House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, March 24, 2017. Nunes said Friday that Paul Manafort, the former campaign chairman for President Donald Trump, volunteered to be interviewed by committee members. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
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House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, March 24, 2017. Nunes said Friday that Paul Manafort, the former campaign chairman for President Donald Trump, volunteered to be interviewed by committee members. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
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Story highlights

Cillizza surmises that Nunes was under heavy pressure before his decision to step aside

Nunes said he believes stepping aside is in the best interest of Congress

(CNN) —  

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes announced Thursday that he would step aside from the investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, an abrupt about-face from the California Republican who had insisted he had no plans to recuse himself.

Here’s Nunes full 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.

At issue is an at-the-time secret trip Nunes took the White House last month in which he was briefed the incidental collection of information from Trump campaign officials as the result of a surveillance program directed at foreign nationals. Nunes revealed that he had briefed President Trump on the information before he had briefed the members of his own committee. Ethics experts suggested that Nunes had created a massive conflict of interest with the trip and the meeting with Trump, raising major questions about whether he could be impartial in leading the investigation by his committee.

Asked late last month about the prospect of stepping away from the Russia investigation, Nunes responded: “Why would I?”

Someone – or something – changed Nunes’s mind between then and now. And I guarantee you it was not the ethics complaints filed by “leftwing activist groups” that explain why Nunes reversed course Thursday morning.

My very strong suspicion is that Nunes came under heavy pressure – from Congressional leadership and even from the White House – to get out of the way because the controversy surrounding his White House visit was causing a major distraction.

Speaker Paul Ryan said as much during his weekly press conference on Thursday.

“Chairman Nunes wants to make sure this is not a distraction to a very important investigation,” Ryan said.

00:50 - Source: CNN
Paul Ryan: I still trust Nunes

Republicans have struggled to get out from under questions regarding the Trump campaign’s contact with Russian officials for months now. The controversy has already claimed the job of former national security adviser Mike Flynn, who publicly misled Vice President Mike Pence about the nature of his conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. It’s also forced Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from the ongoing Justice Department investigation due to his misremembering that he had met with Kislyak twice during the course of the 2016 campaign.

For his part, Trump continues to insist that the entire story is a media fabrication designed to distract from the real story – that he was wiretapped by the Obama Administration during the course of the campaign. (Trump offers no evidence to back up this claim and intelligence officials insist it’s not true.)

“The Russia story is a total hoax,” Trump told the New York Times in an interview Wednesday. “There has been absolutely nothing coming out of that. But what, you know, what various things led into it was the story that we’re talking about, the Susan Rice. What’s happened is terrible.”

Nunes’s decision to recuse himself will, Republicans hope, be some short term pain in exchange for a long-term gain. Yes, it will create even more smoke for a controversy that seen a lot of that already. But, Republicans believe it will also, eventually, clear the decks so that if and when the investigation by the Intelligence Committee yields no significant wrongdoing by the Trump campaign it will be regarded as a credible finding by the political world.