on Hillary Clinton, who at the time served as secretary of state, in an effort to undermine her presidential aspirations.
In addition to representing Clovis in the Russia affair, Toensing has also been making news mostly in conservative media circles because she is representing an FBI informant who claims that the Clinton Foundation is making tens of millions of dollars from an Obama-era uranium deal with Russia in a quid pro quo deal the Clintons were able to get approved. The so-called Uranium One story has been cited repeatedly by Trump in an apparent effort to distract from the Mueller investigation, but in reality, the supposed scandal was started by Breitbart executive Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, in 2012 and relies on a series of falsehoods.
From what is publicly known, Clovis’ ties to the Mueller investigation appear to be significant. He was questioned last week by Mueller’s team of high-powered attorneys, gave testimony to its grand jury that’s probing evidence of collusion with Russia, and was also separately interviewed by the Senate Intelligence Committee recently. According to a report Friday by ABC News, the White House had been unaware that Clovis gave testimony to the grand jury until hearing about it in the media this week.
As an adviser to the Trump campaign, Clovis helped hastily assemble its foreign policy team despite his lack of credentials in the area. In addition to recruiting Papadopoulos, Clovis also reportedly brought Carter Page to the team using what the Washington Post reported “campaign aides now acknowledge was their go-to vetting process — a quick Google search — to check out the newcomer.” The slapdash process overlooked the fact that the FBI had been eyeing Page since at least 2013 because of the possibility that Russian officials used the energy investment firm head to obtain information about the US energy industry. Shortly after Page was named as a Trump foreign policy adviser, the FBI began to surveil him, suspicious that he was acting as a Kremlin agent.
Page, who was subsequently ousted as an adviser, was subpoenaed last month by the Senate Intelligence Committee to compel him to testify and provide documents relating to the Russia investigation. On Thursday, Page reportedly testified in a closed-door meeting that he told Attorney General Jeff Sessions about a trip he was taking to Russia in the summer of 2016. In June, Sessions told the Senate Intelligence Committee that he was unaware of any communications between Russian officials and “anyone connected to the Trump campaign.” News also emerged this week that, contrary to what he told the committee, Sessions had rejected a proposal from Papadopoulos that a meeting be arranged between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The extent of Clovis’ involvement in any of this is unclear; in a recent interview with NBC News, Toensing said she was “not going to get into that” in response to a question about her client’s participation in the Mueller investigation.
Clovis continues to serve as a senior White House adviser with the USDA. On Friday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders ignored a Des Moines Register inquiry about whether Clovis would remain in that position after this week’s revelations, saying only, “We respect Mr. Clovis’ decision to withdraw his nomination.”