Republican insiders say Rep. Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, got the “genie out of the bottle” regarding suspected misconduct by President Obama’s top national security aide, Susan E. Rice, and that his surprise decision Thursday to step aside from leading the panel’s probe into Russian meddling in the presidential election was worth it.
Mr. Nunes was a necessary sacrificial lamb in the open feud between the Trump and Obama administrations over the “unmasked” identities of Trump campaign associates incidentally swept up in surveillance for foreign targets, several Republican sources said. The decision of the congressman from California means Rep. Michael K. Conaway, the Texas Republican who once chaired the House Ethics Committee, will take the reins of the politically sensitive investigation.
“We wouldn’t be having this discussion about incidental surveillance right now if [Mr. Nunes] hadn’t done what he’d done,” said one source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity during the hours after Mr. Nunes bowed out Thursday.
It was a sobering assessment of a drama that began March 20 when Mr. Nunes went behind the backs of fellow committee members from both parties to view raw intelligence reports at the White House that he said showed Mr. Trump and his associates had been swept up in U.S. surveillance of foreign targets and that Ms. Rice asked to “unmask” the redacted names of Trump campaign operatives.
Although the House and Senate intelligence panels have a tradition of bipartisan cooperation, Mr. Nunes served on Mr. Trump’s transition team, and the revelations caused Democrats to question his impartiality and call for his dismissal from the investigation.
On Monday, reports verified by The Times ensnared Ms. Rice, who has been accused of playing a central role in the unmasking operation during the final months of the Obama administration, before and after Mr. Trump’s November electoral victory.
On Tuesday, she publicly denounced insinuations that her actions were politically motivated or tied to any organized scheme to compile dirt on the Trump campaign and its potential ties to Russia. But she also didn’t explicitly deny having requested that names be added to raw surveillance intelligence relating to Trump associates, saying such requests were frequently made and often necessary to understand the import of the raw intelligence.
That admission fanned an increasingly heated debate across Washington over the extent to which the Obama administration’s handling of classified information should become the focus of congressional probes of Russian meddling in last year’s election.
Gordon Adams, a fellow with the Stimson Center think tank in Washington, said the debate is more a result of the Trump administration’s unprecedented obsession with attacking former Obama officials, particularly Ms. Rice.
“The Trump people are neuralgic about the previous administration,” said Mr. Adams, who served in the Clinton administration and has been involved in several presidential transitions. “They’re stuck on the briar patch with this, and they can’t pull their hands off it. They must enjoy the experience.”
On Thursday morning, as a cold spring rain battered Capitol Hill, the House Committee on Ethics announced that it was exploring allegations of “unauthorized disclosures of classified information” leveled against Mr. Nunes for his handling of the material he viewed at the White House.
“The committee notes that the mere fact that it is investigating these allegations, and publicly disclosing its review, does not itself indicate that any violation has occurred, or reflect any judgment on behalf of the committee,” Reps. Susan W. Brooks, Indiana Republican, and Theodore E. Deutch, Florida Democrat, said in a joint statement.
Mr. Nunes dismissed the charges as “entirely false and politically motivated” and the work of “left-wing activist groups.” He did add, however, that the committee would be better off not having to deal with added distractions. He then temporarily handed his duties to Mr. Conaway and GOP Intelligence Committee members Trey Gowdy of South Carolina and Thomas J. Rooney of Florida.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff, the committee’s top Democrat, said Mr. Nunes made the correct move.
“I know this was not an easy decision for the chairman, with whom I have worked well for many years,” said Mr. Schiff, California Democrat. “He did so in the best interests of the committee, and I respect that decision.”
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, also praised Mr. Nunes‘ decision. Last week Mr. Cummings sent a letter to White House Counsel Donald McGahn and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster requesting more details about how Mr. Nunes entered the White House complex to access the classified information, which he then briefed President Trump on before discussing it with fellow committee members.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi both said they hoped the investigation could now move forward, while a White House spokesman refused to take sides. “This is an internal matter for the House,” he said.
Writing on the wall
Distrust among current and former leaders of the wider U.S. intelligence community toward Mr. Nunes spiraled since the unmasking first surfaced. Some grumbled the writing was on the wall for his departure once “the investigator became a bigger story than the investigation.”
On March 31, the spy chief of the George W. Bush administration, Michael V. Hayden, said in an interview, “I cannot see how the House committee can now conduct an investigation that anyone will view as impartial or deserving of their confidence.”
Critics of Mr. Nunes also zeroed in on the varying explanations of where and how he had viewed the documents at the White House. They also questioned his decision not to share the material immediately with fellow committee members.
Mr. Adams said, “Nunes‘ behavior set in motion rising calls for an independent investigation and the appointment of an independent prosecutor, and that has put pressure on Trump to get Nunes out of the way.”
The House intelligence committee had a major coup at its first public hearing two weeks ago when its members prodded FBI Chief James B. Comey to acknowledge that the agency was actually investigating Mr. Trump’s Russia ties.
Afterward, the committee bogged down in intense partisan bickering over the unmasking controversy and the Rice allegations.
Mr. Conaway, 68, represents one of the nation’s most Republican districts in midwestern and western Texas. It includes the city of Midland — the town where former Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush live.
Mr. Conaway once worked with George W. Bush as chief financial officer for Bush Exploration, which extracted oil from Texas’ fabled resource-rich Permian Basin. In addition to his duties on the intelligence committee, Mr. Conaway is the deputy Republican whip, serves on the Armed Services Committee and chairs the Agriculture Committee. House members tend to view him as a quiet and respected leader.
The Russia investigation, however, has been such a tense partisan drama that Mr. Conaway has already been bashed about in the court of public opinion. The incident occurred during an awkward exchange he had with Mr. Comey during the FBI chief’s public testimony at last month’s hearing. Challenging Mr. Comey’s argument the Kremlin preferred Mr. Trump over Hillary Clinton because of a long-standing grudge, Mr. Conaway made a football analogy that Mr. Comey ripped apart.
By the end of Thursday, House members were on planes to return to their districts for a two-week recess. For now they leave the House Russian probe in their wake. “We’re going to proceed with the investigation and follow every lead to its logical conclusion,” Mr. Conaway said in a statement after the drama.
Meanwhile, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence continues an investigation into Russia’s alleged role in the U.S. election.
• Seth McLaughlin and S.A. Miller contributed to this report.
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