WASHINGTON — The longtime Texas Republican tapped to lead the House probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election is more familiar quietly working on agriculture issues.
But Rep. Mike Conaway has created headlines. He expressed skepticism about the high-profile probe and compared the foreign interference from Russia to Mexican entertainers trying to get out the vote for Democrat Hillary Clinton in Nevada.
“Those are foreign actors, foreign people, influencing the vote in Nevada,” Conaway told the Dallas Morning News. “You don’t hear the Democrats screaming and saying one word about that.”
On Thursday, Speaker Paul Ryan tapped Conaway to continue the investigation after House intelligence committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., stepped aside, citing ethics complaints that he mishandled classified information.
Despite his party credentials — he’s a longtime friend of former President George W. Bush — Conaway has worked with Democrats during his seven terms in the House. He’s the current chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, in which alliances often fall along regional, not party lines. He’s also a former chairman of the House Ethics Committee, which reviews ethics charges on a bipartisan basis.
In a statement Thursday, Conaway promised to work across the aisle.
“My profession as a CPA and auditor has taught me to be objective and methodical, and that is how I intend to help lead this investigation,” he said, adding that he is confident he and the top Democrat on the panel, California Rep. Adam Schiff, “will be able to work together to conduct an effective, bipartisan investigation.”
During the intelligence committee’s first hearing on the Russia probe last month, Conaway questioned FBI Director James Comey on how intelligence agencies prove who is behind a hack and what a foreign leader’s “intent” is. He appeared skeptical of intelligence agencies’ assessment that Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted Trump to win because he didn’t like his Democratic opponent, Clinton.
“I mean the logic is that because he really didn’t like president — the candidate Clinton — that he automatically liked Trump. That assessment’s based on what?” Conaway asked.
Conaway grew up in and represents deeply conservative West Texas, where he met and worked for Bush years ago as an accountant. He served in the Army and is an ordained deacon in the Baptist church. When he became chairman of the agriculture panel, he started a new tradition of saying prayers before every committee meeting.
Schiff said in an interview with The Associated Press that Conaway is “a straight shooter.”
The Democrat also noted that Conaway isn’t close to President Donald Trump. Nunes was on the White House transition team, and Democrats have complained he was too friendly with the president as the panel investigated ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia. Nunes last month disclosed that Trump associates’ communication had been swept up by U.S. spy agencies and, he suggested, mishandled by Obama administration officials.
“I have worked with Mike for many years now,” Schiff said. “I have a lot of respect for him.”
Trump himself confirmed that he’s not close with Conaway, saying Thursday, “the gentleman replacing (Nunes), who I don’t know, I hear is a very, very highly respected man. High quality.”
The Texas Republican supported Trump in the election last year, and publicly offered to help him with advice on agriculture issues. But it wasn’t clear if the campaign took him up on that.
In February, Conaway was critical of Trump for comments he made in a 2005 recording released during the presidential campaign. In the recording, Trump made a series of comments about groping women.
At an Agriculture Department event, Conaway said Trump’s comments “should never have happened, it was never excused in a private conversation.”
But he had stronger words for women who carried explicit signs targeting Trump at the Women’s March on Washington the day after the inauguration.
“There was a taint to that march that just cut me to the core,” Conaway said Feb. 23. “Women carrying signs and wearing costumes in the foulest, nastiest, crudest, crassest manner possible, talking about female body parts.”
Referring to the song “God Bless America,” Conaway asked, “Can God bless the killing of 57 million babies in 43 years? Can he bless the coarsening of our society, the language we use, the stuff that comes out of Hollywood that we think’s entertainment, the way we deify in many instances the folks that put that on?”
He added: “You’ve got to live a moral code.”
Associated Press writers Julie Pace and Eileen Sullivan contributed to this report.