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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Republican head of a congressional inquiry into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election said he would temporarily step aside from the probe on Thursday because he is under investigation for disclosing classified information.

Devin Nunes, chairman of the House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and an ally of Republican President Donald Trump, described charges that he made unauthorized disclosures of classified information as “entirely false and politically motivated.”

The surprise disclosure that Nunes was under investigation added new uncertainty to the wider Russia probe his committee is carrying out. The investigation is one of several in Congress examining whether Russia tried to influence the election in Trump’s favor, mostly by hacking Democratic operatives’ emails and releasing embarrassing information. Russia denies the allegations.

The House Ethics Committee issued a rare statement saying it would investigate allegations Nunes may have made unauthorized disclosures of classified information “in violation of House Rules, law, regulations, or other standards of conduct.”

Nunes said in a statement that he had decided to step aside from the Russia investigation to fight the allegations and wanted “to expedite the dismissal of these false claims.”

Representative Mike Conaway, the most senior Republican on the intelligence committee, will be the new leader of the probe.

The top Democrat on the panel, Representative Adam Schiff, said Nunes’ decision to step aside from the probe was made in “the best interests of the committee, and I respect that decision.”

Democrats have criticized Nunes, a member of Trump’s transition team, for his handling of the Russia investigation after he received information at the White House, held a news conference about it and briefed Trump on it, all before sharing it with other members of his committee.

The ethics investigation stems from whether Nunes disclosed classified information while publicly discussing the contents of foreign intelligence reports.

Nunes and his spokesman have insisted that no classified information was revealed, but Democrats and former intelligence lawyers said it was clear he had done so. Nunes himself at one point said during his March 22 news conference that what he was discussing was “all classified information.”

Trump sparked a controversy in early March when he tweeted, without giving evidence, that Obama had wiretapped him while the New York businessman competed with Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race.

Two and a half weeks later, Nunes held a news conference saying an unidentified source had shown him intelligence reports containing “unmasked” names of Trump associates who were incidentally caught up in routine foreign surveillance.

Immediately after Nunes’ news conference, critics argued that he had disclosed classified information in what many saw as an effort to provide cover to Trump’s wiretapping claim and to distract from the wider Russia investigation.

Nunes said the surveillance of Trump associates appeared legal but expressed concern that names of U.S. citizens may have been improperly revealed in the reports and widely disseminated among government officials.

That allegation, in turn, has kicked off an evolving, unsubstantiated controversy about whether the Obama White House tried to spy on the incoming Trump administration.

A House of Representatives’ rule, first reported on by The Daily Beast, requires an ethics probe of “any unauthorized disclosure of intelligence or intelligence-related information.”

U.S. foreign intelligence activities are classified, but the president can authorize the release of information about them. It is not clear whether Trump authorized Nunes to discuss the foreign surveillance.

The ethics probe came just weeks after Nunes and other Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee used a public hearing with FBI Director James Comey to decry leaks of classified intelligence to the media that have fueled concern about Trump’s ties to Russia and led to the ouster of former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

(Additional Reporting by Amanda Becker, Susan Heavey David Alexander and David Morgan; Editing by Alistair Bell and Jonathan Oatis)

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Eric Holder

The failure of major federal voting rights legislation in the Senate has left civil rights advocates saying they are determined to keep fighting—including by suing in battleground states. But the little bipartisan consensus that exists on election reform would, at best, lead to much narrower legislation that is unlikely to address state-level GOP efforts now targeting Democratic blocs.

“This is the loss of a battle, but it is not necessarily the loss of a war, and this war will go on,” Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general and Democrat, told MSNBC, saying that he and the Democratic Party will be suing in states where state constitutions protect voting rights. “This fight for voting rights and voter protection and for our democracy will continue.”

“The stakes are too important to give up now,” said Damon Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which for years has operated an Election Day hotline to help people vote. “Our country cannot claim to be free while allowing states to legislate away that freedom at will.”

In recent weeks, as it became clear that the Senate was not going to change its rules to allow the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to pass with a simple majority, there have been efforts by some lawmakers, election policy experts, and civil rights advocates to identify what election reforms could pass the Senate.

“There are several areas… where I think there could be bipartisan consensus,” said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, in a briefing on January 20. “These areas are all around those guardrails of democracy. They are all about ensuring that however the voters speak that their voice is heard… and cannot be subverted by anyone in the post-election process.”

Becker cited updating the 1887 Electoral Count Act, which addressed the process where state-based slates of presidential electors are accepted by Congress. (In recent weeks, new evidence has surfaced showing that Donald Trump’s supporters tried to present Congress with forged certificates as part of an effort to disrupt ratifying the results on January 6, 2021.) Updating that law could also include clarifying which state officials have final authority in elections and setting out clear timetables for challenging election results in federal court after Election Day.

Five centrist Washington-based think tanks issued a report on January 20, Prioritizing Achievable Federal Election Reform, which suggested federal legislation could codify practices now used by nearly three-quarters of the states. Those include requiring voters to present ID, offering at least a week of early voting, allowing all voters to request a mailed-out ballot, and allowing states to start processing returned absentee ballots a week before Election Day.

But the report, which heavily drew on a task force of 29 state and local election officials from 20 states convened by Washington’s Bipartisan Policy Center, was notable in what it did not include, such as restoring the major enforcement section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was removed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. It did not mention the Electoral Count Act nor growing threats to election officials from Trump supporters.

“This won’t satisfy all supporters of the Freedom to Vote Act, but this is a plausible & serious package of reforms to make elections more accessible and secure that could attract bipartisan support,” tweeted Charles Stewart III, a political scientist and director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab. “A good starting point.”

The reason the centrist recommendations won’t satisfy civil rights advocates is that many of the most troubling developments since the 2020 election would likely remain.

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Politico Magazine published an article Thursday that perfectly embodies the failures of tabloid-style political journalism to address the fundamental dangers facing the country: “145 Things Donald Trump Did in His First Year as the Most Consequential Former President Ever.”

“In ways both absurd and serious, the 45th president refused to let go of the spotlight or his party and redefined what it means to be a former leader of the free world,” the article sub-headline states, sitting above a colorful image containing a photo of a smiling Trump and images that have defined his post-presidency, including his second impeachment, golf clubs, and a vaccination needle.

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