WASHINGTON (AP) - Citing ethics complaints, the chairman of the House intelligence committee announced Thursday he is temporarily surrendering his leadership post in the panel’s probe into Russian meddling in last year’s presidential election.
The decision by Republican Rep. Devin Nunes of California comes amid partisan turmoil on the 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, and the House ethics committee is investigating whether he improperly disclosed classified information.
“Several left-wing activist groups have filed accusations against me with the Office of Congressional Ethics,” Nunes said in a statement. “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’ 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.
“We have a fresh opportunity to move forward in the unified and nonpartisan way that an investigation of this seriousness demands,” he said.
As the majority party in the House, Republican will keep the committee chairmanship. GOP Reps. 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.
More than a week after Nunes reviewed classified materials shared by a secret source on White House grounds, Schiff saw the same material, but refused to publicly discuss what he learned. He said Thursday he understood the material was now to be shared with other intelligence committee members.
Nunes said on March 22, “I recently confirmed that on numerous occasions the intelligence community incidentally collected information about U.S. citizens involved in the Trump transition.”
Two private watchdog groups, Democracy 21 and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, had asked the House ethics committee to investigate whether Nunes disclosed classified information he learned from intelligence reports.
The intelligence committees in both the House and Senate, as well as the FBI, have been investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and possible ties with the Trump campaign.
Last month Trump accused, without providing evidence, former President Barack Obama of illegally wiretapping him, and Trump asked the congressional committees to look into this as part of the investigations. Nunes’ secret meeting on White House grounds where he said he learned some Trump associates’ names were revealed in classified intelligence reports, was part of his effort to respond to Trump’s request.
After Nunes shared what he learned with the president, Trump said he felt partly vindicated for his wiretapping claims, even though the FBI, Justice Department and former Obama administration officials said they were not true.
Republican Speaker Ryan said he supported Nunes’ decision to step aside.
“It is clear that this process would be a distraction for the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian interference in our election,” Ryan said.
Nunes said in his statement, “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.”
The ethics committee investigation of Nunes’ actions will be led by Republican Chairwoman Susan Brooks of Indiana and Democrat Ted Deutch of Florida.
Associated Press writers Chad Day and Matthew Daly contributed to this report.