On purely partisan lines (Manchin broke Dem ranks; McCain unable to vote), the Senate has just confirmed a top Justice Department official who could help oversee the Trump-Russia investigation, despite his own troubling connections to Russia and his close ties to Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Brian Benczkowski, a former Senate aide to Sessions, will now lead the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, a job that could give him sway over special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. Several Senate Democrats have argued that Benczkowski should be disqualified due to previous work on behalf of a Russian bank with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and a general lack of experience in criminal law.
“The Benczkowski vote could mark a pivotal moment in the Russia investigation,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) tweeted Tuesday, as the vote on the nomination approached. “The warning signs are clear.”
Will Senate Republicans simply rubber stamp this nomination? The Benczkowski vote could mark a pivotal moment in the Russia investigation. The warning signs are clear. Read my letter here: pic.twitter.com/I3FbK26ZMJ
— Senator Dick Durbin (@SenatorDurbin) July 10, 2018
Durbin on the Senate’s confirmation of Brian Benczkowski to head DOJ’s criminal division: “This could prove to be a historic mistake.” pic.twitter.com/2ighI2qIr5
— Natasha Bertrand (@NatashaBertrand) July 11, 2018
For the past year, Democrats have raised several concerns about Benczkowski. He has never tried a criminal case, and yet would lead the Justice Department’s criminal prosecutors. He was an aide to Sessions in the Senate and remains close to the attorney general. He led the Justice Department’s transition after Trump’s election and then asked Sessions for a job as a US attorney. In the meantime, he returned to private practice.In March 2017, Benczkowski took on Alfa Bank as a client. The bank, which is run by oligarchs with close ties to Putin, was part of a strange episode in the Trump-Russia scandal.
As Mother Jones reported previously:
In late October 2016, Slate reported that the bank and the Trump Organization had a high volume of connections between their computer servers. But the FBI had investigated the link and concluded there could be an innocuous explanation, according to the New York Times. Alfa Bank hired an outside firm, Mandiant, to study the data transmissions. With the limited data the firm was given, it found no evidence of substantive contact between the bank and the Trump Organization.
But in the first months of 2017, Alfa Bank’s server again logged suspicious traffic potentially connected to the Trump Organization. This time, Alfa Bank turned to Kirkland & Ellis, where Benczkowski took the case. His job was to oversee a second investigation of the new server connections, which was conducted by a different forensics firm, and to bring the results to the FBI and Justice Department. Benczkowski was in the midst of this effort when he was nominated to lead the Criminal Division. At his confirmation hearing, Benczkowski promised to recuse himself from any matters relating to Alfa Bank for two years, the minimum required, but not from the ongoing Russia investigation. The report overseen by Kirkland & Ellis again found no evidence of contact between Alfa Bank and the Trump Organization.
Democrats have argued that Benczkowski’s work for Alfa Bank, when he knew he might soon receive a Justice Department post, exhibited poor judgement. “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 Democrats on the Judiciary Committee stated in their letter to Trump this week.
As part of his work on behalf of Alfa Bank, Benczkowski got involved with another piece of the Russia investigation: the Steele dossier, which compiled uncorroborated reports of Russian interference in the US elections. Many Republicans in Congress have attempted to discredit the dossier and its author, ex-British spy Christopher Steele. The dossier, much of which was published by BuzzFeed in January, contained allegations about Alfa Bank:
According to the dossier, Putin has leverage over the bank’s owners and receives informal advice about the United States from two of the three oligarchs who run the bank, Mikhail Fridman and Petr Aven. In his role as counsel for Alfa Bank, Benczkowski reviewed this portion of the dossier after it was published and advised Fridman and Aven on the viability of a defamation suit against BuzzFeed.
Ultimately, the bank’s three owners did sue BuzzFeed,though Benczkowski’s firm did not represent them.
During his confirmation hearing, Benczkowski agreed to recuse himself from matters related to Alfa Bank for two years, the minimum required, but declined to promise a recusal from the Russia investigation. Sessions had recused himself from the Russia investigation in March 2017 due to his ties to the Trump campaign. Democrats fear that Benczkowski could end up as a backchannel to share information about the investigation with the attorney general—a fear that a Justice Department spokeswoman has dismissed as “insulting and absurd.” It’s likely that the position of Criminal Division chief would provide him a window into the Russia probe as well as the investigations by Mueller and the US attorney’s office investigation into Trump’s longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen:
Justice Department official Stephen Boyd wrote to [Rhode Island’s Democratic Sen. Sheldon] Whitehouse in December that special counsel regulations require Mueller to “‘consult with appropriate offices within the Department for guidance’” on the rules and procedures of the department. That suggests that Benczkowski could have significant insight into the investigation, and even some control over aspects of it.
There is no special setup to wall off Mueller’s work from other components of the Justice Department, Boyd wrote.Mueller may have to seek approval for some actions through the same channels that a US attorney would, including from the criminal division. “[T]o ensure that information about the investigation is not disseminated more broadly than necessary, the Criminal Division has identified specific points of contact for the [special counsel’s office] with respect to various subject matters,” Boyd wrote. If confirmed, Benczkowski would have “no supervisory role with respect to the Special Counsel,” Boyd stated, but added, “it is possible that the [special counsel’s office] will seek approvals from the Criminal Division as required by statute, regulation, or policy.”
Watch this man.