The new leader of the U.S. Department of Justice Criminal Division has never prosecuted a case and recently represented a major Russian bank aligned with the Kremlin. Nevertheless, Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst joined every Republican present (plus one conservative Democrat) to confirm Brian Benczkowski on July 11 as assistant attorney general.
What could go wrong?
The nominee’s inexperience should have disqualified him from this role. The Associated Press reported after the Senate vote,
The position is one of the most significant in the Justice Department, with the assistant attorney general having oversight of criminal cases involving public corruption, financial fraud, computer hacking, drug trafficking and other major crimes.
Benczkowski sought to downplay those concerns at his confirmation hearing last year, saying, “Being head of the criminal division in the first instance is principally a management and leadership job.” He noted that he had held multiple Justice Department posts, including serving as chief of staff to former Attorney General Michael Mukasey in the Bush administration.
“One of the things that I learned in the course of those previous positions is how important it is to consult and listen to the career lawyers in the department,” Benczkowski said.
More troubling, Beczkowski disclosed his representation of Alfa Bank last summer, soon after President Donald Trump nominated him for the Justice Department post. Russian President Vladimir Putin has frequently used private financial institutions to further his government’s political goals, so I don’t know why any senator would want someone with an Alfa Bank connection anywhere near a decision-making role on federal prosecutions. I also don’t understand why anyone actively seeking a Justice Department job–as Beczkowski was in early 2017–would take on Alfa Bank as a client.
In a recent letter asking Trump to withdraw Beczkowski’s nomination, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee noted,
The Senate does not know if Alfa Bank has been, or still is, under federal criminal investigation, nor do we know the full story behind Alfa Bank’s suspicious contacts with the Trump Organization during the 2016 campaign. The work that Mr. Beczkowski did for Alfa Bank, which included reviewing the Steele Dossier for a possible defamation suit and overseeing a forensic data firm’s analysis of Alfa’s computer server contacts, in no way put to rest the serious questions about Alfa Bank’s activities.
Neither Grassley nor Ernst released a statement on yesterday’s confirmation vote. Before the Senate Judiciary Committee voted on Beczkowski’s nomination last September, Grassley defended his committee’s former top Republican staffer, saying,
I’ve seen no credible allegation – let alone, any evidence – that Mr. Benczkowski did anything wrong or unethical related to his limited representation of Alfa Bank or otherwise. He’s promised to recuse himself from handling any matters involving Alfa Bank that may come under his jurisdiction in the Department and to consult with ethics officials regarding any other times he may need to recuse.
Cases directly involving Alfa Bank are only a small part of the potential problem, as Pema Levy discussed in a good piece for Mother Jones. Excerpts:
“I don’t think in the history of the department there’s ever been anybody so ill-prepared” for this job, says Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who has been one of the chief agitators against Benczkowski’s nomination. He says Benczkowski has “barely set foot in a courtroom.” (Benczkowski has never prosecuted a case.) He continues, “So if the obvious reason for why you’d want him there is not evident, then you have to look for less obvious reasons.”
Whitehouse posits several ways in which Benczkowski could undermine the [special counsel Robert] Mueller investigation from his perch atop the Criminal Division, which would give him insight into the investigation. He could share information about the probe with [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions, who recused himself from the investigation, or with President Donald Trump’s legal team. He could also slow down the investigation by delaying or denying any requests that come to his desk.
And Whitehouse notes that the Trump administration is surely aware that the president could replace Rod Rosenstein with Benczkowski, since anyone confirmed by the Senate to any post can be temporarily appointed to other posts that typically require Senate confirmation. That would transfer oversight of the Russia investigation to him. “There are lots of nefarious explanations for why this guy at this time gets installed in a position with a window into the Mueller investigation,” he says.
Grassley and Ernst have never opposed confirming any Trump nominee, nor have they expressed serious worries about Trump/Russia contacts. If they had their way, the Mueller investigation wouldn’t exist. Iowans deserve more than a rubber-stamp for this administration.
Relevant portion of Senator Chuck Grassley’s statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee on September 28, 2017:
Brian Benczkowski, nominated to serve as the Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division, is ready for a vote today. And I’ll say a few words on his nomination.
Mr. Benczkowski is well known by many of us on the Committee, as he served as the Republican staff director from 2009 to 2010. He has also previously served in numerous leadership positions at the Department of Justice.
We received his nomination more than 3 months ago, on June 6th. We held his nomination hearing more than 50 days ago, on July 25th. During his hearing, Mr. Benczkowski unequivocally testified that he will enforce our nation’s criminal laws faithfully, fairly, and impartially.
Senator Durbin and others have raised concerns about Mr. Benczkowski’s legal representation of Alfa Bank while he was working at the law firm of Kirkland and Ellis, a matter of which the Senate learned when reviewing his FBI background investigation.
Normally the Committee doesn’t publicly discuss any matters contained in the background investigation. But because this matter raised some concerns with many Members, Mr. Benczkowski voluntarily waived his privacy rights in his FBI background investigation related to Alfa Bank, so we could freely and publicly question him on this matter. At his hearing, the Committee members extensively questioned him about his representation of Alfa Bank. He answered all our questions. He was not evasive. His testimony was public. Mr. Benczkowski also subsequently responded in writing to several rounds of written questions submitted to him.
Following this hearing, I helped Senator Durbin arrange an intelligence briefing with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence related to Alfa Bank. I also helped arrange for the Deputy Attorney General to call Senator Durbin to explain the Department’s long-standing tradition that it does not confirm nor deny investigations, particularly when it comes to a nominee’s client. And I understand the Department of Justice’s reasons for this position. Former FBI Director James Comey recently came under fire for doing this very thing. And I don’t want to set the precedent that we demand to know whether a nominee’s former law client is under investigation.
When clients are under investigation, of course they need lawyers to represent them. Are we now going to have a political litmus test for nominees that’s based upon the clients they stepped forward to represent in private practice?
Finally, during all this, I’ve seen no credible allegation – let alone, any evidence – that Mr. Benczkowski did anything wrong or unethical related to his limited representation of Alfa Bank or otherwise. He’s promised to recuse himself from handling any matters involving Alfa Bank that may come under his jurisdiction in the Department and to consult with ethics officials regarding any other times he may need to recuse.
I’ve tried to accommodate the minority’s requests related to Mr. Benczkowski’s nomination and it’s time to vote on his nomination today.