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Siouxlander Sam Clovis withdraws nomination for federal post amid Russia probe

SIOUX CITY | Sam Clovis, a Northwest Iowan who has been questioned in connection with special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into alleged meddling by Russia in the 2016 campaign, on Thursday withdrew his nomination to a Department of Agriculture post.

Clovis wrote a letter to President Donald Trump, saying he wanted the president to withdraw his nomination to become the chief scientist in the Agriculture Department.

"The political climate inside Washington has made it impossible for me to receive balanced and fair consideration for this position. The reckless assaults on you and your team seem to be a blood sport that only increases in intensity every day," Clovis wrote.

A CNN report earlier Thursday said the Clovis nomination was imperiled due to his connection to the Russia probe.

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the leading Democrat on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry, on Wednesday wrote Clovis with more questions regarding his actions in 2016, when he was a co-chairman of the Trump presidential campaign.

Stabenow said the questions need answers, after information surfaced this week from criminal filings that were reported against former campaign officials for Trump, who is a Republican.

"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," Stabenow said in a release that also included her questions for Clovis.

Clovis, who now is a White House aide to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, testified last week before a grand jury seated in Washington, D.C., NBC News first reported Wednesday.

Clovis, a former Morningside College professor and Sioux City radio talk show host, was propelled into the middle of Mueller's high-stakes probe on Monday with the unsealing of court documents related a guilty pleading by George Papadopoulos, a former foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign.

Papadopoulos, who was secretly arrested in July for lying to the FBI and pleaded guilty last month to those charges, is cooperating with Mueller's investigation, according to the documents.

As national campaign co-chair and senior policy adviser of the Trump campaign, Clovis was asked to form a national security advisory committee.  The members included Papadopoulos, who was not approached by the campaign for consultation, other than one meeting he attended in March 2016, Victoria Toensing, the attorney for Clovis, said in a statement to the Journal.

In his plea filing, Papadopolous admitted he told Trump and other top campaign national security officials during the March 31 meeting that he had contact with intermediaries for Russia who said they could set up a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Papadopoulos continued to email campaign officials about a possible meeting with individuals claiming to work for the Russian government who were offering "dirt" in the form of emails from Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

In an August 2016 email, among the court documents uncovered Monday, Clovis urged Papadopoulos to "make the trip, if it is feasible."

To Clovis' knowledge, Toensing said in the statement, all of Papadopoulos' communications with the campaign were "self-generated." Clovis never told Papadopoulos that "a principal foreign policy focus of the campaign was an improved U.S. relationship with Russia," because that was not Clovis' view of Trump's foreign policies priorities, Toensing said.

For weeks, Democrats had urged Trump to withdraw the nomination of Clovis, contending his background as an economics professor at Morningside College in Sioux City does not fit for the agriculture post.

Also in his letter, Clovis, a military veteran, said, "I have served this nation for 50 years with dignity, honor and integrity and will continue to do so." He added that "it saddens me" that the nomination would not go through to fruition.

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Spencer High School
GALLAGHER: Spencer students raise 'Roof' on new theatre

SPENCER, Iowa | Three weeks ago tonight, Sam Aalberts stood above his friend, Austin Crew, and dialed 911. Crew had collapsed before getting in his car to head home from a football game at Storm Lake High School.

Volunteers nearby started CPR on Crew, who had suffered sudden cardiac arrest, as Aalberts made his call to alert authorities.

TGallagher / Tim Gallagher, Sioux City Journal 

Senior Sam Aalberts plays Tevye in the high school's production of "Fiddler on the Roof" tonight (Friday), Saturday and Sunday. This is the first high school musical in the new 750-seat theatre.

Tonight, Aalberts and Crew take their positions at center stage, literally, as Spencer High School baptizes its new Spencer High School Theatre with "Fiddler on the Roof," the first of a three-show weekend.

"To have Austin come back is incredible," said Larry Untiet, director of the musical. "You'd never know anything happened. It's just amazing!"

