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Facing 'the harshest spotlight in Washington,' Nunes steps back from Russia investigation




WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 28:  House Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) (C) leaves the U.S. Capitol after a series of votes March 28, 2017 (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images).
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 28: House Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) (C) leaves the U.S. Capitol after a series of votes March 28, 2017 (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images).
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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Representative Devin Nunes announced Thursday he is stepping aside from the investigation by the House Select Committee on Intelligence into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.

As chairman of the committee, the California congressman had been the leader of the probe looking into alleged Russian efforts to undermine the democratic process in the U.S. and influence the outcome of the election.

The investigation began attracting increasing partisan rancor after F.B.I. Director James Comey last month confirmed his agency is examining potential collusion between members of the Donald Trump presidential campaign and Russian operatives.

Critics questioned Nunes’ ability to conduct an independent investigation after he held a press conference to disclose the existence of classified material suggesting members of the Trump campaign were swept up in legal surveillance by U.S. intelligence agencies. He obtained the information during a secret meeting at the White House.

A fellow California representative, Adam Schiff, was one of the many Democrats calling for Nunes to recuse himself. He praised Nunes' decision to step back from the Russia probe.

"I think it is in the best interest of the investigation. It will allow us to have a fresh start moving forward,"  Schiff told reporters.

Nunes will stay on the job as chairman while Texas Representative Mike Conaway takes over the reins of the investigation for House Republicans.

Carla Marinucci, senior writer for Politico's California Playbook joined A Martinez to discuss how Nunes got to this point.

Highlights

House Speaker Paul Ryan said this morning it was clear ethics questions around Nunes would be a distraction from the Russia investigation. What are those questions?

The House Ethics Committee has announced it is investigating allegations that Nunes may have mishandled classified information. Nunes said in a statement today that several activist left-wing groups are the source of the complaints.

The fact is [the complaints come from] two groups -- Democracy 21, a non-profit, non-partisan 'good government' group in Washington... and the other group that contacted House Ethics was Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. That's headed by Richard Painter, who was the chief White House ethics lawyer for George W. Bush. 

They filed the letter with House Ethics over concerns about the press conference Devin Nunes held to discuss [intelligence] material. Adam Schiff, provided access to the same information, said he couldn't discuss it because it's classified. The New York Times and Washington Post reported Nunes did receive the information from White House officials, even though he told Speaker Paul Ryan the information was from whistle-blowers.

Nunes is caught up in a controversy here. Republicans watching this are suggesting this is an effort by Democrats to distract from Susan Rice and the unmasking issue. But for a couple of weeks, Nunes has been in the harshest spotlight in Washington... The House Intelligence Committee's work has ground to a halt in large part because of the focus on him.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has already moved on... and it looks like their investigation at this point may have more focus, more credibility. The House investigation may be damaged.

Nunes' statement today said complaints about him were filed with the House Ethics Committee by "several leftwing activist groups." He said they were "entirely false and politically motivated." If that's true, why would he step aside?

I think it comes from Speaker [Paul] Ryan at this point, who's watching this. The issue of the investigation has received so much attention and is so overwhelming, and Republicans are trying to do other things up on Capitol Hill. There's been conflicting information from Nunes, and I think they just decided he's under so much heat, so much pressure, let's get beyond this and move on to other issues.

To hear the full interview, click the blue audio player above.

(Audio and transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.)