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Trump ally Devin Nunes is stepping aside from the Russia probe

House Votes On Trump's American Health Care Act (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Rep. Devin Nunes is stepping aside from the House Intelligence Committee’s deeply troubled and highly politicized investigation into possible ties between President Donald Trump and Russia, removing another of the president’s key defenders in a scandal that shows no signs of abating.

“I believe it is in the best interests of the House Intelligence community to have Representative Mike Conaway … temporarily take charge of the Committee’s Russia investigation,” he said in a statement emailed to press.

Nunes, who remains the committee’s chair, is insisting that the move is only temporary — a response to unspecified ethics allegations leveled by unspecified “left-wing activist groups” that will soon be resolved by the House Ethics Committee.

But the very fact that Ethics announced publicly that it was investigating the charges, a relatively rare decision which requires Democratic and Republican support, suggests that legislators on both sides of the aisle want Nunes gone. And given the events of the past several weeks, and the mounting calls from senior lawmakers of both parties that he step aside, it’s hard to imagine him taking the reins again anytime soon.

Nunes’s credibility has been in doubt since late March, when he made a confusing announcement that he had evidence that members of the Trump transition team had been caught on US intelligence wiretaps — a statement that seemed to at least partially vindicate Trump’s unfounded claims that President Barack Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower.

In the controversy afterward, Nunes canceled a vital House hearing on Russia, leading lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to say Nunes was incapable of overseeing a nonpartisan and legitimate investigation the Trump White House. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham called Nunes’s probe an “Inspector Clouseau” operation.

The calls for his recusal reached a fever pitch on March 30, when the New York Times reported that Nunes’s sources for the claim weren’t whistleblowers, as he claimed, but rather two White House staffers. In other words, Nunes was using information he received from the Trump White House itself to publicly try to deflect blame from Trump.

With Nunes now stepping aside and Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from the FBI’s Russia investigation because of his own undisclosed ties to Moscow, Trump has lost the two people in positions of power who seemed most likely to put a lid on the Russia investigation.

Now the question becomes whether the House investigation can regain its completely shattered credibility — or whether Nunes’s successor, Rep. Mike Conaway, will cover for the White House as vigorously as Nunes did.

How Nunes’s downfall happened

House Votes On Trump's American Health Care Act
Devin Nunes and the Saddest Latte.
(Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The entire saga began on March 20, when FBI Director James Comey confirmed for the first time that the bureau was conducting a criminal investigation into “any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government” and into “whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.”

Comey — joined by Adm. Mike Rogers, the head of the National Security Agency — also shot down Trump’s allegation that then–President Obama tapped his communications during the campaign. Both men flatly said there was no evidence to support Trump’s claim, which had also been refuted by top lawmakers from both parties.

The hearing, put more plainly, was a catastrophe for Trump, who has been lying about the purported wiretapping for weeks.

This is where Nunes enters the picture. March 22 was the first bombshell, with Nunes using a pair of press conferences to announce that he’d seen intelligence reports showing that US spies “incidentally collected information about US citizens involved in the Trump transition,” including the president himself as well as others who now work in the administration.

Nunes provided no evidence to bolster Trump’s initial accusations, and over the course of the week he started to hedge and walk back the claim that he’d received information that supported any part of the president’s allegations. Just two days after the initial presser, he was saying he couldn’t be sure that Trump’s or his aides’ conversations were captured by surveillance at all. Nunes also apologized to fellow members of the House Intelligence Committee for briefing top officials at the White House before talking to members of his own committee.

Nunes was just getting started. On March 24, he infuriated Democrats anew by abruptly canceling a planned public hearing with Obama’s former director of national intelligence, James Clapper, former CIA Director John Brennan, and former acting Attorney General Sally Yates. The Washington Post just reported that the White House worked to block Yates from testifying, presumably to spare the president from more embarrassing disclosures about the ongoing investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia.

The reaction to Nunes’s actions came quickly — and it was vicious. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called for Nunes to be removed from his post, while House Minority Leader Pelosi, joined by Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Nunes should immediately recuse himself fully from the Trump-Russia probe. Some Republicans, like Graham, joined in the criticism.

