If the Donald Trump campaign ever tires of its tagline, “Make America Great Again,” a possible replacement could be “Donald Trump: Just Trust Me.” The presumptive Republican presidential nominee’s pitch to his supporters, whether it’s on the issue of immigration, national defense, healthcare or myriad other things, generally boils down to the assertion that he -- and only he -- knows how to fix the nation’s problems, and the voters don’t need to worry about the details.
In an appearance at a fundraiser for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie last week, Trump took the same tack on the economy. “A lot of you don't know the world of economics and you shouldn't even bother,” he told a crowd of wealthy donors. “Just leave it to me, I have so much fun with it. Just go and enjoy your life.”
Okay. If Donald Trump wants the American people to trust him when it comes to dealing with the economy, it seems fair to ask: When it comes to economic policy, who does Trump trust?
The answer to that question appears to be a man named Sam Clovis. But that raises another question: Why?
A well-known conservative Republican figure in Iowa politics, Clovis made news early in the election cycle when he jumped ship from the campaign of former Texas governor Rick Perry to join team Trump. The campaign now identifies him as its “national co-chair” and the candidate’s “chief policy advisor.”
Earlier this month, the campaign sent Clovis to represent the candidate at the 2016 Fiscal Summit in Washington, DC, sponsored by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. It was a strange appearance, to say the least. Clovis, who identifies himself as an “economist” and a “full professor of economics” was interviewed by CNBC chief Washington correspondent John Harwood about the Trump campaign’s proposal to reform the tax code.
He suggested that Trump’s plans for the economy could result in a surplus of up to $7 trillion after eight years -- despite a consensus among economists that the Trump tax plan alone would increase deficits by more than $10 trillion. He also misrepresented an analysis of the Trump tax plan by the Tax Foundation, claiming that it did not include dynamic effects, which it did.
The interview also included a rather odd aside, in the context of Clovis complaining about the quality of the dialogue on policy issues in Washington. Basically, he said, it puts him to sleep. “I’m an economist, you know,” he told Harwood. “When I was a cadet at the Air Force Academy, I’d get my Samuelson Economics book. I’d open it up and I guarantee you, two paragraphs and I was out like a light.”
“It shows,” tweeted David Wessel, the director of the Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy at the Brookings Institution who was watching. “I understand less about Trump's budget plan after listening to Clovis than I did before.”
Following his appearance in Washington, the Fiscal Times tried to verify some of Clovis’s claims about his background and expertise. Clovis and the Trump campaign did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
His biography, provided for the event, says that Clovis was a career officer in the Air Force and rose to the rank of colonel.
“He retired as the inspector general of NORAD and the U.S. Space Command and was a command pilot, gaining combat readiness in the F-106, F-4, and the F-16. He served two years in the Middle East combat arena as well. He entered the private sector, where he was a successful businessman and has been teaching at various institutions part or full time for the past 20 years.”
It continues, “He is a federalism scholar and is an expert on homeland security issues. He is considered an expert in national security and foreign policy, given his education and experiences in those areas. He has regional expertise in Europe, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. He has managerial and executive experience in the private, public, and not-for-profit sectors. He has worked for Northrop Grumman and Booz Allen Hamilton, among other companies in the private sector.”
It’s quite a resume, and that part doesn’t even touch his time as a radio talk show host, college professor, and candidate for US Senate. But for purposes of the Trump campaign and Clovis’s influence on economic policy, the real issue is his credentials in that field.
First, is he actually a professor of economics? Well, not so much, according to Morningside College in Sioux City Iowa.
Clovis holds a tenured position at the small private college, from which he is on an unpaid leave of absence. However, rather than a professor of economics, Clovis is “a professor of business administration,” said Morningside vice president for communication and marketing Rick Wollman, via email. “He is affiliated with Morningside College’s Department of Economics, Political Science and Sociology.”
Okay, well is Clovis at least an economist? On that, the answer is somewhat less clear, but the weight of the evidence suggests that he is not, at least in the conventional sense of having extensive training in the discipline. In addition to a bachelor’s degree in political science from the Air Force Academy (1971), he holds a Master’s in Business Administration from Golden Gate University (1984) and a Doctorate in Public Administration from the University of Alabama (2006).
The doctoral degree appears to have been earned through a distance-learning program not offered on the University’s main campus, according to the school’s public affairs office. The school was unable to provide much information about the program, as it was discontinued the year after Clovis graduated, but an early course catalogue shows that the requirements for the degree include only one course in advanced microeconomics and another in public expenditures. The vast bulk of the program is dedicated to management and administration studies.
To be fair, when asked if there is any hard and fast rule about who can and who cannot claim to be “an economist,” Kristine Etter, a spokesperson for the American Economic Association, said, “No, there is not.”
She pointed out that the AEA, whose list of past presidents is practically a roll call of Nobel Prize winners, does not require members to be trained economists.
However, there is nothing in Clovis’s academic background that suggests he has had the sort of formal training one would expect so see on the CV of a professional economist, much less a “professor of economics.” Additionally, some of Clovis’s interactions with experts in the field of economic and tax policy have left them puzzled.
During his appearance at the Fiscal Summit, he had a tense exchange with Harwood about the Tax Foundation’s analysis of the Trump Tax plan. Harwood pointed out that the analysis found a $10 trillion deficit even when it used dynamic analysis -- taking growth effects into account -- rather than a more conventional static model.
“That’s not entirely true. The Tax Foundation model is a static model, not a dynamic model,” Clovis said.
Harwood pushed back, saying, “They do it both ways but I believe the $10 trillion figure they came up with was in their dynamic model.”
Clovis replied airily, “Well, that’s not what they told me, and I’ve sat across the table from them just like this, John.”
Two things about that statement: First, the Tax Foundation analysis clearly and unambiguously used both a static and a dynamic analysis to look at the Trump plan. Second, one of the guys who Clovis “sat across the table” from distinctly remembers explaining that to the Trump advisor.
“About a month ago, Clovis asked us to walk him through how we came to our conclusion,” said Kyle Pomerleau, director of federal projects at the Tax Foundation. “He came into the office and we showed it to him, and ran a few simulations.”
Pomerleau said staff “walked [Clovis] through” the models and “explained it was both dynamic and static.” While Pomerleau wouldn’t speculate as to why Clovis would claim that they had not discussed dynamic analysis, he said there was no question that, in fact, they had.
Given the entirety of the Trump campaign, it may not be terribly surprising if a close advisor to a candidate who demonstrates little regard for the truth turns out to have a few problems with it himself.
But if Trump’s answer on the economy is really just “Leave it to me,” the voting public has a strong interest in understanding who his advisers are. And right now, the person he picked to be his campaign’s voice at a major economic policy event in Washington isn’t inspiring a whole lot of confidence.