Nunes Recusal Gives House Russia Inquiry Chance at New StartBy and
Republican says ethics panel looking into ‘baseless’ charges
Intelligence Committee has been paralyzed by partisan feuding
The decision by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes to step aside from its investigation into Russian interference in last year’s U.S. election gives the panel a chance to rescue a probe that has been paralyzed by partisan disputes.
The California Republican said Thursday that he would “temporarily” hand over the inquiry to Republican Representative Mike Conaway of Texas while the House Ethics Committee looks into complaints filed against him. Nunes said he would remain the committee’s chairman.
“Several left-wing activist groups have filed accusations against me with the Office of Congressional Ethics,” Nunes said in an emailed statement. “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.”
The recusal by Nunes will allow the Intelligence Committee “to get back in the game," said Michael Allen, a former Republican staff director for the panel who also served on the National Security Council under President George W. Bush. “There’s a lot of politics in the air, so if we can get beyond the immediate issue and get to the business of doing oversight and this investigation I think it helps the House."
Nunes was criticized by Democrats and some Republicans over his handling last month of classified material -- obtained from White House officials -- that allegedly indicated Obama administration officials “unmasked” the identities of people close to Trump who were mentioned in legal surveillance of foreign individuals. Rather than share the information with other committee members, he held a press conference and returned to the White House to brief President Donald Trump.
The president and his aides have tried to deflect attention from the probe of Russian meddling by focusing on the assertion that they were the victims of surveillance and that information about the investigation -- and about contacts between Trump allies and Russian officials -- have been leaked by the intelligence community.
Representative Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the intelligence panel, who had demanded that Nunes recuse himself, told reporters that “this investigation is of such critical importance we need to get fully back on track.” But some Democratic lawmakers and outside groups said Nunes should give up his chairmanship and that a select committee should be named to conduct an independent inquiry on Russia’s campaign meddling.
Asked about Nunes stepping aside from the investigation, Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One that he’s “a very honorable guy” and “I think that he did that maybe for his own reasons.”
Nunes said Conaway will be assisted in running the Russia investigation by Republican Representative Trey Gowdy of South Carolina -- who previously led an aggressive investigation into the 2012 attack against a U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya -- and by Republican Representative Tom Rooney of Florida.
The House Ethics Committee said it’s “aware of public allegations that Representative Devin Nunes may have made unauthorized disclosures of classified information, in violation of House Rules, law, regulations, or other standards of conduct.”
The panel added in a statement that it “is investigating and gathering more information regarding these allegations,” and said its decision does not “indicate that any violation has occurred, or reflect any judgment on behalf of the committee.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement that Nunes has “followed all proper guidelines and laws” and continues to have his trust. But, he added, “it is clear that this process would be a distraction for the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian interference in our election.”
The House and Senate Intelligence Committees and the FBI are conducting separate inquiries into Russia’s role in last year’s presidential campaign. The FBI, along with intelligence agencies, concluded in January that Russia hacked into Democratic emails during last year’s presidential campaign, leaking the documents to hurt Democrat Hillary Clinton and, ultimately, to help Trump win the White House.
FBI Director James Comey told the House panel in an open hearing on March 20 that the FBI also is “investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.” Comey said the investigation includes whether any crimes were committed.
While the House committee has been mired in public feuding, its Senate counterpart has been making a show of its bipartisan cooperation and is proceeding behind closed doors.
The 68-year-old Conaway, who is serving his seventh term in the House and also heads the Agriculture Committee, has been a solid conservative in the Republican caucus. Although he endorsed Trump in May 2016, after the Republican nomination was all but settled, he indicated at the time that his decision was more out of party loyalty than an affinity for Trump.
But he also has minimized concerns that Russia’s election interference was designed to help Trump, telling the Dallas Morning News in January that it wasn’t much different from Clinton’s use of Hispanic actors and entertainers to boost her support in the key state of Nevada last year.
“Sure it is, it’s foreign influence,” Conaway said, according to the newspaper. “If we’re worried about foreign influence, let’s have the whole story.”
Conaway used his time during the March 20 hearing to question the conclusion of intelligence agencies that Russia meddled in the election to help Trump win.
“It’s rarely a precise art, or a precise science of determining intent of any foreign leader,” Conaway said. He also questioned whether the FBI enlisted the help of journalists to write its assessment, which Comey denied.
— With assistance by Roxana Tiron, Margaret Talev, and Toluse Olorunnipa