House Intelligence Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the embattled leader of that chamber’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, abruptly stepped away from his role Thursday citing an ethics investigation.
Nunes described this as a temporary move.
Republican committee member Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, will lead the committee in Nunes’ absence with help from Reps. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., the former leader of the House Benghazi investigation, and Tom Rooney, R-Fla., chair of the Intelligence Committee’s cybersecurity panel.
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The move comes after weeks of partisan warfare over Nunes’ decision to share information about incidental surveillance of members of the Trump campaign with the White House rather than with committee members. Critics charged Nunes was more interested in protecting the Trump administration than investigating possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russian spies.
The FBI is investigating connections between the Trump campaign and Russia, Director James Comey has acknowledged, but the bureau has produced no definitive evidence of collusion.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the committee’s ranking member, praised Nunes’ decision to step aside, calling it “in the best interests of the committee.”
Schiff had called on Nunes to step down from the investigation along with numerous top House Democrats including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer urged House Speaker Paul Ryan to replace Nunes.
Nunes will continue in his role as Intelligence Committee chairman. He attributed his decision to step away from the investigation to complaints filed with the Office of Congressional Ethics by “several left-wing activist groups.”
Those charges, he said, “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.”
The term “unmasking” refers to a request to reveal the name of a U.S. citizen in classified intelligence documents. Those names, either of a person speaking with or mentioned by a foreign surveillance target, are typically redacted.
Nunes has charged the names of Trump officials were unmasked in a process that was improper, but not illegal. Schiff, who reviewed the same documents as Nunes, has disputed that characterization.
“The important work of investigating the Russian involvement in our election never subsided,” Schiff said Thursday, “but we have a fresh opportunity to move forward in the unified and nonpartisan way that an investigation of this seriousness demands.”
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., a vocal committee Democrat, also praised Nunes’ decision.
“We have a serious responsibility to find out what happened, whether any U.S. persons were involved, and how to prevent this from happening again,” Swalwell said. “We now have a chance to reclaim our committee's independence, credibility, and ability to make progress.”