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House intelligence committee chairman steps aside from Russia probe


Devin Nunes is temporarily stepping aside from the Russia probe (AP/J Scott Applewhite)

Devin Nunes is temporarily stepping aside from the Russia probe (AP/J Scott Applewhite)

Devin Nunes is temporarily stepping aside from the Russia probe (AP/J Scott Applewhite)

The chairman of the House intelligence committee has said he is temporarily stepping aside from the panel's probe into Russian meddling in last year's US presidential election.

The decision by Devin Nunes, of California, comes amid partisan turmoil on the committee.

Democrats have alleged that Republican Mr Nunes, who was on President Donald Trump's transition team, is too close to the White House and cannot lead an impartial inquiry.

"Several left-wing activist groups have filed accusations against me with the Office of Congressional Ethics," Mr Nunes said in a statement.

"The charges are entirely false and politically motivated, and are being levelled just as the American people are beginning to learn the truth about the improper unmasking of the identities of US citizens and other abuses of power."

Mr Nunes did not disclose details of the allegations.

House Speaker Paul Ryan said he supported Mr Nunes's decision and said the congressman is eager to talk to the ethics panel.

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"It is clear that this process would be a distraction for the House intelligence committee's investigation into Russian interference in our election," Mr Ryan said.

He said he believes it is in the best interests of the committee and Congress to have GOP representatives Mike Conaway, of Texas, with help from Trey Gowdy, of South Carolina, and Tom Rooney, of Florida, to temporarily take charge of the investigation while the House ethics committee looks into the issue.

"I will continue to fulfil 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," Mr Nunes said.

He said he is confident that Mr Conaway will oversee a professional investigation into Russia's actions and follow the facts wherever they lead.

The move by Mr Nunes could be seen as a win for Democrats whose cries for an independent panel to investigate Russia's possible ties with the Trump campaign have grown.

They have pointed in particular to two trips by Mr Nunes to the White House - one announced, one not - as evidence that his loyalty to Mr Trump outweighs his commitment to leading a bipartisan investigation.

By all accounts, the intelligence committee's growing partisanship has become a distraction from its underlying investigations.

The top Democrat on the committee, Adam Schiff, of California, said he appreciated Mr Nunes's decision to step aside from the Russia investigation.

"We have a fresh opportunity to move forward in the unified and non-partisan way that an investigation of this seriousness demands," he said.

More than a week after Mr Nunes reviewed classified materials shared by a secret source on White House grounds, Mr Schiff saw the same material, but refused to publicly discuss what he learned.

He said on Thursday he understood the material was now to be shared with other intelligence committee members.

Mr Nunes said on March 22: "I recently confirmed that on numerous occasions the intelligence community incidentally collected information about US citizens involved in the Trump transition."

Two private watchdog groups, Democracy 21 and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, had asked the House ethics committee to investigate whether Mr Nunes disclosed classified information he learned from intelligence reports.

The intelligence committees in both the House and Senate, as well as the FBI, have been investigating Russia's interference in the 2016 election and possible ties with the Trump campaign.

Last month Mr Trump accused, without providing evidence, former president Barack Obama of illegally wire-tapping him, and Mr Trump asked the congressional committees to look into this as part of the investigations.

Mr Nunes's secret meeting on White House grounds where he said he learned some Trump associates' names were revealed in classified intelligence reports, was part of his effort to respond to Mr Trump's request.

After Mr Nunes shared what he learned with the president, Mr Trump said he felt partly vindicated for his wire-tapping claims, even though the FBI, Justice Department and former Obama administration officials said they were not true.

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