Seeing him on stage this evening, less than three weeks removed from a near-death experience, will no doubt inspire hundreds of folks who follow these young Tigers. Being in the new digs, Aalberts said, has served to inspire the young Tigers.

TGallagher / Tim Gallagher, Sioux City Journal 

High school vocal director Katie Kardell blow-dries the hair of Spencer High School senior Sam Aalberts prior to a rehearsal for "Fiddler on the Roof" on Monday evening. Kardell, who studied theater and costuming at Briar Cliff University, was working to darken Aalberts' hair to fit his work as Tevye.

"It's great being in here," said Aalberts, a senior who plays leading man Tevye. "To have an official makeup room, a dressing room and all this backstage room is so nice."

TGallagher / Tim Gallagher, Sioux City Journal 

Monitors like this are positioned in the makeup room and dressing rooms serving the Spencer High School Theatre in Spencer, Iowa, devices that let performers know exactly what's happening on the stage.

The 750-seat theatre, which opened for the high school speech season in February, is the centerpiece of an $11-million fine arts addition. Construction began in April 2015, a project funded as the district bonded against future state sales tax revenues. The effort, in addition to the theatre, included a new concourse connecting the high school to the venerable Spencer Fieldhouse while ultimately locating all high school classes under one roof.

The band and choir rooms were updated and separated by a recording studio. The theatre also has a 10-foot deep orchestra pit, an adjoining black-box theater, state-of-the-art sound and light amenities and a spacious area for set design.

The new theatre replaces the 1937 structure located seven blocks west of the high school. That site, which served the district well for decades, staged "Mary Poppins" last year for its finale.

TGallagher / Tim Gallagher, Sioux City Journal 

Three signs show the consecutive years students enrolled in the speech program of Larry Untiet have qualified for all-state. Spencer High School, where Untiet has directed thespians for more than 40 years, is the only school in Iowa to have had speech all-state performers qualify for the festival every year since its inception.

"We were supposed to do 'Mary Poppins' here," said Untiet, who refused to complain about a construction effort that wrapped up on the eve of the large-group district speech contest eight months ago. "Fiddler on the Roof," like "Poppins," is a classic musical, the kind of show this 43-year speech and drama coaching veteran wanted to stage as the inaugural show for the new facility.

"Mr. Untiet wanted a prominent show for the first one here," Aalberts said.

TGallagher / Tim Gallagher, Sioux City Journal 

High school vocal director Katie Kardell washes the hair of Spencer High School senior Sam Aalberts. The two are shown in the new makeup room serving the Spencer High School Theatre.

Aalberts, who participates in all sorts of band, choir and drama activities at Spencer High, said the role of Tevye allows him to stretch as a performer. "I appreciate the opportunity to act like an older man, a hardworking man in that era," said the son of Gail and Dave Aalberts. "It's interesting how his character arches from being the traditional Jewish head of the house to enveloping newer ideas as some of the old traditions no longer apply."

Aalberts said he became hooked on theater during his freshman year when he tried out for a role in "Les Miserables" and became a member of the cast. One year later, he earned a role as Scarecrow in "Wizard of Oz."

After learning the school would tackle "Fiddler" this fall, Aalberts rented the show and watched it, studying movements, mannerisms and vocal ranges of its characters. After three nights of auditions shortly after the school year began, Aalberts landed the leading role.

Interestingly, Tevye's signature song, "If I Were a Rich Man," isn't his favorite in this show. No, it's "Someone I Would Die For," which is sung by Perchik, the character played by his buddy and classmate, Spencer High School's medical marvel, Austin Crew.

Jim Lee, Sioux City Journal 

Haley Nolen holds her daughter, Faith, who was diagnosed with congenital diaphragmatic hernia, a birth defect of the diaphragm, at 20-weeks' gestation. Faith had a balloon placed in her trachea in utero at Mayo Clinic's Fetal Care Center to help develop her lungs before birth.

Jim Lee, Sioux City Journal file 

Siouxlander Sam Clovis on Thursday withdrew his nomination to a key post in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Big GOP tax bill would cut rates — but also popular breaks

WASHINGTON — With fanfare and a White House kickoff, House Republicans unfurled a broad tax-overhaul plan Thursday that would touch virtually all Americans and the economy's every corner, mingling sharply lower rates for corporations and reduced personal taxes for many with fewer deductions for home-buyers and families with steep medical bills.

