For weeks, Devin Nunes dismissed accusations he had disclosed classified information as partisan antics.
On Wednesday night, those allegations landed the House Intelligence Committee chairman in a meeting with House Speaker Paul Ryan in which the two of them agreed Nunes would temporarily step aside from his panel’s high-profile Russia investigation. Nunes also informed House Majority Leader and fellow Californian Kevin McCarthy of his decision on Wednesday night, McCarthy told reporters.
Nunes went public with the news on Thursday morning, blaming “false” complaints filed by “left-wing activist groups.” His statement coincided with a decision by the House Ethics Committee to investigate him for possible “unauthorized disclosures of classified information.”
The move blindsided many of Nunes’ colleagues on the intelligence panel, including top Democrat Rep. Adam Schiff of California, who found out by reading Nunes’ statement, according to a committee aide.
It also dealt a stunning setback for President Donald Trump, whose tenure has been clouded by accusations of collusion with Russia, which he denies.
With Nunes stepping aside from the Russia probe, Trump has lost the latest in a string of allies — real or perceived — who occupy positions that could have been used to shield him from scrutiny over his and his aides’ ties to Russia.
First there was Jeff Sessions, the Alabama senator and top Trump campaign surrogate whom the president tapped for attorney general. Sessions announced in early March he was recusing himself from any Russia-Trump investigations after it was revealed he had not disclosed to Congress his interactions last year with Russia’s ambassador.
There was James Comey, the FBI director whom Trump praised on the campaign trail as having a “lot of guts” for his handling of the Hillary Clinton email case. Comey asserted his independence from Trump late last month in blistering congressional testimony that amounted to a major rebuke of the president.
And there was Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who served as a Trump campaign adviser and in January sought to stave off a Senate probe into Trump’s Russia ties. The Senate Intelligence chairman has since redeemed himself in the eyes of his Democratic counterparts, vowing in a news conference last week to follow the facts where they lead and to put aside any “personal beliefs that I have or loyalties that I might have.”
But Nunes was the staunchest ally of them all. A Trump loyalist who served on the presidential transition team’s executive committee, the 43-year-old congressman has voiced skepticism about the conclusion reached by U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia sought to tilt the election toward Trump.
Trump on Thursday praised Nunes, saying he had just heard about the congressman’s decision to step aside.
“He is a very honorable guy,” Trump told reporters. “I think he did that maybe for his own reason. He’s a high-quality person.”
Democrats praised Nunes’ decision to step back from the investigation, describing it as an opportunity for a reset after relations with Republicans deteriorated under his leadership.
“The only way we could have a credible, independent investigation was to have the chairman recuse himself,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), a member of the intelligence panel. “I’m glad he did.”
Nunes was supposed to be leading the Intelligence Committee’s wide-ranging investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election, including possible coordination with the Trump campaign.
But over the past few months the California Republican has often seemed intent on using his perch on the intelligence panel to shield Trump from scrutiny. He has sought to draw attention to the same issues that the president has been highlighting — leaks to the news media, possible surveillance abuses by the Obama administration and the previous administration’s failed Russia “reset” — as opposed to the question of Russian interference in the election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign.
Nunes set off a firestorm last month after a series of unusual moves that began with a secret trip to the White House to view classified intelligence. The next day, Nunes portrayed the documents as possible evidence that Trump transition aides were improperly monitored after November’s election.
A defiant Nunes returned to the White House the same day, March 22, to brief Trump on the information that Trump’s own aides had provided to the congressman. At the time, the White House was declining to answer questions about whether it was the source of Nunes’ information.
The congressman then held an impromptu news conference at the White House that would lead Nunes, who has sought to use his committee’s resources to hunt down news media leakers, to become the subject of a leak investigation himself.
“It has to do with FISA,” Nunes told reporters who asked him about his classified evidence, referring to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. “There’s multiple number of FISA warrants that are out there.”
His remarks set off alarm bells for surveillance experts, including the editors of the Lawfare blog. They wrote at the time it was their understanding that information obtained under FISA “was classified until affirmatively declassified by the original classifying authority.” A week later, the liberal advocacy group MoveOn filed an ethics complaint citing the congressman’s remarks at the White House and accusing him disclosing classified information “for political purposes.”
On Thursday, the House Ethics Committee, in a joint statement from the panel’s top Republican and Democrat, announced it is investigating Nunes.
In his statement announcing he was stepping aside, Nunes said that despite the “baselessness of the charges, I believe it is in the best interests of the committee” to hand the reins of the investigation to Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), with assistance from GOP Reps. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina and Tom Rooney of Florida.
Conaway on Thursday told reporters he would try to repair damage with Democrats on the intelligence panel, saying he will “need cooperation from both sides.”
“We’re going to conduct the investigation,” Conaway said. “I’m looking forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to pursue every lead.”
Martin Matishak, Kyle Cheney and John Bresnahan contributed to this report.
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