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Devin Nunes didn't really recuse himself. What does it mean for the House Russia investigation?

Devin Nunes didn't really recuse himself. What does it mean for the House Russia investigation?
Tulare Republican Rep. Devin Nunes speaks during a House Ways and Means Committee hearing on May 24. (Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call)

In early April and after weeks of pressure from Democrats, House Select Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes announced he would step away from leading his committee’s investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

After a series of missteps that included a secret visit to the White House to view classified documents, House Democrats had been calling on the Tulare Republican to recuse himself from the investigation. Most people — including the Democrats — assumed his announcement meant he would stay away from anything Russia-related.

But Nunes’ actions over the last month have Democrats complaining he is violating the spirit of his promise to step aside from leading the investigation. Here’s what Nunes actually promised and how it’s affecting the House Russia inquiry:

What does recuse actually mean?

It’s defined broadly as removing oneself from participation to avoid a conflict of interest.

Did Nunes really recuse himself?

No. But expect to hear Democrats keep using the word.

What did Nunes say he would do?

This is what he said on April 6 right before the House Ethics Committee announced it was investigating whether Nunes broke House rules by revealing classified information in conversations with the media about the Russia investigation. Mind the phrasing:

“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,” his statement said. “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 never used the word recuse or outlined what stepping aside meant.

Then, he mostly stayed out of the public eye — until the last few weeks.

Why are we talking about Nunes’ non-recusal now?

Because a couple of weeks ago, CNN reported Nunes went to CIA headquarters to review intelligence documents related to Russia. Democrats started complaining that he was still too involved.

In an interview with Fox News a few days later, Nunes said he was still handling the portion of the committee's investigation related to whether Obama officials inappropriately requested the unmasking of the names of Trump campaign officials in intelligence documents. Unmasking is the term for revealing the names of U.S. citizens in intelligence reports who were swept up as part of surveillance of foreign officials. Their names remain secret until top officials request them.

“Simply put, I’m still the chairman of the committee,” Nunes said. “The way to look into this is that I’m still read into everything, but ... I was going to set at least the Russia side of the investigation aside because I didn't want to be the face of this investigation. But everything else, I’m still in charge of. … Especially the unmasking.”

The unmasking of the names of Trump transition officials in intercepted communications was the topic Nunes said he was looking into during one of his White House visits. The communications, he said at the time, “had nothing to do with Russia.”

House Intelligence Committee chairman speaks out on "Special Report"

Then the Intelligence Committee on Wednesday issued subpoenas for former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and President Trump's longtime attorney Michael Cohen. Nunes also issued three subpoenas to intelligence agencies for documents about former Obama administration officials who authorized the earlier unmasking, apparently without committee Democrats signing off on the subpoenas.

As committee chairman, Nunes signed off on them all.

What are Democrats saying about Nunes’ latest moves?

The subpoenas spurred more grumbling from Democrats.

The ranking Democrat on the committee, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), told MSNBC on Thursday that the committee's rules state the chairman has to sign subpoenas unless he delegates the authority to someone else.

“That authority should have been delegated to Mike Conaway in consultation with myself. That hasn’t happened yet, and I think that’s a violation of the recusal by the chairman,” Schiff said of his fellow Californian.

Nunes hasn’t “fully honored” his commitment not to be involved in the investigation, Schiff said.

Schiff added that if House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) “wants to allow this kind of thing to go on ... that is really up to him, and I think he will ultimately be held accountable for how this is conducted.”

Is Ryan really the last word?

The speaker has authority over committee chairmen, and Ryan has backed Nunes previously. He was reluctant to bow to Democrats’ initial demands for Nunes to step aside, and when Nunes said he would do so, Ryan issued a statement saying Nunes continued to have his trust.

Ryan hasn’t commented on Schiff’s latest challenge or on whether Nunes should be involved in the investigation at all.

What is Nunes saying?

He hasn’t expanded much on his comment to Fox News that the unmasking investigation isn’t off limits for him.

On Thursday, as more complaints from his Democratic colleagues rolled in, he let his Twitter feed do the talking:

“Seeing a lot of fake news from media elites and others who have no interest in violations of Americans' civil liberties via unmaskings.”

How is this affecting the House investigation?

The investigation had largely gotten back on track since Nunes stepped aside. The Intelligence Committee held a second public hearing, and Schiff and Conaway seem to be working well together. The committee’s last major move was issuing the subpoenas to Flynn and Cohen.

But the grumbling about Nunes’ intervention has again put into question the committee's ability to come to a bipartisan conclusion about the methods the Russian government used to try to influence the outcome of the election and whether anyone in Trump’s campaign helped Russia.

In the past, Schiff has threatened to walk away from the investigation if he thinks the committee’s work has become too partisan for the public to have faith in its conclusions.

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