DAVID GREENE, HOST:
A big developing story here in Washington this morning, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee is stepping aside from his committee's investigation into Russian attempts to meddle with the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Devin Nunes has been under heavy criticism.
Let's remember, he went to the Trump White House and was given classified documents at a moment when his committee was investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Critics said he could simply no longer lead a fair investigation. I'm joined in the studio by NPR national security editor Phil Ewing. Phil, good morning.
PHIL EWING, BYLINE: Good morning.
GREENE: So for Nunes, why now?
EWING: What Nunes said in a statement this morning is that there have been, in his view, scurrilous or unreasonable complaints about this incident in the House Ethics Committee, and he can't continue to lead this process and fight those charges at the same time.
So he's going to stay as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, the full committee, but he's going to leave the Russia investigation to his colleagues, including Mike Conaway of Colorado, Trey Gowdy of South Carolina and other top Republicans on the panel. And they will be the ones who for the next little while here will continue this investigation into the Trump - potential Trump connections between the election meddling last year.
GREENE: So he's not suggesting he was tarnished in some way and couldn't do this job, he's saying that all of this criticism meant that this was just not going to be credible with him there?
EWING: That's right. Nunes and the House speaker, Paul Ryan, both defended himself - and on Ryan's account, Nunes - this morning, saying they have no doubt that he acted above board and that he'll be able to get back into this. But because he has to respond as part of this House ethics process to these charges that he might have acted inappropriately or been too close to the Trump White House, they can't have that clouding whatever the committee does next on this investigation.
It hadn't been doing much. It had been stalled since this incident from a couple of weeks ago. And so now, there will be a clean break. Nunes will step down. And these other Republicans will take his place, at least in terms of examining documents, potentially interviewing witnesses and potentially calling future hearings into their investigation.
GREENE: One fact we should not forget, I mean, one of the questions here - was there any collusion whatsoever between Russia and the Trump campaign? Devin Nunes served on the Trump transition committee. It was not just he was close to this White House because he went to the White House and got these classified documents. He was close to this president.
EWING: Correct. Yeah. He was on the part of the committee during the presidential transition that helped Trump and his aides pick appointees for executive committees. You know, when you're coming into office as a new administration, there's a ton of jobs including top jobs in the federal government you have to fill. And Nunes was part of the panel that did that as an ally of the president.
He said at the outset of this process that he believed they could be independent, be credible, be bipartisan. But since then, his interface with the White House, his access of this classified material at the White House has brought so much pressure that they felt clearly they couldn't fight those charges and have him continue to do it going forward.
GREENE: So is this a sign that Donald Trump and his White House, they want a clean investigation that in their hopes would show that there was just nothing the Trump campaign did with Russia, and they want to make sure that that is credible going forward?
EWING: Well. The Trump team has been saying that all along. But this process that has taken place this morning here in Washington is all about Congress. This is a congressional matter as opposed to Trump using some kind of power by the executive branch. But at the same time, they have also decided that this inquiry should really be about the use of so-called unmasking by the past administration, that of Barack Obama.
Because what Nunes has revealed from this information he got is that allegedly the former national security adviser, Susan Rice, might have been asking inappropriately to reveal the names of people including Trump transition aides as part of the intelligence that she was getting from the Intelligence Committee.
GREENE: Oh, I see. So the White House was worried that Nunes was almost getting in the way of getting the narrative out there that the Trump White House wants out there, which is that there was this surveillance?
EWING: Potentially. And having Republicans who don't have these ethics issues run this process means that they could focus on it more fulsomely and talk more about that storyline, which is what the White House wants the story to be. Democrats want to tie this as close as they can between the Trump team and the Russian meddling from last year.
GREENE: Phil, thanks a lot.
EWING: Thank you.
GREENE: That is NPR national security editor Phil Ewing talking about Devin Nunes, who will no longer be leading the House Intelligence investigation into Russian attempts to meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.