The measure, which would be the most extensive rewrite of the nation's tax code in three decades, is the product of a party that faces increasing pressure to produce a marquee legislative victory of some sort before next year's elections. GOP leaders touted the plan as a sparkplug for the economy and a boon to the middle class and christened it the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

"We are working to give the American people a giant tax cut for Christmas," President Donald Trump said in the Oval Office. The measure, he said, "will also be tax reform, and it will create jobs."

It would also increase the national debt, a problem for some Republicans. And Democrats attacked the proposal as the GOP's latest bonanza for the rich, with a phase-out of the inheritance tax and repeal of the alternative minimum tax on the highest earners — certain to help Trump and members of his family and Cabinet, among others.

"If you're the wealthiest 1 percent, Republicans will give you the sun, the moon and the stars, all of that at the expense of the great middle class," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

And there was enough discontent among Republicans and business groups to leave the legislation's fate uncertain in a journey through Congress that leaders hope will deposit a landmark bill on Trump's desk by year's end.

Underscoring problems ahead, some Republicans from high-tax Northeastern states expressed opposition to the measure's elimination of the deduction for state and local income taxes. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch of Utah called the House measure "a great starting point" but said it would be "somewhat miraculous" if its corporate tax rate reduction to 20 percent — a major Trump goal — survived. His panel plans to produce its own tax package in the coming days.

GOP lawmakers concede that if the tax measure collapses, their congressional majorities are at risk in next November's elections.

The package's tax reductions would outweigh its loophole closers by a massive $1.5 trillion over the coming decade. Many Republicans were willing to add that to the nation's soaring debt as a price for claiming a resounding tax victory. But it was likely to pose a problem for others — one of several brushfires leaders will need to extinguish to get the measure through Congress.

Republicans must keep their plan's shortfall from spilling over that $1.5 trillion line or the measure will lose its protection against Democratic Senate filibusters, bill-killing delays that take 60 votes to overcome. There are just 52 GOP senators and unanimous Democratic opposition is likely.

The bill would telescope today's seven personal income tax brackets into just four: 12 percent, 25 percent, 35 percent and 39.6 percent.

• The 25 percent rate would start at $45,000 for individuals and $90,000 for married couples.

• The 35 percent rate would apply to family income exceeding $260,000 and individual income over $200,000, which means many upper-income families whose top rate is currently 33 percent would face higher taxes.

• The top rate threshold, now $418,400 for individuals and $470,700 for couples, would rise to $500,000 and $1 million.

The standard deduction — used by people who don't itemize, about two-thirds of taxpayers — would nearly double to $12,000 for individuals and $24,000 for couples. That's expected to encourage even more people to use the standard deduction with a simplified tax form Republicans say will be postcard-sized.

Many middle-income families would pay less, thanks to the bigger standard deduction and an increased child tax credit. Republicans said their plan would save $1,182 in taxes for a family of four earning $59,000, but features like phase-outs of some benefits suggest their taxes could grow in the future.

"The plan clearly chooses corporate CEOs and hedge fund managers over teachers and police officers," said Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J.

One trade-off for the plan's reductions was its elimination of breaks that millions have long treasured. Gone would be deductions for people's medical expenses — especially important for families facing nursing home bills or lacking insurance — and their ability to write off state and local income taxes. The mortgage interest deduction would be limited to the first $500,000 of the loan, down from the current $1 million ceiling.

Led by Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, the authors retained the deductibility of up to $10,000 in local property taxes in a bid to line up votes from Republicans from the Northeast. The panel planned to begin votes on the proposal next Monday.

"It's progress, but I want more," said Rep. Leonard Lance, R-N.J., who wants the entire property tax deduction restored.

Reduced to 25 percent would be the rate for many "pass-through" businesses, whose profits are taxed at the owners' individual rate. But some of those companies would face higher rates.