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How The Trump Administration Is Running The Department Of Agriculture


Another shoe has dropped in the ever-widening federal probe of the Trump campaign and its links to Russia. Former campaign co-chair Sam Clovis was up for a top position at the Department of Agriculture. Court papers made public this week show Clovis was aware of contacts between the campaign and Moscow, and today Clovis pulled out of consideration for the USDA job. Now, even before his name was linked to the Russia investigation, Clovis was already a controversial choice for the USDA.

And we're going to talk about that now with author Michael Lewis. Lewis has been investigating the Department of Agriculture and how the Trump administration is running it. And he joins us now from our New York bureau. Welcome.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Thank you. Glad to be here.

KELLY: So let's start with Sam Clovis. He was, as we said, the co-chair of the Trump campaign, also a former conservative talk show host from Iowa. He was nominated for the position of top scientist at USDA despite not actually being a scientist. Is that right?

LEWIS: That's correct. And it's surprising to me that that wasn't more outrageous to people than the fact that he was meddling in all of this Russia stuff. I mean, the idea that it's a $3 billion a year research budget that is largely, largely aimed at trying to figure out how we're going to feed ourselves in the changing climate, and on top of it they put someone with absolutely no science background who doesn't think climate change exists.

KELLY: Let me just confess my eyes glazed over a little when my editors pitched an interview about the Department of Agriculture. I had no idea how huge it is - $140 billion budget, something like 95,000 employees. Give us just a sense of what all this department does.

LEWIS: So my eyes glazed over when I thought about writing it. And so you've got to understand the backdrop to this. And the backdrop to this is the Obama administration had gone to enormous lengths to prepare for the transition. They prepared briefings for - you know, on the assumption that 20 people would roll into the Department of Agriculture or Energy or Treasury the day after the election and learn how the place worked. And the Trump people just didn't show up for the briefings. So what I'm doing is going and getting the briefings they didn't get to try to understand how these places work.

KELLY: And what'd you learn?

LEWIS: Well, what I learned is the Department of Agriculture should be called something else because only about 8 percent of the budget has anything to do with farming. You know, of the $160 billion budget something like 110 billion goes just to feeding people in - with the food stamps now called the SNAP program or nutrition programs for poor pregnant women. What it's actually doing is - it's all over the map.

KELLY: All right, well, you've persuaded me that the Agriculture Department is consequential and we should all be paying more attention to what it does. With that in mind, give us a sense of how the Trump administration approached taking over and how it is being run now nine months into the Trump administration.

LEWIS: The odd thing was that they dumped a lot of people into the building in non-confirmed jobs on Inauguration Day. And Politico the magazine got ahold of the resumes of these people. And it was a lot of people who didn't have college educations, who had absolutely no background in agriculture or anything having to do with the Department of Agriculture. So they seem to have regarded it as a place to put Trump loyalists where it wouldn't matter 'cause no one would notice.

KELLY: It's true, though, that every administration rewards loyalists, rewards campaign officials and supporters by putting them in positions. You know, ambassador to Luxembourg, for example, not picking on the ambassador of Luxembourg. But this is a time-honored tradition that administrations have always done. What is the specific concern about what you're watching unfold at the Agriculture Department?

LEWIS: Well, it's not true that people just dump loyalists willy-nilly into the federal government. They're jobs for which there are real qualifications. So for example, the job for which they have nominated Sam Clovis was previously occupied by a woman named Cathie Woteki who, yes, she was a political appointee, but she'd spent the better part of a 50-year career as an agricultural scientist.

KELLY: When you interviewed her, what was her take on events unfolding?

LEWIS: She was terrified. She couldn't believe that someone who had no background in agricultural science was put in charge of a $3 billion a year agricultural science budget.

KELLY: I'm sure you've reached out to the person running the department, Secretary Sonny Perdue. What does he say?

LEWIS: I didn't get a chance to interview him. We called and called, and we got voicemails and no response. They're not communicative. So that part is unsatisfying.

KELLY: Author Michael Lewis talking about his Vanity Fair article "Made In The USDA." Thanks very much.

LEWIS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ACID SONG, "FAME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.