Nunes steps away from Russia probe, citing ethics complaints

AP PHOTO House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif. leaves Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, after a meeting with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Calif. Nunes will temporarily step side from the panel's investigation of Russian meddling in the election because of the complaints.

WASHINGTON — The Republican chairman is stepping aside from leading a congressional investigation of Russian interference in last year’s U.S. presidential election, citing ethics complaints that he mishandled classified information.

The decision by Rep. Devin Nunes of California comes amid partisan turmoil on the House intelligence committee. Democrats have alleged that Nunes, who was on President Donald Trump’s transition team, is too close to the White House and cannot lead an impartial inquiry. In an extraordinary step, the usually-quiet House Ethics Committee said that it is investigating whether Nunes improperly disclosed classified information. President Donald Trump said Nunes is “a very honorable guy.”

Nunes blamed “left-wing activist groups” for filing accusations against him 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,” Nunes said in a statement.

Nunes’ move could be seen as a win for Democrats whose cries for an independent panel to investigate Russia’s possible ties with the Trump campaign have grown. They have pointed in particular to two Nunes trips to the White House — one announced, one not — as evidence that his loyalty to Trump outweighs his commitment to leading a bipartisan investigation.

By all accounts, the intelligence committee’s growing partisanship has become a distraction from its underlying investigations.

The top Democrat on the committee, Adam Schiff of California, said he appreciated Nunes’ decision to step aside from the Russia investigation.

“There was a cloud hanging over us after the White House incident,” Schiff told The Associated Press on Thursday. While Schiff said the panel’s investigation is back on track, the Republicans had not signed off on rescheduling a public hearing with former Obama administration officials. Schiff said it was important that the public hear testimony from former acting Attorney General Sally Yates about why Trump’s first national security adviser was fired. Nunes canceled the hearing.

As the majority party in the House, Republicans will keep the committee chairmanship. GOP Rep. Mike Conaway of Texas, with help from Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina and Rep. Tom Rooney of Florida, will temporarily take charge of the investigation, said Speaker Paul Ryan.

Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One on Thursday that he doesn’t know Conaway, but he heard he was well-respected. “High quality,” Trump said.

Schiff said Conaway does not have the same history with the White House that Nunes does.

Two watchdog groups, Democracy 21 and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, had asked the House Ethics Committee to investigate whether Nunes disclosed classified information he learned from intelligence reports.