Questions about whether the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee inappropriately revealed classified information led the California congressman to step aside Thursday from his panel’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif, said he was taking the action “temporarily” while “while the House Ethics Committee looks into this matter.”
But Nunes’ departure from the probe after weeks of controversy leaves President Donald Trump without his strongest advocate on the committee and with a diminished ability to influence its direction. Nunes served on Trump’s transition team and had been a strong campaign supporter.
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The person Nunes said would lead the investigation, Rep. Mike Conaway, a Republican from the oil fields of West Texas with a reputation as a conservative, has been critical of Trump’s plans to cut the Department of Agriculture budget by 21 percent. “America’s farmers and ranchers are struggling, and we need to be extremely careful not to exacerbate these conditions,” he said last month.
As for the Russia probe, Conaway demonstrated a low-key approach in the committee’s first public session, notably not joining other Republicans in pressing FBI director James Comey and National Security Agency head Adm. Mike Rogers about whether leaks about Trump officials’ contacts with the Russians were illegal. Instead, he stuck to questions about how U.S. intelligence agencies had reached the conclusion that the Russian meddling was intended to hurt Democrat Hillary Clinton while boosting Trump’s candidacy. He didn’t add his own thoughts on the matter.
In a statement Thursday, Conaway emphasized that while his appointment may be temporary, he took it on with “utmost seriousness.” He pledged to lead the investigation in an “objective and methodical” manner.
The panel’s senior Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, who’d called for Nunes to step aside, said he welcomed Conaway leading the probe. He suggested that the Nunes controversy, triggered last month by the committee chairman’s news conference announcement that he’d seen classified documents that indicated members of the Trump transition team had been monitored by U.S. intelligence agencies, had backfired on the White House.
In the end, the documents Nunes referred to turned out to have originated with members of the White House staff.
“I think that the White House did this in a deceptive manner,” Schiff said of what he called Nunes’ “midnight run” to see the documents. “They embroiled the chairman in the machinations. In doing so, they created their own problems. They are doing damage to themselves, more than anyone else.”
“This was not an easy decision for the chairman, with whom I have worked well for many years,” Schiff said. “He did so in the best interests of the committee, and I respect that decision.”
A White House statement attributed only to a spokesman called Nunes’ recusal “an internal matter for the House.” Asked for his reaction, Trump called Nunes “a very honorable guy” and “a high-quality person.” “ I think he did that maybe for his own reason,” he said.
Nunes stepped aside on the same day that the House Ethics Committee announced it had opened an inquiry into whether he had improperly disclosed secrets when he held a news conference March 22 to discuss the documents. Such a disclosure, if determined to have happened, would violate “House rules, law, regulations or other standards of conduct,” the committee said in its statement.
Two groups – Democracy 21, and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington – filed a complaint Thursday with the Office of Congressional Ethics alleging that Nunes had improperly made confidential information public. Another group, MoveOn.org Civic Action, had filed a federal ethics complaint on March 28.
The Office of Congressional Ethics can receive complaints filed by members of the public and, following an inquiry, refer the matters for further investigation by the Ethics Committee. In a statement, Nunes did not specify which of what he called “several left-wing activist groups” he was responding to.
Nunes said he expects to be vindicated, noting “the baselessness of the charges.” Still, he said stepping aside “is in the best interests of the House Intelligence Committee and the Congress.”
“The charges are entirely false and politically motivated, and are being leveled just as the American people are beginning to learn the truth about the improper unmasking of the identities of U.S. citizens and other abuses of power,” Nunes said.
Nunes had been facing pressure from Democrats and a few Republicans to step down from the high-stakes Russia inquiry over the documents, which he said raised the issue of how the administration of President Barack Obama had handled the unmasking of American citizens who came up in the surveillance of foreign intelligence targets.
Nunes acknowledged that the documents he’d seen were the result of legal intelligence collection but said he had been able to determine the names of Trump transition figures in them.
At his March news conference, he told reporters the surveillance that had generated the documents was the result of a secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court warrant, a detail that would be considered classified. He also said the documents mentioned Trump, which also raised questions about whether Nunes had inappropriately released the name of an American in a classified document.
The highly controversial twist came just two days after Nunes and other Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee had grilled Comey closely on whether such revelations by members of the Obama administration to reporters would violate federal law. Comey had answered tersely, “Yes.”
Other committee members and members of Congress were quick to express support for Nunes’ decision. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., said Nunes “has made the move he felt necessary to protect the viability of his committee and its investigation going forward.”
House Intelligence Committee member Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., said he hoped Nunes’ decision would allow the panel to get back to “determining how this occurred and what we must do to prevent it from ever happening again.”
“The hacking of our democratic process is not a partisan issue, and political distractions should never blur our ability – or our duty – to follow the facts wherever they lead,” he said.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif, said it was “the right call.” “We now have a chance to reclaim our committee’s independence, credibility and ability to make progress,” he said in a statement. “I look forward to continuing this important work.”
Eds: An earlier version of this article gave the wrong last name for FBI director James Comey.