Nunes Steps Aside from Russia Probe Amid 'Distraction' Ethics Complaints

WASHINGTON -- After a trip to the White House and disclosure of documents that reportedly included incidental FISA collection of people associated with the Trump campaign, and the subsequent furor within the House Intelligence Committee, Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said he will recuse himself from the investigation into Russia's campaign influence operation.

On March 28, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and Democracy 21 submitted a formal request that the Office of Congressional Ethics "conduct a preliminary inquiry into whether Representative Devin Nunes, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, disclosed classified information to the public on March 22, 2017 in violation of the House ethics rules."

On the same day, MoveOn.org Civic Action filed their own complaint with the ethics office asking that Nunes be investigated for "the unauthorized disclosure of classified material by Chairman Nunes for what appear to be blatantly political purposes."

This morning, Nunes began by noting "several leftwing activist groups have filed accusations against me 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," he said in a statement. "Despite the baselessness of the charges, I believe it is in the best interests of the House Intelligence Committee and the Congress for me to have Representative Mike Conaway, with assistance from Representatives Trey Gowdy and Tom Rooney, temporarily take charge of the Committee’s Russia investigation while the House Ethics Committee looks into this matter."

"I will continue to fulfill all my other responsibilities as Committee Chairman, and I am requesting to speak to the Ethics Committee at the earliest possible opportunity in order to expedite the dismissal of these false claims," Nunes added.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said in a statement that Nunes "has earned my trust over many years for his integrity and dedication to the critical work that the intelligence community does to keep America safe."

"He continues to have that trust, and I know he is eager to demonstrate to the Ethics Committee that he has followed all proper guidelines and laws," Ryan said. "In the meantime, it is clear that this process would be a distraction for the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian interference in our election. Chairman Nunes has offered to step aside as the lead Republican on this probe, and I fully support this decision."

Ryan did not note Gowdy or Rooney, but added that Conaway (R-Texas) "will now lead this investigation in the House."

"I am confident that he will oversee a professional investigation into Russia’s actions and follow the facts wherever they lead," he said.

Ryan said later at his weekly press conference that he still has confidence in Nunes to lead the committee.

"He wants to go clear himself while this investigation continues on without any kinds of distractions," the Speaker added of the chairman.

In remarks to reporters on Capitol Hill this morning, Ranking Member Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) expressed his "appreciation" for Nunes' move.

"I'm sure it was a very difficult decision for him. But as he mentioned, I think it is in the best in interest of the investigation. It will, I think, allow us to have a fresh start moving forward," Schiff said, adding that looks forward to working with Conaway and has "great admiration and respect" for the new investigation leader. "This, I think, investigation is of such critical importance that we need to get fully back on track. It is, I think, worth noting that the investigation never went into hiatus. We've been continuing to develop our witness list, to work out some of the logistics in terms of how we bring people before the committee; what the process will be."

Schiff said he believes materials that Nunes viewed at the White House, and Schiff subsequently was permitted to view, are now being made available to the full committee in "a very positive step."

Schiff, who up until Nunes' solo revelation was holding joint pressers with his GOP colleague on the status of the Russia probe, added that he looks forward "to continuing to work with the chairman on the whole range of other issues that our committee has to deal with."

"We have, I think, worked together very well on a range of other issues. And obviously, the Russia investigation is important, but there are a whole host of other issues the committee deals with on a daily basis, including, of course, some of the preeminent threats to the country posed by al-Qaeda, by ISIS, North Korea, Iran, the challenge posed by China, among others," he said.

The White House response was short and sweet: "This is an internal matter for the House," a spokesman said on background.

This story was updated at noon EST