Devin Nunes steps aside temporarily from Russia investigation as House launches ethics probe

The right decision, however belatedly — and reluctantly. He’s not doing this voluntarily, he notes in his statement, but because the left is making life hard for him and the House Intelligence Committee.

“Several left-wing activist groups have filed accusations against me with the Office of Congressional Ethics,” Nunes said in a statement Thursday. “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 added: “Despite the baselessness of the charges, 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. 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.”

There’s a bit of sleight of hand there. It’s true that left-wing activist groups have filed complaints about him with the Office of Congressional Ethics over his revelation of incidental surveillance of Trump personnel. is one of them. But it’s not just the OCE that’s interested in him. The House Ethics Committee, a separate body, also announced this morning that it’s investigating Nunes for possible unauthorized disclosure of classified information:

The Committee has determined to investigate these allegations in order to fulfill its institutional obligation, under House Rule X, clause 11(g)(4), to investigate certain allegations of unauthorized disclosures of classified information, and to determine if there has been any violation of the Code of Official Conduct under House Rule XXIII, clause 13. 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.

And so, a day after Trump accused Susan Rice of possibly having committed a crime in “unmasking” and/or leaking Americans properly, it’s his own ally on the Intel Committee who’s under suspicion for improper leaks. The Daily Beast predicted that a few days ago, noting that one of the Intel Committee’s own rules practically mandates an investigation in this case, providing “The Committee on Ethics shall investigate any unauthorized disclosure of intelligence or intelligence-related information.”

But what intelligence did Nunes, who was vague in his public pronouncements about “unmasking,” disclose? He’s told reporters repeatedly that the info he saw wasn’t classified. The Beast had a theory, though:

[W]hen asked if the information he obtained came from surveillance obtained under FISA, or the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Nunes replied, “it appears so.” He added, “it has to do with FISA, and there are multiple FISA warrants that are out there.”

Surveillance authorized by FISA is some of the government’s most highly-classified information. To some lawyers, that means there is credible evidence to suggest Nunes did reveal classified information by speaking about FISA surveillance—assuming he doesn’t walk the FISA claim back, of course.

“The existence or non-existence of a FISA warrant is a classified fact,” one natsec lawyer told the website. Did Nunes disclose a “classified fact,” though, if he didn’t name who, specifically, was targeted by any particular FISA warrant? Is “Trump transition members” a narrow enough description to amount to an improper disclosure? Relatedly, is Peter King now in trouble for unauthorized disclosures for what he told Fox News yesterday about the information involved in the surveillance reports Nunes saw? It includes “information about their everyday lives. Sort of like in a divorce case where lawyers are hired, investigators are hired just to find out what the other person is doing from morning until night and then you try to piece it together later on,” said King. Again, he didn’t name the specific target or targets, but he’s giving you insight into material that may have been obtained via a FISA warrant. Is that unethical?

One other wrinkle to all of this: Nunes says he’s stepping back from “Russia investigation” but will continue to serve as chairman of the Intel Committee in all other matters. One of the notable details in his disclosure about incidental surveillance of Trump staffers is that, he claims, the surveillance had nothing to do with Russia. Does that mean he’s going to continue to pursue the investigation into who “unmasked” Trump personnel, which is what’s really annoyed the left this week? How broad is this recusal?