Devin Nunes to Step Aside From House Investigation on Russia

WASHINGTON — The continuing fallout from President Trump’s unsubstantiated wiretapping allegation cost him another ally on Thursday, as the embattled Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee announced he would step aside from his panel’s investigation into Russia’s efforts to disrupt last year’s election.

The announcement from the committee’s chairman, Representative Devin Nunes of California, came shortly before the House Committee on Ethics said he was under investigation because of public reports that he “may have made unauthorized disclosures of classified information.”

Mr. Nunes’s recusal from the Russia inquiry was a blow to Mr. Trump, who in less than three months in office has seen the imbroglio over Russia’s disruption campaign exact political damage on some of his closest advisers and most vigorous supporters. The furor over the contacts that some of the president’s aides had with Russian officials has already led to the firing of Michael T. Flynn, Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, and the recusal of Attorney General Jeff Sessions from overseeing the F.B.I.’s inquiry into the Russian efforts.

Now it has led to the recusal of Mr. Nunes from the House Intelligence Committee’s Russia investigation, and Mr. Trump faces the potential revival of that inquiry. The investigation had descended into a partisan sideshow in the two weeks since Mr. Nunes told reporters that Trump associates had been swept up in surveillance of foreign officials by American spy agencies during the transition, citing intelligence reports that were classified.

He then rushed to the White House to brief Mr. Trump, prompting Democrats to argue that Mr. Nunes had proved himself far too close to the president to run an independent investigation. The criticism intensified last week when The New York Times revealed that the classified information about incidental surveillance cited by Mr. Nunes came from White House officials.

White House officials had been seeking evidence to bolster a claim that Mr. Trump made March 4 on Twitter that the Obama administration had wiretapped Trump Tower during the presidential campaign. Numerous current and former American officials — including James B. Comey, the F.B.I. director — have debunked the claim.

Yet Mr. Nunes resisted demands to step aside until Thursday, when he found himself under investigation by the House ethics committee.

The internal House ethics investigation into whether Mr. Nunes disclosed classified information is a striking twist for a chairman who has made the unauthorized disclosure of classified information a focal point of his Russia investigation. At the same time, he has repeatedly dismissed the idea that he was wrong to disclose the existence of “dozens” of classified intelligence reports about incidental surveillance of associates of Mr. Trump.

“Any talk of that is nonsense,” Mr. Nunes said in an interview with The Times last month.

Mr. Nunes said in a statement that the ethics investigation was “entirely false and politically motivated” and that he would remain the intelligence committee’s chairman. But it was in the intelligence committee’s best interests for him to temporarily step aside from the Russia investigation, he said in the statement, which was issued 26 minutes before the ethics committee announced its inquiry.

The statement also put the blame for the investigation on complaints against him made by multiple watchdog groups to the Office of Congressional Ethics, which is entirely separate from the ethics committee. Mr. Nunes dismissed those organizations as “left-wing activist groups,” though it was not clear what role, if any, their complaints played in setting off the inquiry.

Mr. Nunes, who served on the president’s transition team, has for weeks offered Mr. Trump fuel to keep his wiretapping claims in the news — and to make more unsubstantiated accusations. In an interview with The Times on Wednesday, Mr. Trump said that the former national security adviser Susan E. Rice might have committed a crime by seeking the identities of the Trump associates who last year were swept up in surveillance of foreign officials by American spy agencies. Ms. Rice has said she did nothing wrong.

Mr. Nunes’s recusal on Thursday was welcomed by Democrats, who had questioned whether White House officials had used the congressman essentially to launder the information about incidental surveillance.

Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the panel’s top Democrat, praised the chairman’s decision. “It will allow us to have a fresh start moving forward,” he told reporters on Thursday.

Representative K. Michael Conaway of Texas, a senior Republican on the committee, will assume control of the investigation. An accountant who formerly served as the chairman of the House ethics committee, Mr. Conaway will be assisted by two other Republicans on the committee, Mr. Nunes said: Representatives Tom Rooney of Florida and Trey Gowdy of South Carolina. Mr. Gowdy led the special investigation into the 2012 attacks on a diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. Mr. Gowdy is also on the ethics committee.

Several of the watchdog groups that had complained to the separate Office of Congressional Ethics praised the ethics committee’s decision to investigate Mr. Nunes. Jordan Libowitz, spokesman for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, described the congressman’s disclosure of classified information as “so grave that it needs to be investigated right away.”

The ethics committee comprises 10 House members: five Republicans and five Democrats. It is unclear how long the inquiry could take, but the investigations usually last months or years.

The panel has the power to impose a range of penalties, from a letter admonishing a member to a recommendation that the House vote to expel a member. In more serious cases, the panel can choose to refer evidence to law enforcement officials, a move it can make confidentially.

The independent Office of Congressional Ethics faced a threat in early January when House Republicans voted to gut it on the eve of the new Congress. Under pressure from Republican leaders and President Trump, they ultimately abandoned the effort.

The recusal offered hope to Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee, who worried that Mr. Nunes’s behavior had discredited the panel’s investigation and who had increasingly resigned themselves to the idea that they would have to conduct parallel inquiries rather than work with Republicans.

“We now have a chance to reclaim our committee’s independence, credibility and ability to make progress,” Representative Eric Swalwell of California said in a statement.

As the House investigation has deteriorated into partisan feuding in recent weeks, many have turned to the Senate Intelligence Committee as Congress’s last best hope for an impartial congressional investigation into Russian interference in the election.

Since late July, the F.B.I. has been conducting its own counterintelligence investigation into Russian interference in the election, including an examination of whether Mr. Trump’s associates cooperated with Russian officials to influence the race.

Advertisements

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s