The final blow to Nunes’s credibility came on March 30, when the Times report about his sources for the incidental collection came out. The report said that Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the National Security Council’s senior director for intelligence and a hardcore Trump loyalist mistrusted by the intelligence community, had uncovered the raw intelligence that led to Nunes’s disclosures. According to the report, this intelligence was discovered during an investigation that began after Trump had claimed, without evidence, that he was wiretapped.

Nunes had traveled to the White House grounds to be briefed on them in secret on March 21 by Michael Ellis, an attorney in the White House counsel’s office who had been Nunes’s own attorney prior to his White House gig.

What the Times revealed was a White House official who owes his job to Trump personally sifting through wiretaps right after the president claimed he was wiretapped. What he found made it into the hands of an attorney who used to work for the chair of the House panel investigating the Trump White House’s wiretapping allegations, who then went public while claiming the information came from a whistleblower.

It became impossible to say, with a straight face, that Nunes was a credible investigator. On April 3, Sen. John McCain went on ABC’s This Week to blame Nunes for the collapse of the House investigation.

“If we’re really going to get to the bottom of these things, it’s got to be done in a bipartisan fashion,” McCain said. “And as far as I could tell, Congressman Nunes killed that.”

And now he’s stepping down.

Will the probe get any better?

House Speaker Paul Ryan And House GOP Leadership Speak To Media After Party Conference Meeting
Rep. Mike Conaway (R-MAGA).
(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Nunes was always a dubious choice to lead such a vital investigation, as he was one of the members of Congress most inclined to publicly back Trump.

After the election, he served on Trump’s transition team. During the Michael Flynn saga in February, Nunes defended the embattled national security adviser in a Fox News appearance, calling him “the best intelligence officer of his generation.” When Trump sent out seemingly absurd tweets about Obama wiretapping him in early March, Nunes held a press conference in which he gave the president cover.

“I think a lot of the things that he says, you guys sometimes take literally,” Nunes said. “At the end of the day, I think tweets are a very transparent way for a politician of any rank to communicate with their constituents. So I don't think we should attack the president for tweeting.”

Comments like these led Aaron Blake, a Washington Post senior political reporter, to write that Nunes “seemed to go out of his way to defend Trump — in a way few others did, frankly.”

The key issue now is whether Conaway, Nunes’s replacement, will do any better.

That’s far from obvious. During the March 20 hearing on the intelligence community’s investigation into Trump and Russia, Conaway expressed some strange doubts about the intelligence community’s unanimous assessment that the Russians interfered in the election to help Trump win. Here’s the transcript of his exchange with FBI Director Comey, per NPR:

CONAWAY: That might work on Saturday afternoon when my wife’s [Texas Tech] Red Raiders are playing the Texas Longhorns — she really likes the Red Raiders. … The logic is that because [Putin] really didn’t like presidential candidate Clinton that he automatically liked Trump? That assessment is based on what?

COMEY: It’s based on more than that, but part of it … is the logic. Whoever the Red Raiders are playing, you want the Red Raiders to win, by definition you want their opponents to lose.

CONAWAY: I know, but this says … [Russia] wanted both of them, her to lose and him to win.

COMEY: They’re inseparable. It’s a two-person thing.

CONAWAY: I’m just wondering when you decided [Russia] wanted him to win.

COMEY: Well, logically, when they wanted her to lose.

Conaway here is insisting, somewhat bizarrely, that you can want one candidate to lose in a two-person race but not want the other to win. The logic here is dubious — hence Comey’s confusion.

What this suggests is that Conaway was more interested in playing defense against the accusation that Russia was pro-Trump than he was in figuring out what the links between Trump and Russia actually were. When you combine this performance with the hash Nunes made out of his tenure, it suggests that Conaway will have a lot of work to do to reassure Democrats and the public that the House investigation will be a bipartisan, credible affair rather than a whitewash.

Conaway will now have to go out of his way to work with Schiff, the ranking Democrat, to assuage his deep concerns about the status of the Russia investigation. If he doesn’t, the Trump scandal will only get worse — just now with a different lawmaker accused of trying to improperly contain it.