Devin Nunes has said he’s stepped aside from the House Intelligence Committee’s Russia investigation, but he is still involved in a major way.
As chairman of the intelligence panel, Nunes continues to hold the power to issue subpoenas. On Wednesday, the California Republican issued three subpoenas without the agreement of the committee’s Democrats, and despite having stepped back from the Russia investigation because the House Ethics Committee is investigating him for disclosing classified information.
These subpoenas related to the issue of “unmasking,” which is a process used by intelligence officials to learn the identities of people inside the United States who are referenced in intelligence reports.
Nunes has suggested the Obama administration might have abused the “unmasking” process to obtain the identities of Trump campaign aides who were caught up in routine surveillance of foreign targets — an issue the Trump administration has cited as evidence for the president’s much-maligned claim that President Barack Obama ordered a wiretap of Trump Tower.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the intelligence panel’s top Democrat, said Thursday that he was only informed of Nunes’ subpoenas the night before they went out, adding that they were "part of the White House’s desire to shift attention away from the Russia probe and onto the issue of unmasking."
Schiff called Nunes’ decision to issue the subpoenas "a violation" of his recusal, adding that he believes Nunes’ power to issue subpoenas related to the Russia probe should be relinquished to Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), who is leading the investigation in Nunes’ place.
If House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) “wants to allow this kind of thing to go on,” Schiff said on MSNBC Thursday, “that is really up to him, and I think he will ultimately be held accountable for how this is conducted.”
"Whether you call it recusal or step aside, and I don’t really understand what the difference is, the public was given the assurance he wouldn’t be making decisions in the Russia investigation," Schiff later added on CNN. Despite stepping aside, Nunes has not called it a “recusal.”
A committee aide, speaking on background, noted that “all subpoenas are issued unilaterally by the chairman” because “those are the committee rules.” Democrats were “informed and consulted about them beforehand by email, in-person, and in writing via hard copy.” The aide added that the three subpoenas on unmasking "were not related to the Russia probe."
In Nunes’ April statement announcing he would step back, he suggested that he could reclaim his spot as head of the investigation if and when the Ethics Committee probe wraps up.
In the meantime, Conaway is leading the Russia investigation, which issued four other subpoenas on Wednesday, aimed at former and current Trump aides. Those subpoenas were issued with the consent of Democrats.
Conaway’s office did not respond to questions about whether the congressman was involved in Nunes’ decision to issue the three other subpoenas related to unmasking.
The House Ethics Committee probe is looking into whether Nunes disclosed classified information during a news briefing at the White House in which he said members of the Trump transition team might have been under inadvertent surveillance following November’s election.
The White House briefing came during an explosive two weeks for Nunes, when he drew national attention — and sparked the ire of Democrats — over his handling of the Russia probe.
Nunes claimed in March that a whistle-blower had shown him what appeared to be surveillance abuses by the Obama administration, but it was quickly revealed that he got his information during a meeting with White House officials at a secure facility on the White House grounds.
He then went back to the White House the next day to brief Trump on what he had learned from Trump’s own aides.
“It has to do with FISA,” Nunes told reporters at the White House who asked him about his meeting with Trump, referring to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. “There’s multiple number of FISA warrants that are out there.”
His remarks set off alarms for surveillance experts, including the editors of the Lawfare blog. They wrote at the time that it was their understanding that information obtained under FISA “was classified until affirmatively declassified by the original classifying authority.”
A week later, the liberal advocacy group MoveOn filed an ethics complaint, citing the congressman’s remarks at the White House and accusing him of disclosing classified information "for political purposes."