Devin Nunes steps aside from House intelligence committee's Russia inquiry

Spencer Ackerman in New York

Devin Nunes, Donald Trump’s chief ally on the congressional committees investigating the president’s connections to Russia, has stepped aside from the inquiry, as he faces his own ethics investigation.

Less than two weeks after the Democrats on the House intelligence committee called for Nunes to recuse himself, the committee chairman said he would “temporarily” leave the inquiry in the hands of other rightwing Republicans, leaving it unclear how much Nunes’ absence would transform an investigation stalled by deep partisan infighting.

Nunes, a member of Trump’s national security transition team and the head of the House intelligence committee, is now the subject of an inquiry from the House ethics panel.

That ethics inquiry, which Nunes has called “baseless” and the work of “leftwing activist groups”, centers around the California representative’s alleged disclosure of classified information – precisely what Nunes, aided by White House officials, has accused Obama administration officials of doing.

“Despite the baselessness of the charges, I believe it is in the best interests of the House intelligence committee and the Congress for me to have Representative Mike Conaway, with assistance from Representatives Trey Gowdy and Tom Rooney, temporarily take charge of the committee’s Russia investigation while the House ethics committee looks into this matter,” Nunes said in a statement.

Nunes’ decision makes him the second Trump ally to remove himself from the varied Russia investigations. The first, attorney general Jeff Sessions, stepped aside on 3 March after revelations that he had meetings with the Russian ambassador while part of the Trump campaign.

The US attorney general, Jeff Sessions, is the other Trump ally to remove himself from the varied Russia investigations. Photograph: Lawrence Bryant/Reuters

Nunes had faced deep criticism from Democrats and even some Republicans for diverting the focus of an inquiry deeply damaging to Trump over to murky and morphing allegations that Trump was the subject of improper leaks. He had initially and untruthfully denied that the Trump White House had aided him in supplying the material for those allegations, prompting Democrats to accuse Nunes of a cover-up.

But in alleging last month that Obama officials mishandled classified information on Trump, Nunes appeared to reveal the existence of a surveillance-court order. That apparent “unauthorized disclosur[e] of classified information” prompted the House ethics committee to launch an investigation into Nunes, ethics committee chair Susan Brooks and top Democrat Ted Deutch said in a statement.

Yet Nunes had last week rejected all calls for recusal, even as he cancelled scheduled public hearings into the Trump-Russia allegations and the committee’s work ground to a halt.

Adam Schiff, Nunes’ Democratic counterpart on the committee who had called on Nunes to step away from the inquiry, sounded a conciliatory note, saying it was “not an easy decision for the chairman” and pledging to work with Conaway to put the inquiry “fully back on track”.

Schiff said the panel now had “a fresh opportunity to move forward in the unified and non-partisan way that an investigation of this seriousness demands”.

Paul Ryan, the House speaker who had expressed full confidence in Nunes even as the criticism of his collusion with the White House mounted, reiterated support for Nunes’ indefinite recusal.

“It is clear that this process would be a distraction for the House intelligence committee’s investigation into Russian interference in our election. Chairman Nunes has offered to step aside as the lead Republican on this probe, and I fully support this decision,” said Ryan, who has stuck by Nunes against broader calls for an independent commission investigating Trump associates’ ties to Russia.

During the inquiry’s only public hearing on 20 March, the FBI director, James Comey, and NSA director, Michael Rogers, refuted Trump’s accusation that Obama had placed him and his associates under surveillance. Republicans on the panel, including those newly at the helm of the inquiry, focused instead on leaks to the press.

Conaway, now the investigation’s leader, suggested the intelligence agencies had shifted their assessments about Russia interfering in the election to help Trump, in an exchange that Comey found bizarre.

“The logic is that because [Putin] really didn’t like … candidate Clinton, that he automatically liked Trump,” new inquiry chief Conaway quizzed Comey, who replied: “logically, when [Russia] wanted her to lose” before Conaway cut him off.

Earlier, in a January interview, Conaway minimized the importance of Russian interference in the election, likening it in a Dallas Morning News interview to “Mexican soap opera stars …. influencing the vote in Nevada.”

By contrast, Richard Burr, the Republican atop the Senate intelligence committee’s parallel investigation, said last week that it was “crucial” to explore how “malign actors are using old techniques with new platforms to undermine our democratic institutions”.

Gowdy is most famous for running the Benghazi inquiry that the House majority leader said the GOP created to damage Hillary Clinton politically. During the 20 March hearing, Gowdy’s questioning exclusively concerned leaks that he called “a felony”, now the line that Trump is pursuing against Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice for allegedly “unmasking” her successor, Michael Flynn, in surveillance intercepts.

“Would national security adviser Susan Rice have access to an unmasked US citizen’s name?” Gowdy asked Comey. Rice has denied all wrongdoing and pointed to routine unmasking requested by US officials attempting to understand foreign-focused intelligence.

Similarly, at the hearing Rooney pressed Rogers to specify who within the NSA would have the authority to “unmask” US citizens who appear in intercepted communications involving foreigners.

Abruptly shifting from the defense of the NSA that most Republicans on the committee adopted after Edward Snowden revealed mass surveillance on Americans, Rooney said it would be “very difficult for us to be able to keep that sacred trust” – and reauthorize a surveillance authority NSA and FBI cherish – unless Rogers and Comey cracked down on anti-Trump leaks.

It was initially unclear if the inquiry’s new leaders would soon reschedule public testimony. Several Obama-era national security officials, including the director of national intelligence James Clapper, CIA director John Brennan and deputy attorney general Sally Yates, had agreed to testify on 28 March in a hearing Nunes scrapped.

Eric Swalwell, a Democrat on the intelligence panel, commended Nunes’ recusal and called it “a chance to reclaim our committee’s independence, credibility, and ability to make progress”.

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