House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes stepped down Thursday as head of a high-stakes inquiry into Russia's interference in last year's election, saying he was under an ethics investigation for allegedly revealing classified information.
Rep. Nunes announced his recusal minutes before the House Ethics Committee said it had opened a review into whether the Tulare Republican broke House rules last month when he publicly revealed that U.S. intelligence agencies may have picked up communications involving members of the Trump transition team.
There were clear signs that Republican leaders, including Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, had pressured Nunes to step down.
His abrupt withdrawal marked another embarrassing setback for the House Intelligence Committee, which has seen its high-profile investigation collapse amid partisan sniping, and for the White House, which has struggled to emerge from a swirl of allegations involving ties to Russian authorities and Trump's counter-charges of improper surveillance.
Nunes is the third prominent GOP victim in the still murky scandal. Michael Flynn was ousted as Trump's national security advisor in February for dissembling about his phone calls with Russia's ambassador, and Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions recused himself from the FBI investigation into Russian meddling after he failed to tell senators at his confirmation hearing about his own meetings with the ambassador.
Nunes strongly denied any wrongdoing and said he would be vindicated of accusations that he said came from "left-wing activist groups." But the ethics investigation served to damage his rising career in Congress at least for the short term.
"Despite the baselessness of the charges, I believe it is in the best interests of the House Intelligence Committee and the Congress" for him to step aside from the Russia inquiry while the Ethics Committee investigates, Nunes said in a statement.
He will remain committee chairman but said he would hand the Russia investigation to Rep. K. Michael Conaway of Texas, the next ranking Republican, until the ethics investigation is completed.
In a statement, Ryan said he supported Nunes' decision to recuse himself, and called him "eager to demonstrate to the Ethics Committee that he has followed all proper guidelines and laws."
But for Nunes to stay, the speaker added, "would be a distraction for the House Intelligence Committee's investigation into Russian interference in our election."
According to a Ryan aide, the speaker met with Nunes late Wednesday after learning that the Ethics Committee planned to move ahead with its investigation of him.
"There are very strong signs that Ryan did not have confidence in Nunes' ability" to continue as head of the Russia investigation, said Mieke Eoyang, a former Democratic aide on the House Intelligence Committee who now works with Third Way, a Washington think tank.
Nunes played a prominent role in Trump's transition team, and Democrats and even several Republicans said he was too close to the president to lead a credible inquiry into whether Trump's associates colluded with Russia.
In a March 30 interview on "CBS This Morning," Ryan gave no indication that Nunes had told him that an aide at the White House was the source for the information that Nunes later said showed the Obama administration had sought out intelligence reports that mentioned Trump's associates.
"He had told me that like a whistle-blower-type person had given him some information that was new, that spoke to the last administration and part of this investigation," Ryan said. "He briefed me about it. Didn't know the content of it; only knew … that he was going to brief others."
The Republican and Democratic leaders of House Ethics Committee took the unusual step of publicly confirming they had launched an "initial review" of whether Nunes had improperly disclosed details from those reports.
In a statement, Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.), the committee chairwoman, and Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), the top Democrat on the panel, said they would seek to determine whether he "made unauthorized disclosures of classified information, in violation of House Rules, law, regulations, or other standards of conduct."
Two nonpartisan ethics watchdog groups — Democracy 21 and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington — wrote a letter of complaint to the Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent arm of Congress, alleging that Nunes may have mishandled classified information.
Brooks and Deutch gave no timetable for completing the review. Nor did they say whether they planned to open a formal investigation of Nunes if they concluded there was evidence his statements violated House rules.
House rules specify that a member found to have improperly revealed classified information could face censure, removal from committee membership or even expulsion from the House.
Meredith McGehee, an congressional ethics expert with Issue One, a Washington-based watchdog group, said the House Ethics Committee's decision to open an investigation, and to announce it publicly, was highly unusual.
"The House Ethics Committee is quite often a black hole," McGehee said.
Nunes came under intense criticism last month when he disclosed at a hastily called news conference that an unidentified source had told him of "dozens" of intelligence reports from court-authorized surveillance that included the names of Trump transition team members. He said he was going immediately to the White House to brief President Trump on the information.
Nunes subsequently admitted that he had received the information in the White House complex, explaining that it was the only safe place to examine the highly classified material.
His spokesman later said Nunes did not know whether any transition officials were part of the intercepted conversations or were talked about by others.
Although Nunes refused to reveal his source, officials have said that it appeared he had been shown the intelligence by a White House aide who once worked for the House intelligence panel.
Democrats asserted that the disclosures were orchestrated by the White House to deflect attention from Trump's discredited claim that he had been "wiretapped" at Trump Tower by President Obama.
On Thursday, speaking to reporters as he flew to Florida for a two-day summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump praised Nunes as a "very honorable guy" and "a high-quality person."
He also called Conaway "a highly respected man" and "high-quality," although he said he had never met him.
In his statement, Nunes did not back down from his unproven claims that aides in the Obama White House improperly identified Trump associates in intelligence reports that circulated in the government late last year.
He called allegations that he revealed classified information "entirely false and politically motivated," saying they 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."
Democrats, not surprisingly, applauded Nunes' decision to recuse himself.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff of Burbank, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said, "He did so in the best interests of the committee, and I respect that decision."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) was more blunt, saying Nunes was "compromised from day one, and he had no business leading the investigation into the Trump-Russia connection."
"Good for him," said Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is conducting a separate investigation of Russian meddling in the election. "He stopped being objective."