Trump ally in Congress steps aside as Russia probe leader

Rep. Devin Nunes attends a meeting of the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill, in March 2017

The Republican leader of the House investigation into Russian interference in the US election stepped aside Thursday after being criticized for compromising the probe in visits to the White House.

Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, had sought to turn the investigation away from Russia and toward President Donald Trump's allegations that the previous Obama administration had abused its powers by spying on Trump and his advisors.

Rancor over this, and over Nunes's sharing top secret intelligence reports with Trump but not members of his own committee, had driven the committee's probe to a halt.

The committee was originally tasked with examining how Russia interfered in last year's presidential campaign and whether any Trump aides or associates collaborated with Moscow.

Democrats accused Nunes of seeking to protect Trump by focusing on allegations of abuse by president Barack Obama's staff.

Trump himself has repeatedly branded the idea that Russia may have helped him to victory in the November 8 election as "fake news," while demanding attention to whether Obama staff combed top secret intercepts to dig up information on Trump's team.

Nunes said he was temporarily stepping aside from the probe to answer allegations made to Congress's ethics body by Democratic groups that he had revealed classified information to the public.

"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 US citizens and other abuses of power," he said in a statement.

- Getting 'back on track'-

Adam Schiff, the Democratic vice chairman of the committee, said Nunes' move would allow the Russia probe to get "fully back on track."

"The important work of investigating the Russian involvement in our election never subsided, but we have a fresh opportunity to move forward in the unified and nonpartisan way that an investigation of this seriousness demands," he said.

Nunes' move ends weeks of very public tensions between himself and Schiff that had draw criticism from all quarters of Congress.

The House panel is one of several bodies examining the Russia scandal. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has been investigating the issue since June, when it became clear to US intelligence that the Russian government was behind hacks of Democratic Party communications and a misinformation campaign that targeted Trump rival Hillary Clinton.

In January, after the election, US intelligence chiefs said they had concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin had masterminded the effort to damage Clinton.

In Congress, the House and Senate intelligence committees have been leading separate probes, and the open fight between Nunes and Schiff had raised concerns that the House investigation would be subsumed by politics.

- Abuse of intelligence intercepts? -

Nunes further raised doubts after he went to the White House on March 21 to view top secret files he said indicated abuse of intelligence by the Obama administration.

The files were intelligence intercepts of the communications of foreign officials, which were either with US officials, or mentioned their names. Under US privacy laws, the names of Americans in such intercept files have to be masked.

But Nunes said publicly he had discovered files where the names had been unmasked by unnamed Obama officials, and he took his discovery to Trump, while not sharing it with his committee.

The move appeared to boost Trump's claims that Obama officials had misused intelligence powers to spy on Trump's administration before and after the election.

"Trump Russia story is a hoax," the president tweeted on March 27.

"The real story turns out to be SURVEILLANCE and LEAKING! Find the leakers," he said on April 2.

While Democrats blasted Trump and his supporters for trying to change the direction of the investigation, Obama's National Security Advisor Susan Rice added fuel to the fire on Tuesday when she acknowledged reports that she had done some of the unmasking.

Rice said what she had done was legal and was done as part of an intensified look into how Russia had interfered in the election.

"The allegation is that somehow Obama administration officials utilized intelligence for political purposes. That's absolutely false," she told MSNBC television.

"From basically August through the end of the administration (January 20) we were hearing more and more, getting more and more information about Russian interference in our electoral process. It was of grave concern," she said.