On 6 April 2017, U.S. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-California) temporarily stepped down as head of the committee’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, citing ethics accusations from “left-wing activist groups” as the reason in a prepared statement:
Several leftwing activist groups have filed accusations against me with the Office of Congressional Ethics. 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. 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.
A complaint filed with the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) on 28 March, signed by leaders of the ethics watchdog groups Democracy 21 and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), requested a preliminary inquiry into whether Nunes “disclosed classified information to the public”:
In particular, we ask OCE to review the recent activities of Rep. Nunes and determine if there is a reasonable basis to believe that Rep. Nunes has violated House Rule 23, clause 13. That provision of the House ethics rules states:
Before a Member, Delegate, Resident Commissioner, officer, or employee of the House may have access to classified information, the following oath (or affirmation) shall be executed: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will not disclose any classified information received in the course of my service with the House of Representatives, except as authorized by the House of Representatives or in accordance with its Rules.
According to published reports, Rep. Nunes on March 22, 2017 said that “American intelligence agencies monitoring foreign officials may have “incidentally” picked up communications of [President Trump transition team members.” Rep. Nunes did not disclose the source for his information.
The letter cites a 23 March 2017 report in the Washington Post quoting Nunes saying that although the information was classified, disclosing its existence did not reveal any classified information. “Thus,” the complaint says, “Rep. Nunes has admitted that the information in the report he reviewed was classified.” The Ethics Office must now determine whether or not Nunes’ disclosure in fact revealed any classified information.
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) issued a statement saying Nunes continues to have his personal trust and is “eager to demonstrate to the Ethics Committee that he has followed all proper guidelines and laws”:
In the meantime, it is clear that this process would be a distraction for the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian interference in our election. Chairman Nunes has offered to step aside as the lead Republican on this probe, and I fully support this decision. Chairman Mike Conaway, a senior member of the Committee, will now lead this investigation in the House. I am confident that he will oversee a professional investigation into Russia’s actions and follow the facts wherever they lead.