WASHINGTON — Speaker Kevin McCarthy on Tuesday unilaterally exiled Reps. Adam B. Schiff and Eric Swalwell from the House Intelligence Committee, making good on a long-standing threat to expel the California Democrats in his first major act of partisan retribution since taking the majority.
The move was a much anticipated tit-for-tat after Democrats, then in the majority, voted in 2021 to eject two Republicans, Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Paul Gosar of Arizona, from congressional committees for internet posts that advocated violence against their political enemies. It was also payback for the decision by Nancy Pelosi, then the House speaker, to bar Republicans who had helped former President Donald Trump spread the election lies that fueled the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol from sitting on the special committee investigating the riot.
Now that he is in control, McCarthy sought to punish Schiff and Swalwell, two favorite foils of Republicans who had played key roles in the two impeachments of Trump, though he denied that his decision was retaliatory. Instead, he argued that both men had displayed behavior unbecoming of the committee tasked with overseeing the nation's intelligence services.
In a letter outlining his decision to Hakeem Jeffries, the House minority leader, McCarthy decried what he described as "the misuse" of the intelligence panel during the past four years, arguing that it had "severely undermined its primary national security and oversight missions — ultimately leaving our nation less safe." He called the dismissals of Schiff and Swalwell necessary "to maintain a standard worthy of this committee's responsibilities."
McCarthy has said that Schiff "openly lied to the American people" when he chaired the intelligence panel during Trump's presidency. In September 2019, Schiff was excoriated by Republicans for dramatically paraphrasing the contents of a telephone call in which Trump had pressured President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden and his son, and for implying, falsely, that his committee had had no contact with a whistleblower raising concerns about their conversation.
Earlier, in March 2019, Republicans on the committee had demanded that Schiff step aside for having said that he had seen "more than circumstantial evidence" of collusion between Trump and the Russians in 2017. That claim had been called into question by the findings of Robert Mueller, the special counsel who had looked into the matter, which Attorney General William Barr had summarized in a letter to certain members of Congress. Republicans accused Schiff of having compromised the integrity of the panel by knowingly promoting false information.
Speaking to reporters at the Capitol on Tuesday night, Schiff countered that McCarthy was "trying to remove me from the intel committee for holding his boss at Mar-a-Lago accountable."
"It's just another body blow to the institution of Congress that he's behaving this way, but it just shows how weak he is as a speaker," he added.
Republicans have railed against Swalwell, who served as a manager in Trump's second impeachment trial, citing an Axios report that reported that Swalwell was targeted by a suspected Chinese spy as part of an influence campaign in 2014, before he served on the intelligence panel. The report said that around 2015, federal investigators alerted Swalwell to their concerns and he "cut off all ties."
"This is all about political vengeance," Swalwell said of McCarthy's action.
Because the intelligence panel is a "select" committee, the speaker has the authority to dictate who can serve, just as Pelosi was able to block Republicans appointed by McCarthy from the select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack. However, Schiff and Swalwell are not expected to lose their other committee assignments.
Removing members from other committees requires a vote on the House floor. Democrats held such a vote in February of 2021 to remove Greene from the Education and Budget Committees, after social medial posts surfaced from before she was elected in which she endorsed the executions of Democrats and spread bigoted conspiracy theories. They held another vote months later to eject Gosar from his committees after he posted an animated video that depicted him killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.
In both instances, some Republicans joined Democrats in voting to remove their colleagues from congressional panels.
McCarthy returned both Greene and Gosar to committees this month, and promoted Greene to serve on two high-profile panels, Oversight and Homeland Security. Gosar also won a seat on Oversight.
McCarthy has also threatened to remove Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., from congressional committees for criticism of Israel that Republicans and some Democrats have condemned as antisemitic. Omar apologized in 2019 for saying that support for Israel in Washington was "all about the Benjamins baby," a comment that members of both parties denounced as a reference to an antisemitic trope. She was criticized again in 2021 when she made statements that appeared to compare human rights abuses by Israel with acts committed by Hamas and the Taliban, and later said she had not meant to equate them.
It was not clear whether McCarthy, who holds a razor-thin majority, had the votes to oust Omar. At least two Republicans have publicly expressed qualms about doing so.
And Omar on Tuesday night told reporters at the Capitol that some Republicans had told her privately they believed such a move would be "uncalled for."
"They are trying to do whatever it is that they can within their conference to make sure there is no vote to remove me from the Foreign Affairs Committee," she added.