By Patricia Zengerle and Dustin Volz
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Republican head of a congressional investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election said he would temporarily withdraw from the investigation on Thursday because he is under investigation for revealing classified information.
Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and an ally of Republican President Donald Trump, called the allegations that he made unauthorized disclosures of classified information as “completely false and politically motivated.”
“Various groups of left-wing activists have brought accusations against me with the Congressional Ethics Office,” he said in a statement.
The surprise revelation that Nunes was being investigated injected new uncertainty into Russia’s broader investigation by his committee. The investigation is one of several in Congress examining whether Russia tried to influence the election in favor of Trump, primarily by hacking the emails of Democratic operatives and spreading embarrassing information, or possibly colluding with Trump associates.
Russia denies the allegations, which Trump also dismisses.
The House Ethics Committee issued a statement saying it would investigate allegations that Nunes may have made unauthorized disclosures of classified information “in violation of House Rules, law, regulations or other standards of conduct.” .
Nunes said in a statement that he had decided to withdraw from the Russia investigation to fight the allegations and that he wanted to “expedite the rejection of these false accusations.” He remains chairman of the committee.
Rep. Mike Conaway, the second-ranked Republican on the intelligence committee, will now lead the investigation. While he was a staunch Trump supporter last year, the seven-term congressman was not a member of Trump’s transition team, unlike Nunes.
The intelligence panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff, said Nunes’s decision to step aside was made in “the best interests of the committee, and I respect that decision.”
Schiff had asked Nunes to recuse himself.
Conaway, who is also chairman of the House Agriculture Committee and a former House Ethics chair, is respected as an administrator and investigator.
“I have great admiration and respect for Mr. Conaway and I look forward to continuing to work on that together,” Schiff told reporters.
Democrats, and some Republicans, had said the House panel risked losing all credibility after Nunes received information at the White House that information on Trump’s advisers had been the subject of routine surveillance, he celebrated. a press conference and briefed Trump on it, all before sharing. with other members of your committee.
Lawmakers said Nunes’s decision was welcome.
“We need to move on. We need to have an independent and credible investigation moving forward,” Rep. Eric Swalwell, a member of the Democratic committee, said in an interview.
Trump praised Nunes as “honorable” and called both him and Conaway “high quality” people in comments to reporters traveling to Florida on Air Force One.
‘THE HOUSE IS ON TEST’
The ethics inquiry is based on whether Nunes disclosed classified information while publicly discussing the content of foreign intelligence reports.
Jane Harman, a former House intelligence Democrat and now chair of the Wilson Center think tank, said she hoped the committee could “overcome the paralysis” that dominates the investigation. “Most people recognize that the House as an institution needs serious oversight here and that the House is on trial,” he said.
House Republican leaders, including Speaker Paul Ryan, praised Nunes.
“He’s just making sure that while he’s working through this other (ethical) process and making sure people understand that he didn’t do anything wrong. He’s fully cooperating and I think he will be acquitted,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who leads the Republican House Conference, told reporters.
“But until that happens, protect the integrity of Russia’s investigation,” he said.
Trump sparked controversy in March when he tweeted, without providing evidence, that Obama had listened to him when he was running against Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Two and a half weeks later, Nunes held the press conference saying that an unidentified source had shown him intelligence reports that contained “unmasked” names of Trump associates incidentally caught in routine foreign surveillance.
Immediately afterwards, critics said he had released classified information in what many saw as an effort to cover up the Trump wiretapping claim and distract from Russia’s broader investigation, a day after the FBI director James Comey confirmed at a hearing that his agency was investigating the matter. .
Nunes said the surveillance of Trump associates appeared legal, but expressed concern that the names of the Americans may have been improperly disclosed.
That indictment sparked an evolving and unsubstantiated controversy over whether the Obama White House spied on the incoming Trump administration.
US foreign intelligence activities are classified, but the president can authorize the release of information about them. It is unclear whether Trump authorized Nunes to discuss foreign surveillance.