Most of the chatter in Washington this week has centered on Donald Trump’s pick to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy. But an equally important development may be slipping under the radar. The former lawyer for a Russian bank suspected of helping the Kremlin hack the election for Trump may be about to take a senior role at the Justice Department.
Last summer, Trump nominated prominent Washington lawyer Brian Benczkowski as Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Criminal Division–the number-five post at the DOJ. The Criminal Division oversees the enforcement of most federal criminal laws, and provides advice and guidance on criminal matters. Benczkowski was previously a staffer for Senators Pete Domenici and Jeff Sessions, as well as for Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner. He briefly worked in the Justice Department under George W. Bush, where he helped mend fences with Congress in the wake of the U. S. Attorney firings scandal. Most recently, he served on the Trump transition team.
Until very recently, Benczkowski had a very good reputation on both sides of the aisle. But that changed when word got out that one of his clients at white-shoe law firm Kirkland & Ellis was Alfa Bank, the largest private commercial bank in Russia. According to Christopher Steele’s dossier, two of Alfa’s principals, Mikhail Fridman and Petr Aven, were involved in the Kremlin’s hacking efforts. Fridman and Aven adamantly deny this. They have not only sued Steele, but Buzzfeed, who initially broke the story, and Fusion GPS, the firm that hired Steele.
Alfa was also investigated by the FBI for repeatedly looking up the contact information for a Trump Organization server during the summer of 2016. By the FBI’s reckoning, an Alfa server accounted for 80 percent of searches for contact information between May and September 2016. Although there is no evidence as of yet that Russian officials used the bank’s server to communicate with the Trump campaign, there is also not enough evidence to clear Alfa of wrongdoing either.
At his confirmation hearing last summer, Benczkowski maintained that he can be impartial, and conceded that he probably wouldn’t have taken on Alfa Bank as a client had he known he was being considered for a DOJ post. However, he refused to commit to recusing himself from Russia-related matters, which didn’t sit well with the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
One of those Democrats, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, was also concerned that Benczkowski could have a “window” into Robert Mueller’s investigation, since the Criminal Division could potentially consult with Mueller in the manner that it does with U. S. Attorneys. Whitehouse expressed concern that there weren’t enough safeguards to prevent Trump from using the Criminal Division to interfere with Mueller.
Benczkowski’s nomination has stalled even though the Judiciary Committee voted along party lines to send his nomination to the floor. Last month, all 10 Democrats on the committee urged Trump to yank Benczkowski’s nomination. They believe he will not be able to “credibly oversee” the division’s involvement in the Mueller investigation or any potential investigation into former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen. They also cited his lack of prosecutorial experience.
But just before the Fourth of July break, Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, who is also a member of the Judiciary Committee, learned that the Republicans have scheduled a vote on that nomination for next week. Durbin sounded the alarm on Twitter.
The fact that Trump picked someone with no prosecutorial experience for this post is bad enough. But Benczkowski’s refusal to recuse himself from Russia matters should be disqualifying. And it would be–in a normal administration.
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