House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) will step down, for the time being, from leading the panel’s investigation into possible ties between President Donald Trump’s team and the Russian government, he said in a statement Thursday.
Nunes said he will have Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), with assistance from Reps. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) and Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), lead the investigation in his place.
The California Republican’s decision to step aside marks a victory for Democrats, who have alleged that Nunes, a close ally of the president, was unfit to oversee the probe. While Nunes described his recusal as temporary on Thursday, it’s not clear how he would return to the role.
In his statement, Nunes mentioned the calls from several groups for the Office of Congressional Ethics to investigate a possible violation of ethics rules on his part ― charges that Nunes said “are entirely false and politically motivated.”
Soon after Nunes announced his recusal, the House Ethics Committee said it would investigate allegations that Nunes made “unauthorized disclosures of classified information.” The committee’s investigation was triggered by internal concerns from panel members, not by the outside groups Nunes mentioned.
In its statement, the ethics committee cited internal rule 18(a) as its justification for launching the investigation into Nunes. That rule states that even in the absence of a filed complaint or referral from the Office of Congressional Ethics, “the Committee may consider any information in its possession indicating that a Member, officer, or employee may have committed a violation.”
Nunes said he planned to speak with the ethics committee “at the earliest possible opportunity in order to expedite the dismissal of these false claims.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said in a statement that he still trusted Nunes but supported Nunes’ decision to step aside.
“It is clear that this process would be a distraction for the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian interference in our election,” Ryan said. Ryan has resisted calls from Democrats to remove Nunes as chairman of the panel.
White House officials would not comment on Nunes’ recusal, saying Thursday that it was “an internal matter for the House.”
The House Intelligence Committee is one of two congressional panels currently probing Moscow’s alleged interference in the 2016 election and its possible collusion with the Trump team. The FBI is also conducting a separate investigation.
As a former member of Trump’s transition team, Nunes was a controversial figure from the beginning to lead the House committee’s investigation. Turmoil within the House panel has played out in recent weeks in an unusually public way, prompting calls for an independent panel, modeled after the 9/11 Commission, to conduct its own investigation.
The chairman muddied the situation further by claiming in mid-March that Trump surrogates, and possibly the president himself, had been subject to incidental surveillance during the final months of the Obama administration. Nunes later walked back his claim, saying he needed more information before he could know “for sure” if Trump and his team were surveilled.
At a series of press conferences on March 22, Nunes said that he’d privately briefed Trump on the contents of several dozen intelligence reports provided to him by an unspecified source. The contents of these surveillance reports are typically classified. When asked several times by reporters about his source, Nunes refused to rule out current White House officials. CNN later reported that Nunes met his source on the White House grounds the day before the announcement.
Nunes had said he was concerned that Trump surrogates appeared in internal reports. After his announcement, Nunes told his Democratic counterpart on the intelligence committee, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), that few Trump surrogates were identified by name in the reports, but that he was able to deduce some individuals from their descriptions.
Nunes conceded that there are legitimate reasons for intelligence officials to identify Americans who are not the targets of surveillance. And he said that the surveillance reports he read appeared to be the result of a legal effort to monitor suspected foreign spies.
Nunes also claimed that the secret reports made no mention of Russia and were therefore unrelated to the committee’s investigation.
The chairman’s decision to brief the press and the president on the documents without first consulting Schiff shattered the committee’s fragile bipartisan cooperation. Critics accused Nunes of exaggerating information about routine surveillance in a way that seemed intended to vindicate the president’s unsubstantiated claim that Trump Tower was wiretapped by former President Barack Obama. (FBI Director James Comey has said there is no evidence that Obama wiretapped Trump Tower, and Nunes himself has disavowed Trump’s claim.)
What initially appeared to be a bizarre breach of committee protocol began to look more in the days that followed like a coordinated cover-up between Nunes and the White House.
On March 24, Nunes told reporters he had decided to “postpone” a public hearing in which former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and former CIA Director John Brennan were scheduled to testify about Moscow’s alleged election meddling and possible ties between Trump surrogates and Russian officials.
Schiff characterized the postponement as a cancellation intended to “choke off” information from the public. He called on Nunes last week to recuse himself from the Russian investigation. On Thursday, Schiff said that Nunes’ decision was in the “best interests of the committee” and that he looked forward to getting the investigation back on track.
The Washington Post reported on March 28 that the White House sought to block Yates from testifying, on the grounds that the subject of her testimony was protected under the presidential communication privilege. (The White House denied that it had made any such attempt.)
On March 30, The New York Times reported that two White House officials, Ezra Cohen-Watnick and Michael Ellis, helped find and provide the surveillance reports to Nunes. Before joining the White House, Ellis worked as general counsel on the House Intelligence Committee with Nunes.
See Nunes’ full statement below:
Several leftwing activist groups have filed accusations against me with the Office of Congressional Ethics. 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. 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. I will continue to fulfill all my other responsibilities as Committee Chairman, and I am requesting to speak to the Ethics Committee at the earliest possible opportunity in order to expedite the dismissal of these false claims.
Paul Blumenthal and Marina Fang contributed reporting.