Facing a firestorm of criticism that he is running political interference on behalf of the Trump administration, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R.-Calif.) said Thursday he is temporarily stepping back from leading the panel’s investigation of the Russian campaign to meddle in the U.S. election.
In a statement Thursday, Nunes said that he will hand over leadership of the probe to Rep. Mike Conaway (R.-Texas), with the aid of Reps. Trey Gowdy (R.-S.C.) and Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), while the chairman is investigated by the Office of Congressional Ethics.
Activist groups have filed complaints against Nunes for allegedly improperly disclosing classified information. Nunes called the charges “entirely false and politically motivated” and said they come “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.”
Nunes has claimed that American intelligence agencies improperly revealed the identities of Trump aides mentioned in foreign intelligence reports and that Trump lieutenants may have been improperly surveilled.
That information was reportedly supplied to Nunes by White House aides, raising questions about whether the California Republican has sufficient independence from the Trump administration — for which he served as a transition official — to run a credible investigation. The scope of that investigation includes an examination of whether Trump aides coordinated with the Kremlin in its campaign to boost the GOP real estate mogul’s electoral chances.
Those hoping to see a more independent investigation by the House panel may not be much assuaged by the elevation of Conway and Gowdy. During last month’s high-profile open hearing with FBI director James Comey, in which he revealed the agency had been investigating the Trump camp’s ties to Russia since last summer, Conway pressed Comey to explain why he thought the Kremlin was trying to boost Trump. He has also claimed that Hispanic artists who played at Hillary Clinton rallies during the campaign are the equivalent of Russia’s foreign interference in the election.
And Gowdy was the driving force behind the two-and-a-half-year inquisition into the attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012 that sought to pillory the former secretary of state. After burning through millions of dollars of taxpayer money, the panel could find no evidence of wrongdoing on Clinton’s part.
In a statement, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif), the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said he looked forward to working with Conaway to get the investigation “fully back on track.”
“The important work of investigating the Russian involvement in our election never subsided, but we have a fresh opportunity to move forward in the unified and nonpartisan way that an investigation of this seriousness demands,” Schiff said.
The House Intelligence Committee is running one of the two marquee congressional investigations of the Russian campaign — the other led by the Senate Intelligence Committee — but its efforts have become mired in partisan political differences. Republicans on the committee have tried to refocus the probe on leaks of classified information, and in recent days have pushed the probe toward examining what Nunes has described as the improper unmasking of the identities of Trump aides named in U.S. surveillance reports.
Republicans now appear to be focusing their investigation on the actions of former National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who reportedly requested the unmasking of U.S. persons mentioned in intelligence reports about the Russian meddling campaign.
In a Wednesday interview with the New York Times, President Trump claimed with no evidence that Rice had committed an unspecified crime by requesting the unmasking, a routine procedure intelligence officials use when the identity of a person is needed to evaluate the intelligence value of a report.