WASHINGTON — The chairman of the House intelligence committee announced Thursday he is temporarily stepping aside from the panel’s probe into Russian meddling in last year’s presidential election.
The decision by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., 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.
“Several leftwing 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 did not disclose details of the allegations.
The House Ethics Committee is investigating allegations that Nunes may have made unauthorized disclosures of classified information. The full 10-member committee is investigating the allegations, a departure from the usual procedure of having a smaller subcommittee handle a probe, and an indication of the seriousness of the claims.
Democracy 21 and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington say Nunes publicly disclosed information he learned by viewing classified material. Two of the four people who signed the March 28 letter alleging ethics violations served as White House counsels in Republican and Democratic administrations.
House Speaker Paul Ryan said he supported Nunes’ decision and said the congressman is eager to talk to the ethics panel.
“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.
He said he believes it is in the best interests of the committee and Congress to have GOP Reps. Mike Conaway of Texas, with help from Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina and Rep. Tom Rooney of Florida, temporarily take charge of the investigation while the House Ethics Committee looks into the issue.
“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 said.
He said he is confident that Conaway will oversee a professional investigation into Russia’s actions and follow the facts wherever they lead.