Texas Republican Mike Conaway will now preside over the House Intelligence Committee's investigation into Russia's meddling in the 2016 presidential election. This comes after the announcement on Thursday morning that the embattled Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., will be stepping away from the Russia probe.
Conaway is a seven-term congressman and the second-ranking Republican on the committee. Said to be well-respected among his GOP colleagues, Conaway will have the difficult task of rebuilding trust and restoring credibility to a House probe that has, at times, resembled more of a soap opera than a collaborative bipartisan investigation.
Nunes, who will continue to chair the committee, seemed to leave the door open to fully resuming his duties leading the Russia inquiry at some point. In a statement, Nunes said that Conaway along with Reps. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., and Tom Rooney, R-Fla., will "temporarily take charge of the Committee's Russia investigation."
The House Ethics Committee is looking into allegations that Nunes possibly divulged classified information at a controversial press conference in March. That's where Nunes told reporters about evidence of "incidental" surveillance he viewed of then-incoming President Trump's transition team. Nunes himself was a member of that transition team.
Nunes' statement said the accusations against him about possible ethics violations are politically motivated and launched by "leftwing activist groups." He added that he thought it was in the best interest of the Congress and the committee for him to step aside, "despite the baselessness of the charges."
House Speaker Paul Ryan, speaking to reporters on Thursday, expressed his faith in Conaway's ability to lead the investigation.
"I am confident that he will oversee a professional investigation into Russia's actions and follow the facts wherever they may lead," Ryan said.
Meanwhile, Conaway has received some criticism for appearing to make light of Russia's interference in the U.S. elections. The Dallas Morning News reported just days before the inauguration that Conaway equated Russian election meddling with Democrats using Mexican entertainers to energize their voters. He told the paper:
"Harry Reid and the Democrats brought in Mexican soap opera stars, singers and entertainers who had immense influence in those communities into Las Vegas, to entertain, get out the vote and so forth ... Those are foreign actors, foreign people, influencing the vote in Nevada. You don't hear the Democrats screaming and saying one word about that."
And just last month during a House Intelligence Committee hearing, Conaway set off on a peculiar line of questioning with FBI Director James Comey, comparing U.S.-Russian relations to that of the Big 12 football rivalries between the Texas Longhorns and the Texas Tech Red Raiders.
Conaway represents a sprawling, deeply red Texas district that includes the cities of Odessa and Midland.
He easily won re-election last year, winning his district by a whopping 79 percentage points. On his congressional website bio page, Conaway describes himself as a conservative who "believes in the principles of lower taxes, smaller government and a secure nation."
He is a certified public accountant by training and an ordained Baptist deacon. He also chairs the House Committee on Agriculture and is a member of the Armed Services Committee.
In a statement, California Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, struck an optimistic tone by saying that with Conaway at the helm of the Russia investigation there's a "fresh opportunity" to move the probe forward in a nonpartisan manner.
Look forward to working on investigation with @ConawayTX11. He's great colleague & new role gives investigation fresh & important new start.— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) April 6, 2017
"With Respect to Representative Conaway, I look forward to joining with him and putting our investigation fully back on track," Schiff said in a statement.
It may be important to note that Schiff did not renew calls for an independent investigation as he has for a number of weeks, including in an interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep last month:
Inskeep: If [Nunes] recuses himself, he remains chairman, and so that part of his work is taken over by Mike Conaway of Texas, I guess, who's the number two guy — or Peter King of New York who's the number three guy. They're still Republicans. Are they going to be independent enough for you?
Schiff: Well, look, I think it's the best that we can do within the House Intelligence Committee. I do think that it calls up the need once again for a truly independent commission, something that would supplement whatever we do in Congress, but would be detached from Congress, would be beyond any kind of political interference by the White House. So the public ultimately can have confidence in the work product. That's the ultimate goal."